The privilege to be an academic

I came to the United States when I was 6 years old to live with my dad. We lived in a 1 bedroom apartment shared with another family. We slept in the living room on a single layer mattress without a box spring or bed frame. We counted cash and food stamps at the grocery store and put back items that we could not afford. I remember shopping at JCPenney with a $10 off coupon (no minimum purchase!) and struggling to choose between a $10 soap kit that I thought would be useful and a $10 pack of Pokemon cards that I really wanted. But these stories are nothing out of the ordinary for working class families. My parents, through hard work and education, were able to provide me with the opportunities they did not have back in rural China. For that, I acknowledge that I am privileged. And now, I am a Harvard-educated PhD, which makes me even more privileged in many oddly intangible ways. Acknowledging my privilege does not mean that I am apologizing for it. Nor does it mean I am not a part of or do not identify with groups that remain marginalized in other ways. But coming from a background of less privilege compared to what I have now, I some times wonder: what if my journey through academia took place a few years earlier, when my family and I were less economically well-off? In reflecting, here are a few of my experiences that highlight how academia, in my opinion based on my personal experiences in the academic life-sciences, has been structured for the economically privileged and institutionally discriminates against those who come from more disadvantaged economic backgrounds, and the ways we can bring about institutional change to ensure that the academic career-track is accessible to every qualified individual regardless of finances.

Story 1

Scientist, both in academia and in industry, often attend scientific conferences where they can present their work and also hear about other interesting developments in their field. Attending these scientific conferences can cost you a pretty penny. Conference fees alone can be in the hundreds of dollars, not to mention air fare, hotels, meals, and so forth. But most of these expenses are reimbursable, being work-related. So now, when I attend a conference, I will put the expenses on a credit card, submit my reimbursement paperwork, and, with some luck, my reimbursement check will actually come in the mail before I have to pay off the credit card.

But when I was an undergraduate student, when I was preparing to attend my first scientific conference, I didn’t have a credit card. I didn’t have a credit history needed to obtain a credit card for a long time.

My advisor, who was attending the conference with me, offered to pay for my conference registration and hotel fees. She would get it reimbursed later, but the costs would be placed on her credit card and the reimbursement logistics and paperwork would be handled by her administrator. At the time, I didn’t realize how generous and unusual her offer was. I remember sitting with her in front of the computer as we entered her credit card information. I remember thinking, “Wow, she’s really inputting her credit card information online? That seems so unsafe (I had never done any online shopping at that point).” My advisor, by covering my conference expenses upfront, made a very tangible impact on my career development and allowed me to access an opportunity that was otherwise not financially within my reach.

Story 2

Graduate students are, in my opinion, the back-bone of academia. Graduate students are generally the ones actually performing the work and doing the research, under the mentorship of an advisor, that result in publications, preliminary results for grants, and all the other things that keep the academic wheel turning. For this, graduate students are provided with a stipend. We work. We get paid. Not much. But a livable amount along with the opportunity to pursue a hands-on education and further our careers with degrees, networks, and experiences.

When I was a graduate student, I received an email one day from an administrator from payroll informing me that my stipend paycheck had been messed up. I had been overpaid. Ok. These things happen, I thought. Administrative errors occur. Fine. The administrator casually asked that I drop by with a check for the amount I was overpaid. No big deal. Ok. Sure, I thought. How much are we looking at here? Apparently, my paycheck had been messed up for multiple months. And payroll had just discovered the error and wanted me to pay back everything at once. The amount? Just, you know, $5000. $5000. Um? Come again? I asked for the university’s policy on collecting stipend overpayments. There was none. I asked for a structured repayment plan. One seemed to be created on the spot without my input that involved deducting over 50% of my future monthly stipend for multiple months. Did no one realize that I had to live off of this money?

My advisor was the only one to empathize and suggest to administrators that $5000 would be a large chuck of money to return even on a professor’s salary so we should all discuss what else can be done. Luckily, I was privileged enough to have supportive parents who had the financial buffer to help me through. But by stepping in, my advisor legitimized my concerns, assured me that I was not alone in thinking that $5000 was a large amount on money to return, and if needed, would champion me during negotiations.

Story 3

Towards the end of my PhD, I was debating between continuing my academic training with a post-doctoral fellowship or getting a job in industry at a biotech company or start-up. I interviewed for both post-doctoral fellowship positions in academia and data-scientist jobs in industry. Essentially all the industry jobs I considered came with job relocation packages - that is, the cost spent moving would be covered. In contrast, post-doctoral fellowship positions didn’t have any support for relocation. After crunching the numbers for the costs that I would incur moving to the West coast from the East coast (transportation, movers, real-estate agent fees, first and last month’s rent, security deposits, and so forth), I realized I couldn’t even afford to move to the West coast to take a post-doctoral fellowship position even if I was offered one. Luckily, there were many great post-doctoral training opportunities near Boston where I was already living and I would eventually accept one of those post-doctoral fellowship positions at Harvard in Cambridge. But had I come from a geographical location with fewer excellent post-doctoral training opportunities nearby, I may have gone into debt just moving! Or more likely, I would’ve just gone into industry!

What these stories mean and what we can do

The underlying theme of all of these stories is that if you’re not rich, then the academic career-track, the way it currently is, may be challenging for you. You could be the smartest, most hard-working, and creative person. But without the proper financial backing, you could have trouble accessing certain resources or even transitioning into your next career stage.

Yet all of these problems could have been avoided by:

  1. Avoiding reimbursements as much as possible! Pay for the big ticket items like conference registration, plane tickets, and hotels using a lab credit card. Of course this assumes a certain degree of financial privilege on your part, which may not be possible either. In such a case, many conferences have begun offering scholarships. So encourage your students to apply. And write them recommendation letters.

  2. Acknowledging that not every student comes from a financially privileged background. This one should be reasonably straight-forward. Just empathize. This may also mean avoiding expensive lab outings where students are expected to cover their own expenses or other economically-discriminatory lab activities.

  3. Covering relocation expenses. Again, this assumes a certain degree of financial privilege or at least financial mindfulness on your part. Consider budgeting post-doctoral relocation costs explicitely into your general funds that aren’t earmarked for a particular purpose.

For those of us in academia, we must acknowledge that it is a privilege to be here. In fact, our privilege afforded us the ability to pursue the academic career-track. There are countless other privileges that seem inherent to success in academia - the privilege of being held to high expectations, the privilege of being well-traveled, the privilege of being well connected to a powerful network, the privilege of a supportive partner, and the list goes on. But these are just a few concrete ways I believe we, as privileged members within academia, can use our privilege to provide opportunities for talented individual from all backgrounds.

May we strive to be who we needed when we were younger.