An education in academia

Standard

I’m in the field right now. Which means that I’m among many fellow academics, from a wide range of institutions, because we’re working out of La Selva Biological Station to do a short project. At the moment are faculty and grad students from a range of Latin American universities, and USian institutions including a regional state university, small liberal arts college, tribal college, HBCU, military academy, state research university, and some researchers from other kinds of organizations. Many of these folks are old friends, so being here is a great pleasure.

We’re here to run experiments to answer some specific research questions, but just as important, we’re here for the academic training of undergraduates. The two goals are quite complementary. You would think that what the students are getting is research training. They are getting that, but they’re also getting another kind of training: an introduction to the culture, conventions, and social mores of becoming an academic scientist.

Imagine an undergraduate researcher whose parents went to college — maybe their parents were also academic scientists. And imagine an undergraduate researcher who is the first in their family to go to college. They’re both getting an education of equivalent quality, and similar experiences, but who is going to reap more success on their path through academia, and why? Social capital — or cultural capital by another name — is required to carry people through their careers.

Every time I bring new students to the field station, they get a rapid education in social hierarchies, mechanisms of funding, subtle signals of status, and a lot practical stuff about getting into grad school, what happens in grad school, and what academic careers are like.

There are so many little cultural things that we take for granted in academia, that don’t include people who aren’t yet members of the cult. For example, when a PhD student is getting their degree in the lab of a particular thesis advisor, they don’t say they’re “Dr. Martinez’s PhD student,” they tend to say, “I work with Dr. Martinez.”

People assume that the distinction between first author and middle author is obvious, and that what it means to be last author. (Even though we don’t always even agree within our own field.) We all know grad students get paid by a TA or an RA or a fellowship, we all know a PhD takes about five years, we all know you don’t have to get your Master’s before your PhD in our field, we all know that you’re supposed to graduate college in four years, we all know that the job market for faculty positions is super difficult. We all know what it’s like when you get stuck in a long line in airport security. We all know what it’s like to go away to college.

This is shared knowledge and shared experience, right? No, it’s not.

While most undergraduates aren’t deeply versed in the culture of academia, the cultural gap for first-generation students is vast. And the way most academics go about their business, this form of education is probably be more important in getting ahead than learning how to do good research. Because it’s not even possible to get your foot in the door unless people feel like you fit in.

Not all of my students are going to grad school, this isn’t my objective. I just want to make that option available for those who want to pursue that route. So I’m trying to narrow that gap. Bringing myself students to a place where there is such a diverse set of academic experiences is critical, to help them learn how to fit into academia. So that if they end up talking to a professor they want to work with, they’ll be able to talk about research and their academic career in a way that makes them seem like they fit in. Because that’s what matters to so many people.

This is where I need your help. We need to change our culture so that it’s more accessible — we have to stop using the classic template for what a Student With Much Potential looks like.

Please remember that your perception of how astute or keen a student is might just be associated with their behavioral affect, because they have learned how to interact with and impress academics?