I’ve recently talked about the hidden labor of academic advising, and also the need to provide an education in academia and academic culture. I think it’s important to discuss how these two things intersect. If we are trying to bring more first-gen and minoritized folks into this academic sphere, then one of the first steps is making sure that folks know* what it means to be a professor, what it means to do research, and what it means to go to grad school. Because I think the typical undergrad really has no idea about this stuff when they go to college, and the sooner they are aware of this, the sooner they have the possibility of choosing this route (or choose against it, of course).
Let me illustrate this with an example. From a conversation that I have had so many times, with so many students.
I do a lot of advising for students who are pursuing teaching careers. And in the past, I’ve served on a lot of interview panels for students seeking to join the Noyce Scholars programs that we run at CSU Dominguez Hills. Here’s a thing I’ve heard, something like:
“I want to be a professor. I want to teach at in a university. I suppose I could teach high school for a while, and then after a while I can get my advanced degree and find a university position.”
I hear this all the time. I mean, it’s possible I’ve heard this a hundred times. Definitely more than 50. At least in the population of students I work with, it’s apparently a very common career plan. It sounds entirely sensible and reasonable in a lot of ways. I don’t think it’s based on many assumptions, but it’s not informed by the hidden curriculum.
It sounds entirely sensible and reasonable. There’s just information that these students don’t have. In a single conversation, it’s not really healthful to dive into all of the ways that this isn’t a common career path that would be feasible for most folks**.
Because so many people of our undergrads have this idea of a career plan, then I can infer pieces of the hidden curriculum that our students aren’t aware of:
-What the job of a professor at a 4-year institution is beyond teaching
-What it’s like doing research, and what research is
-That earning a PhD in a STEM field while teaching a in full time K-12 position is somewhere between extremely difficult to impossible, and that leaving that solidly-paying job for a graduate stipend could be perhaps just as difficult
-How grad school admissions works
-The odds of getting a position as a professor after finishing graduate school
There’s no reason that anybody in college would be expected to know this stuff unless they’ve been in a social role where they would just absorb this stuff from their environment. But for most of my students, I suspect we as their professors are the people who they know best who have PhDs. So that means it’s on us to provide this cultural knowledge so that people know the options they have in front of them.
So I’m sitting in my office with a student who has just finished on semester of lower division biology. And is interested in becoming a professor. And who has no prior exposure to research. They haven’t expressed an interest in research, because they haven’t really been aware that this is even one of the options open to them. They’re into organismal biology (including plants! and bugs! and chemistry! Three things that go so well together!), and so we talk about finding opportunities to do some research. About applying to REUs. About finding a chance to work in someone’s lab. About how students can get paid to do research. And that if you are interested in doing a PhD, this is the perfect time to get the research experienced needed to land into grad school.
I could have limited my advising for this student to the pathway towards teaching biology at the high school level. Which is not any less than being a professor, it’s just different. But I would really like this student to be able to make that choice. And a real choice is a fully informed choice. And you can’t make that fully informed choice based on a conversation, it takes some tangible experience to know the many differences are between K-12 teaching and the professoriate, and what each of these professional routes looks like.
When people talk about increasing diversity in STEM, what that really means is changing the fundamental composition of the pool of people who are applying to grad school, who are applying for postdocs, and who are applying for faculty positions. To change the composition of that pool, we have to bring people into higher ed who don’t even have grad school on their radar. I’ve met so many students in their last semester of college who are only learning that research is cool, and what grad school is. Those conversations have to happen early earlier than that. And opportunities need to be presented earlier. Which means that when these students are applying to your labs and your REU programs, it’s your job to provide that training. This is a lot of work. That’s okay, because, as someone one said, nothing truly worth doing comes easily. I’m not sure how true that is (after all, going out for eggplant parmesan tonight sounds very worth doing, and it’s not that difficult), but maybe it applies this this situation.
*To be clear, it’s just as important for folks in academia such as myself to evolve so that it shouldn’t be necessary for people to adopt a different identity and conform to the homophilous mold of academia. It’s our job to make this “pipeline” more accessible and remove these barriers tied to social capital. But still, folks gotta know what the career pathway looks like.
**I know of a few people who were K-12 teachers before getting their PhD in a STEM field and them became a professor in a STEM department. (Though think this is common in Education, right?) But in STEM this definitely not a standard approach and the capacity to do so often involves leveraging a substantial amount of financial and familial privilege. This seems to be a little more common for community college positions, maybe?