It runs in the family… academic privilege or not?

I recently conducted a simple Twitter poll to get a feel for what percentage of academics, including PhD students, have a parent or parents with a PhD. The tweet received a lot more attention than I expected, with just shy of 9500 votes, 249 shares, and 202 comments when the poll closed on 5th November 2019. The rationale for conducting this poll was that I had seen a number of tweets in recent months from current “1st generation” PhD students who felt they were at a disadvantage in comparison to their “2nd generation” peers. Some of these tweets were written in a very “us and them” tone, and suggested that 2nd generation PhD students simply didn’t have to deal with some of the struggles that 1st generation students have. A number of people also thought that as 1st generation PhD students they were in the minority.

The key result of the poll was that of academics who use Twitter, and who engaged with this poll, 12% have at least one parent with a PhD. This supports that 1st generation PhD students are in fact the clear majority, although this may vary substantially between countries and research disciplines. It was clear from reading the comments on the poll that the statistics here only tell one part of the story, so I conducted a simple qualitative analysis of the comments, drawing out some of the key themes emerging within the discussion:

  • A number of 2nd generation respondees stated that they are aware that they have been privileged by having a parent(s) with a PhD/academic experience. Some respondees were speaking from the perspective of parents, and felt that their children had been privileged in comparison to others. This privilege can take the form of emotional support due to understanding of the world of academia, practical support in navigating the way things work, and mentorship in pursuing their education and academic career opportunities.
  • Many other respondees stated that they don’t feel disadvantaged for being 1st generation academics, often due to support from other sources, and that once you’re doing a PhD the challenges faced are similar regardless of background. The exception to this might be economic challenges.
  • The role of background more broadly, including socio-economic status, was felt by many to be as important, if not more important, than whether your parents have experience of academia.
  • The role of university support services, effective supervision, and the importance of mentorship, were identified as being key factors in whether 1st and 2nd generation PhD students have similar experiences once they have registered onto a degree. (I would argue that mentorship is as important as you progress through an academic career as it is at the beginning!)
  • Many of the comments posed questions around whether having an academic parents can also impact upon how likely people are to go on to work in academia/have a permanent post/get tenure. This is obviously way beyond the scope of this simple study, but is a point that would certainly be worth following up.
  • Having a family member with a PhD may offer emotional support more readily than practical support due to changes in the education system/academia over time, and disparity between subject areas. Many people (and I include myself here) also felt that having supportive parents in general is more important than whether they have an academic background.
  • Assuming that those with academic parents are privileged also assumes that they are still in contact with their parents, that their parents are still alive, and that their parents have had a similar enough experience to offer valuable support. A number of respondees commented on how these assumptions over-simplify the reality of family relationships.
  • A number of people also argued that coming from an academic family may also put people off going into academia in the first place!
  • Many respondees noted that having parents with any level of higher education is perhaps as important as whether they have a PhD. This ties into other comments made which suggested that going to university in the first place and navigating life an undergraduate was the major hurdle, and that going onto to postgraduate study then felt much more possible.
  • The value of different levels of education, and how common it was to study at these different levels, has changed over time. It was perhaps also more common in the past for people to work in academic roles without having a PhD. This viewpoint was shared by many respondees.
  • Respondees felt that it would be useful to also ask about whether other family members (aunts, uncles, grandparents etc) have studied at PhD level, and to ask respondents to state whether their parents have obtained other undergraduate and/or postgraduate qualifications. The issue of gender may also play a role as PhDs were much less common amongst women in previous generations.
  • As more and more people are awarded PhDs, questions were posed around whether the children of current academics were to go on to do a PhD would they still be viewed by their peers as being “privileged”?
  • Finally, respondees recognised that academia is a different beast to what it was in previous decades, and that the pressures faced with regards to research funding, publication, promotion etc are likely much different to what our parents may have experienced.

While this was clearly an over-simplified poll (put together at 8am on a Sunday morning to settle a nagging interest of mine!) and doesn’t allow for breakdown of responses by region, age, research field etc, I think the discussion around the poll has been really useful and eye-opening, with clear support for conducting a more detailed survey around this topic. A task for another day perhaps! As food for thought for now, are academic families really that 2nd generation PhD unit, or do they perhaps look more like this?…

Caroline Clason, 5th November 2019

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