After I successfully defended my Ph.D., and as I and packed up my belongings to move across the country for a new job (more on that in a later post), I’ve been reflecting on privilege in marine science. The word “privilege” often makes people turn away, afraid of being made to feel guilty and scolded. Certainly these discussions are way less fun than talking about the latest wonderful ocean discovery. But by driving people away from science, we are missing out on so much talent and so many wonderful discoveries, and so I want to use this post to detail some of the invisible barriers that are keeping talented people out of our field.
To quote from the excellent Finally, A Feminism 101 blog:
Privilege, at its core, is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status. It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals, which is why it can be difficult sometimes to see one’s own privilege.
Scientists don’t always recognize the additional barrers, besides hard work, that prevent people from succeeding at science. My perspective on this is as a person from a non-professional middle class family (father a small business owner, mother a physical therapist) who went to mediocre public schools and then to an Ivy League college. My family was well off by the standards of our town – homeowners, two cars, regular vacations within the USA- but nowhere near the financial level that was the norm for a prestigious private college. Entering college was quite a shock, both academically and socially. I have never forgotten that terrible feeling of inadequacy, and I was already coming from a white college-educated family in the middle class. It’s much, much more difficult for people, particularly those of color, coming out of working-class and poor households.
Here, I present a short field guide to type of privilege that I’ve observed in science, and explain why becoming a scientist becomes immensely more difficult for people without that form of privilege. This is aimed at professors, since academia is my experience, but please add your own perspective in the comments.
Before college [added 24 Jan 2013 18:3o PT]
David Shiffman made the excellent point in the comments:
I’d also consider adding pre-undergraduate experiences (summer science camps, internships, etc) which help getting into an undergraduate college with a good science program in the first place. They’re also a good way to get people excited about science at an early age. However, these are expensive (though many have scholarships, there’s still an opportunity cost associated with not working).
David’s absolutely correct – summer experience before college set many scientists on the path. I participated in two no-cost summer programs as a high school student: the University of New Hampshire Math & Marine Science program (which no longer exists), and in the Earthwatch Student Fellowship program. The Math & Marine Science program took me to Shoals Marine Lab, which blew my mind with awesomeness, kept me taking science classes, and indirectly got me involved with my undergraduate lab (a long story involving student theater & Jarrett Byrnes).
Another obstacle that comes up in high school is Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. Entering college with credit are a great help with completing the many class requirements of a science major. However, many schools do not offer these programs – my high school didn’t.
Alison notes the lack of stability in science:
In my experience, high school students from lower income backgrounds, even those who are interested in math and science, are wary of starting down a career path where they are not likely to be financially stable for 10 years. They often feel guilty about attending a four year school or leaving home to go to college because they won’t be helping their families during that time. Just the idea that this financial uncertainty might extend for many more years excludes a grad school path for many of them.
Undergraduate research experiences
The main pathway to becoming a scientist is through research experiences as an undergraduate. However, many of these cost substantial amounts of money, or at least don’t pay enough to fulfill financial aid work/study requirements. Barriers for undergraduates include:
- Research that costs money to participate in, even if that money is just for equipment or room/board. This is extremely common in the field sciences, like ecology & geology.
- Volunteer research that prevents a student from making money. Remember that most financial aid packages REQUIRE a student to make a certain amount of money over the summer. If they aren’t getting paid to do research, then they are either adding to their debt or working two jobs, neither of which is setting them up for scientific success.
- Transportation. I had a Research Experience for Undergraduate internship (REU) that required me to have a car, which I was fortunately able to borrow from my grandfather for the summer. This REU launched my independent research career, but I would not have been able to participate at all had my grandfather not coincidentally become unable to drive at that time.
- Family expectations. Many undergraduates are expected to help out their families, by caring for younger relatives, doing household chores, and making money for shared costs. It is therefore more difficult for them to have as flexible a schedule as undergraduates who do not have these responsibilities. They may not be able to stay late or come in on weekends.
- In the comments, Stacy notes:
I would like to point out another thing that I think is a really big barrier — not KNOWING that you SHOULD BE seeking out opportunities to do research as an undergrad.
Similarly, SMA says:
As a first-generation, minority, female student I would have never ever done something like apply for an REU, let alone graduate school (who goes to grad school?! No one I knew)…I very well may have never gone to graduate school if it wasn’t for programs that were aimed for people like me.
It’s really important to remember that undergraduates – particularly the driven and responsible undergraduates most likely to succeed in science – often don’t want to explain the details of their financial and logistical difficulties to their professors. They may mysteriously turn down opportunities that seem perfect, or not show up to lab activities. For my REU that required a car, I certainly did not wish to explain to my intimidating PI that I had no way of getting to the marine lab – I wanted desperately to appear worthy and responsible. This is why it’s important for professors to think about the invisible barriers that might be preventing certain talented students from success.
Graduate school can be much easier to navigate than undergraduate, simply because expenses are paid from fellowships and grants. (Though see Jessica’s comment.) The major invisible difficulty that I’ve observed has been the reimbursement process. It’s common practice for people to spend their own money on scientific supplies and then apply for reimbursement from their grant, actually receiving the money 3-8 weeks later. For people without substantial cash flow, this can lead to credit card debt and future problems.
[EDIT 11:05 AM ET]: Oh man, I can’t believe I forgot LGBTQ-ness! Science is social and people are going to meet your partner. It’s a privilege to be certain that your advisor/committee/classmates won’t be (at best) nervous and awkward around your partner.
Britt adds in the comments:
Coming at this from a field biology perspective, I think there is a big privilege issue related to socialization and cultural fit. We literally live with our bosses. PIs tend to pick RAs and students they feel comfortable around, because otherwise the field season will be terrible. But that privileges students who are already equipped with middle class intellecutal tools and experience, to get each others jokes and get along.
Oh, the real world come crashing down again! But frankly, some aspects of the post-doc life are worse for post-doc than they are for non-science fulltime employment.
- Work-family balance. This has been amply written about elsewhere, but many late-20s & 30s people are partnered and have children. This means they can’t just pick up and move anywhere there is a job. Having a partner who WILL move with you is a privilege! Especially a partner who takes care of domestic work so that you can just do your science.
- Debt. Many post-doc jobs pay rather poorly, and students with substantial debt (e.g., from not working in the summer during their undergrad so that they could do science!) may be unable to stay in science.
- Health insurance (USA only). This is the one that really blindsided me, and is causing me substantial problems right now. Some fellowships do not give you access to group health insurance, but require you to purchase health insurance on the individual market. This makes health insurance impossible or unaffordable for fellows with a health history – for example, people who have common conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, mental health problems, or in remission for cancer. People with disabilities are likely also to be excluded, and women of childbearing age have to purchase a separate maternity policy, penalizing them. In my case, I had a pancreatic tumor when I was 17, which led to major hospitalization and surgeries, and has made me difficult to insure ever since. (I have a couple awesome pirate-ly scars, at least!) My husband and I have spent weeks trying to figure this out, but may be forced to spend over $13,000 just on health insurance this year. Since health insurance and travel funds come out of the same pool, my health insurance difficulties may prevent me from traveling for work, leading to lack of future opportunity. Stay tuned!
This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I’m very interested in hearing from people from different backgrounds and at different career stages. Please comment, and I’ll add relevant comments to this post.
Erin notes the importance of culture. Erin says:
In my opinion, even if people have the financial means to pursue environmental/marine science as a field of study and career, they may not believe this type of work has the same sense of stability and prestige as the fields of medicine, business, technology, etc. Studying the ocean or the environment just simply doesn’t seem practical to most people from immigrant communities – more of a hobby than a profession.
Other perspectives [updated 24 Jan 18:30 PT]
Who I am, since #IAmScience. By Jennifer Biddle