A field guide to privilege in marine science: some reasons why we lack diversity

maiself

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

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.

Post-graduate school

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.

General comments

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]

A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door good. By Danielle Lee.

Who I am, since #IAmScience. By Jennifer Biddle

Miriam Goldstein (226 Posts)





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74 comments on “A field guide to privilege in marine science: some reasons why we lack diversity
  1. Excellent post, Miriam, on a very important topic. I hope you’re planning a follow up on solutions at some point, as I don’t know of any, and I am hoping that someone does.

    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).

  2. Good starting list. I would add that:
    1) you should perhaps change “marine” to “field” or “biological” or “ecological” or something, as nothing you mention is specific to marine science.
    2) grad school (and post-doc) reimbursement: the biggest issue I’ve seen is from the reimbursement process for travel to conferences, which is super important for CVs and meeting people, and to do field work itself. My partner and I regularly are “owed” hundreds to thousands of dollars in pending reimbursements.
    3) grad school grants and fellowships: these are *taxable*, but there is never money provided to pay for the tax. So if you get a $5000 small grant to go do your summer research, somehow you also have to find $750+ in personal funds to cover the tax on the grant. The tax cannot be in the grant budget, usually. Most grad students don’t even know about this and break tax law to do their research.
    4) the work-family issues don’t start at post-doc for everyone; for me, it starts in grad school.
    5) related to work-family issues as a grad student: there are frequently *no policies* dealing with pregnancy (or other major health) issues as a grad student. So you’re left to the whims of your advisor/department/college/university. A friend of mine was forced out of her TA-ship when she gave birth, meaning she also lost health insurance at the same time. At some (many U.S.) universities there is no provision for maternity leave for grad students on TAs/RAs, so pregnant women and new moms may need to completely drop out the the program or take a leave of absence. In all cases health insurance evaporates.

  3. Many huzzahs on a fine article!

    I would like to say that many universities are becoming aware of the undergraduate issues you list. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has several fully PAID programs for undergraduates (usually of a minority or lower income background) to come to campus for the summer, get paid to do research, and get full room/board in one of the residence halls. They also organize GRE classes and group outing on the weekends to maintain a good social standard of living and preparation for the future. Also, most people I’ve talked to are becoming more aware about the Car Having issue – planning for transportation needs (including supplementing bus fare) has become a major talking point in putting out a listing for an undergrad or high school research student.

    Although it’s still, of course, a major problem but I just wanted to say that (at least in my experience) it IS starting to change!

    And I now need to go lay down and breathe deeply, as the news that your fellowship isn’t providing health care (and this is a fellowship for the GOVERNMENT) is making me too angry to function. :/

  4. Very good post full of interesting ideas. 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 itellecutal tools and experience, to get each others jokes and get along.

  5. Great post! As a HS marine & environmental science educator, this is info that is invaluable for me to share with my students who are planning to go on in the sciences – not to scare them off, but to show them the realities of working in science. I have several former students who are now working on undergrad research or applying for grad school and they are already feeling the effects of some of this.

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  7. This is tremendous. As someone whose privilege definitely facilitated my becoming part of this field and as someone teaching at an urban university, this is something I ponder a lot – especially when writing Broader Impacts statements. Particularly with the financial barriers to doing subtidal research (buy/rent your gear, pay for basic SCUBA certification, pay for advanced and rescue cert, pay for a course that will certify you as a research diver who is a member of AAUS), I’ve been trying to do some deep thinking about how lower this barrier for the students who now fall under my aegis.

    I have to say, I was excited to apply for the OCE-RIG grant as a part of that, budgeting in all of those funds for an undergrad who shows themselves to have the interest and chops for becoming a subtidal researcher. And I think it’s something I’ll try and do in most future grants. And cross my fingers that all of those come through (I hope I did not just jinx myself).

    I think the reason I like this post is that if we can name the aspects of privilege that contribute to depriving our disciplines of voices, perhaps we can better address them, and point out the BS of some of the counter-arguments.

    OK, I think it’s time for me (and maybe others – reading group?) to purchase a copy of Ethnographies of Conservation: Environmentalism and the Distribution of Privilege.

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  9. This was a wonderful article that succinctly and plainly identifies the reasons many fields of science are populated by the privileged class. I wanted to comment that my own research trajectory was directly affected by social privilege as an undergraduate. I could not afford a study abroad program for my honors thesis work (I wanted to do marine invertebrate biology) and had been on a full academic scholarship as an undergrad. I had no formal source of income, though I worked during the summers and breaks (made nowhere near enough money to support a semester abroad, and undergrads like to partay). My parents were both public school teachers and simply couldn’t provide the money. I ended up finding a great terrestrial ecology lab to work in that, inevitably, set up my career in vertebrate behavior and physiology, but my career path was a product of my lack of privilege. Funny enough, in my postdoc (molecular biology), there is a much wider diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds, with the majority of postdocs and researchers being from mid- to lower-class families (not the 200K/yr “middle class”).

    ETA: I also appreciate your recognition of the difficulty of being LGBTQ in science. Heteronormativity abounds among biologists, and it is *always* awkward having to come out or, worse, to realize that your colleagues think you’re straight.

  10. Nice post. The basic problem as I saw it was that it was always assumed that I and all other grad students had access to money. The most extreme example being the month of they payroll “glitch” that left several grad students unpaid. We actually had to explain to them how serious that was.

    I had a draft of a post on this that I really ought to finish up.

  11. Great post, Miriam. Lack of diversity is something I’ve often wondered about myself as I was one of only a handful of minorities (people of color) at my marine lab. I definitely came from a very privileged background, and I’m especially grateful for my family who supported my decision to pursue a master’s in marine science, especially since I wasn’t thinking about academia and it wasn’t clear what kind of job I’d be preparing myself for (happy to say that worked out!).

    Cultural values and family have such an important role in the Asian community that I grew up around. 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. I feel very privileged to have grown up with an appreciation for the natural world, and to have been encouraged and supported in my desire to follow that passion into a career. It’s something I hope we can extend to more cultural minorities, and increase awareness about the variety of green and blue jobs out there!

  12. This post is very heavily focused on class privilege, which is absolutely something that needs to be discussed more in science. However it might be a bit misleading to call it a field guide to privilege but focus mainly on class. I know it wasn’t intended to be comprehensive though, so hopefully we can use this opportunity to open up discussions on other forms of privilege and the intersectionality thereof. There is little mention here of gender, and even less of race, yet blatant sexism and racism still plague academia. I think Britt’s point is also great; if PIs are most comfortable working with students who share their background, values, social norms, even dialect, then the problem perpetuates itself. Homophobia, cissexism, xenophobia, and ableism really need to be addressed too. The barriers against people with disabilities in field biology are huge (but thankfully being combated by awesome initiatives like this).

    Another reading group possibility: Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia

    • Thank you for your comment. You’re right that this post wasn’t intended to be comprehensive – not only would that be a really, really long post, but I feel that many of this type of discussion get paralyzed with oppression and shut down. The audience for this post is people who haven’t thought much about privilege, and I fear that an in-depth discussion of intersectionality would prevent them from ever reading. Is making this choice a privilege? Sure – but as I said below, it’s not all-or-nothing. Everyone has to start somewhere – and one of the ways that allies can help is by having these basic conversations.

      • Agreed! I may have come across a little critical, but I do really appreciate your opening this dialogue, and I hope we can keep pushing the discussion further!

  13. 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.

    Also, lower income students often attend lower income schools where science classes may not do very many labs (due to too many students and too few resources). For me, labs were a big part in developing my love of science. Seeing that science was “doing stuff” not memorizing a bunch of facts can make a huge difference in whether or not a student chooses to continue down a science related career path.

  14. This is a great post! Being a ‘country bumpkin’ from a working class family in rural Montana when I started college at an Ivy, I can definitely concur on the importance of many of the barriers you mentioned. I did, in fact, end school with a mountain of debt even though I worked 20+ hrs per week (but I did manage to spend a year doing study abroad in Italy, which was life-changing!). The only reason I got any lab experience as an undergrad was because during my senior year a professor and his wife came in for drinks at a cocktail bar where I was working. After chatting a bit with them, he offered me a chance to visit his lab to see if I’d like to work as a lab assistant there, so hooray for faculty like him!

    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. I was certainly naive about this back then (thinking of college as some kind of extension of high school, I guess) so it’s something I always try to mention whenever I talk with someone who may have those same unhelpful preconceptions that I did. The same is true for high and middle school students who are doing very well in school but for cultural/social reasons never explore possibilities for getting involved in summer or after-school research programs.

    And one final misconception that is prevalent among people who share my cultural background — the idea that grad school will be just as (or more) expensive than undergrad and will require more debt. When I was a grad student I often participated in events focused on interesting underrepresented undergrads in applying to grad school, and it was very satisfying to be able to explain to them that you can actually get paid (albeit minimally) to go to grad school. I think that the worry about more student loans and debt is a misconception that prevents many capable students from even considering grad school.

    Anyway — back to my story — even though I managed to survive college and get a little lab research under my belt, I didn’t even consider grad school (aside from Med school, which I ruled out due to the hyper-competitive environment in my undergrad pre-med program) due to my lack of awareness of potential for grad school funding. It was only more than 5 years later after I had taken a staff position at a university and met my partner (who is faculty) that I realized that grad school was a possibility for me. Those were lucky coincidences! Anyway, glad to have now made it through grad school and to be doing research that I love, and always trying to reach out to people who are facing those same barriers that I faced.

    I’m sorry to hear about your insurance woes — it does seem that we as postdocs should have access to the more reasonable benefits packages available to other university staff. Echoing the request of the first commenter, I would love to know more about ideas you have for solutions.

    Thanks so much for bringing up this important topic!

  15. I’ve got a STEM retention grant (the NSF-STEP program) with a co-PI from a local community college, and we’ve run across many of the undergrad issues in our early undergraduate research experiences. It’s meant that we’ve rearranged our budget to make sure that we cover summer housing and/or transportation costs for our summer research students. (At the community college, the students all live off campus and many commute, by car because we’re in a rural area and public transportation is limited, but a little more funding to cover their cost of living might make the difference that allows them to do research.)

    We also discovered that IRS rules require that the summer research students have taxes withheld from the paychecks. We’re trying to plan the summer stipends to account for taxes/social security/etc deductions.

    In my experience, NSF program officers are willing to work with grantees and allow them to take money from elsewhere in the budget to cover these kinds of expenses. But they don’t bring up those issues. Those of you reading who review grants: you can remind PIs about these issues in your review comments. These are Broader Impacts issues, and PIs should be pushed to address them, especially if they are claiming to be diversifying science through their grant work.

  16. Miriam–this is very thought-provoking, thank you.

    Something that bothered me in graduate school (at least at ours) was the vast difference in pay scales across graduate students being paid from different sources. Some people said that those who secured high-paying fellowships deserved it because they were clearly more awesome–but some fellowship applications are denied because of a lack of publication record (which, early in graduate school, is likely to have occurred thanks to previous opportunities in undergrad). I see unequal pay as being a negative feedback cycle in terms of providing an even footing for budding scientists for 2 reasons:

    1. Those people who can afford/are otherwise able to take advantage of opportunities like REUs, unpaid internships, etc. early on may then be in a better place in graduate school and beyond to secure money, thus propelling them up the ladder more quickly than possibly equally bright people chugging along without those extra opportunities. Those who secure prestigious funding are more likely to get more funding (if only because they can move forward more quickly with science instead of constantly writing grants), so missing out early on can be very detrimental.

    2. Graduate students with extra personal funds can afford extra perks to help get ahead–dressing more professionally, attending a key conference on their own funds if no grant money is available, hiring someone to help them (I have heard of graduate students with personal assistants, for example).

    Personally, I don’t think that funding, especially very early in graduate school, should be the only deciding factor in who makes it. Of course, money is essential to conduct good science, so a scientist’s ability to secure grants and fellowships is an important metric of success–but I think sometimes this is not purely related to the merits of a particular scientist but that opportunity and privilege also come into play, which is unfortunate.

    • Providing more opportunities for people who might not otherwise get them because of their circumstances is a really important thing to be talking about, and I’m glad this blog post is raising awareness to that effect. In your comment and in others, it has been pointed out that these opportunities can cascade throughout one’s career (assuming one makes good use of them). However, at some point merit must be considered, and at each stage there must be competition to determine who progresses. If at no other point in your career, this will become painfully clear when you apply for faculty jobs!

      More specifically to your point about the higher stipends associated with some fellowships, remember that their rationale is not to create an advantage for some over others but to invest in promising future scientists. If money grew on trees, I’m sure that all grad students would be paid more and would be given 100% time to focus on their own research. Unfortunately, reality dictates otherwise.

      Another point regarding higher stipends for these fellowships is that they (NSF GRFP the big one obviously) apply across all the sciences. Well, the stipends that grad students receive in different disciplines vary widely. $15-20k might be the norm in ecology, whereas in chemistry it is more like $25-30k. How, then, should these fellowships balance fairness to non-recipients with fairness across different stipend norms in different fields or at different institutions? Would it be fair for a GRFP recipient in one field to get $10k less per year than someone in another field? Again, money is a finite resource, so something is always going to appear unfair to someone.

  17. Love, love, love this post.

    The “Research costs money” problem isn’t just limited to undergrads – its a continuing problem for grad students and postdocs, particularly for those of us doing tech-heavy research. I was lucky that my current PI bought me a new laptop and desktop computer when I started my new job, but this was the first time that any PI had actually offered to do so. Previously I just had to suck it up and buy my own laptop, which was primarily used for work (shelling out a couple thousand dollars on a new laptop every few years to upgrade the memory, data storage, etc so that I could actually run my analyses). This scenario is common for many people I talk to. Even if work provides you with a desktop computer, you can’t be a functional scientist these days without buying a laptop for travel.

    As for reimbursements, once you get to the postdoc stage you’re getting a lot more *invitations* to conferences (and invited talks aren’t something one should turn down, for obvious career reasons). This means your travel reimbursements will be processed off-site, through another university or professional society – the paperwork for this can be absolutely horrific. I’ve waited 6+ months to get reimbursed for some invited talks (sometimes waiting for multiple reimbursements at once). You end up just having to front the money (usually $500-1000 per trip) and crossing your fingers that the reimbursement will be quick – although every time I get a talk invitation I cringe a little bit inside because of these past bad experiences. I have the privilege of good credit and am able to put these travel expenses on my credit cards, but it sickens me to think that some brilliant early-career scientists might have to make tough decisions between financial realities and travel opportunities that would further their career.

  18. As a post-doc from a family where neither parent graduated highschool, and growing up poor in rural Vermont the advantage of privilege was always obvious to me, even going to a public university as an undergraduate. You discuss the various stages of academia but I think what’s lacking is that once you’re given an advantage because of privilege that carries forward throughout your academic career. My parents forced me to leave home after age 18. I paid for college myself, and I had no home to go home to over summers. Instead I had to work. Ignoring the advantages someone like my wife had by going to an elite Boston area private school, even at university I could never get any research experience in something like OTS or any other “pay to study” fun experiences in tropical environments. On top of the fact that I could only attend the least expensive undergrad education because I had to pay for it myself. Not having any substantial undergrad research barred me from being competitive for things like the NSF-GRFP. That makes getting things like the DDIG more difficult. All these things cascade throughout your career.

    I don’t mean to be callus about your health insurance issue, but while it is a financial hardship now, think about how privileged you were to have been able to be hospitalized at 17? I had no health insurance until I was 18, no dental care until I was 18 and lived with a drug addicted unemployed mother. For me my first day at UMass was as an undergrad was a shock. Just think of other advantages that seem so basic, like having a personal computer, or a smartphone that people don’t have access to but I bet most current scientists had when they were undergrads paid for by their parents. I had to learn use my savings to buy computer parts back in 1997 and put together my own computer from parts because that was all I could afford. I had to work during the semester to support my education costs, but children of most middle class parents in undergrad probably don’t have to do that. I don’t think that people from privilege who have succeeded haven’t worked hard, but I think people from impoverished or minority backgrounds had to work harder.

    Programs that help minority or lower class students into science are nice in that they gain exposure to it, but that pales in comparison to the long term advantages of whiteness and affluence or middle-classness. And the affluent ultimately subsidize those programs through higher costs, so there will always be more people of privilege at something like OTS than people who lack the resources. In some ways these programs that bring in under privileged students are insidious because they provide a way of assuaging class guilt without fixing the underlying problem of inequality. I don’t think there are reasonable solutions for marine science or ecology or anything else. This is a consequence of the inequality of capitalism and is endemic to our system. These kinds of advantages are found in all professional fields I imagine, from science to finance and engineering.

    • Many thanks for sharing your story. And absolutely – there is a huge pile of evidence that privilege starts before birth. As you say, the fundamental inequalities of capitalism cannot be addressed in science, and certainly not in a single blog post, but it’s not all-or-nothing. We have to start somewhere, and acknowledging that not everyone can easily front $1000 to go to a conference seems as good a place as any.

      • Perhaps this is only true at large institutions/in the Engineering sciences, but in my department, while it’s considered standard to get reimbursed for conference travel, there is a little-known, woefully under-popularized option to have the department pay for it. It takes a little longer to get things reserved, but it goes right through the university finance people and charged to the department credit card. Literally no one knows about this, so we all float our dept (I like getting the frequent flier miles, actually, and our department is good about reimbursements), but the option is there. It may be worth at least asking around one’s department if similar procedures are available for people who can’t up front the cash.

  19. I am so glad you posted this.

    One thing I’ve noticed about people from privileged backgrounds, whether it be race, class, gender, etc., is that they often don’t understand how far their privilege has gotten them in the world. It’s not that they are bad people, just oblivious because it’s not something that they have ever had to think about.

    That’s why this post and DNlee’s response are so great, it will hopefully help more scientists understand that the opportunities they have had are not universal.

  20. Hear, hear! Thank you for this. By focusing on specific examples, I think (I hope!) this post will be really eye-opening for some folks. Several of your examples related to lower-class students really spoke to me. I grew up working class, and while my parents have been supportive, we never had a lot of money. The further along I get in academia, the fewer people from working class backgrounds I see. The assumptions people make- -that you can ask your family for help, that you can float $2000 worth of conference travel, that you can go without a paycheck for a month due to a glitch– are astounding.

    David above asks for solutions; I think that these are huge issues, and it’s beyond any one person to point out what needs to be done. Honestly, just opening folks’ eyes to these issues of privilege is so important. It’s really the first step in making things better.

    • That’s exactly what I was hoping for. There are some simple answers – e.g., more fully-funded opportunities on the undergrad level – but mostly the problems are really, really hard, as Ted’s story above shows. However, this post was inspired by the well-meaning obliviousness of many academics I have encountered, who don’t know that these barriers exist, but want diverse students to succeed in science. It is my hope that this small effort can make a difference if, for example, a professor realizes that a promising undergrad isn’t lazy because s/he isn’t able to put in extra time at night and on the weekends due to the bus schedule or work or family obligations.

  21. @Heather: perhaps that’s the case, but when you’re a grad student and also pregnant you really don’t have time for lawsuits — or even fighting up the university hierarchy (which also requires a lot of guts).

    And an even bigger problem is that once you give birth, you’re no longer pregnant, and so whatever Title IX covers for discrimination against pregnant women also stops applying. Grad students and many post-docs are not even covered under the U.S. national Family Medical Leave Act, which give many postpartum mothers some basic rights. And there are no national laws requiring paid maternity leave or continuation of health coverage (for anyone in any profession).

    But these are *fixable* problems. There are already groups forming at some universities (including my own) to institute policies for expecting and new parent grad students (of both sexes). In my experience, administrators are very willing to be accommodating, it’s just that no one has formally brought up these issues before. (Once you have a baby and realize the extent of the problems, you *really* don’t have time to fight these fights alone.)

  22. One thing I think your left of the list: the privilege of having encouragement and guidance. 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). While my family was very supportive, without having the experience of their own, they would have never encouraged me to do such a thing either. I very well may have never gone to graduate school if it wasn’t for programs that were aimed for people like me. The two programs I credit with getting me into marine science and graduate school are the McNair Scholar Program–whose funding was recently drastically cut by the department of Education–and the Multicultural initiatives in Marine Science Undergrad Program—whose funding may be completely cut off by NSF next year after 25 years of success and these amazing outcomes: http://www.wwu.edu/mimsup/alumni.shtml. Active recruitment matters. It really, really does. Tell your senators.

    • I completely agree! I also had the amazing opportunity to participate in the McNair Scholars Program, which was fundamental in my getting into a PhD program. I was also lucky to have amazing mentors who really understood where I was coming from as a first generation college student. Without these mentors, I would have been completely lost in my attempt to navigate academia. One of my mentors, an online STEM mentor, broke the news to me that graduate schools would not be impressed with the fact that I had worked full time while completing my undergraduate career (plus volunteering in a lab). This really surprised me. Taking her advice, I quit my job near the end of my undergraduate career to spend more time volunteering in a lab. I was only able to quit this job because of the McNair Program and their financial support, and because I was eventually paid to work in the lab.

      Still, it hasn’t gotten any easier. I’ve had to deal with reimbursement woes multiple times as a graduate student. During my interview for the program I’m currently in, the director asked me to explain what a first generation college student was, questioned why I attended a state college and asked me if I felt the classes offered at such an institution were substantial enough. It seems like there is very little awareness of what it would be like to go through this system without middle-class resources. However, every academic I’ve talked to about privilege seems to be very receptive and understanding. Many understand how certain inequities, such as unpaid research internships, are unethical, but it seems that some may not be aware of the more subtle barriers…

  23. A reader who wishes to remain anonymous says: “Did you also consider accessibility for minorities whom the majority may consider “disabled”? They deal with a double set of obstacles in regards to dealing with privilege and artificial barriers, and often dealing with both is just too much.

    Furthermore, very often, when people think of diversity, they often think of people of colour / minority groups and perhaps people from less wealthy backgrounds. Rarely are Deaf, Blind, Disabled and neurodiverse advocates included in this consideration of diversity –those groups get shuttled over to the “accessibility” slot despite the fact their approaches and problem solving skills bring a very valuable and significant perspective to science.”

  24. Great post, Miriam! I have plans once my external funding is secured (and thereby tenure), to be involved in these issues of privilege and discrimination in STEM fields through a variety of activities and organizations. I certainly could have used support when I was an undergrad and graduate student. My personal story involved both the lack of class privilege, lack of financial access and homophobia. I was the first person in my family to finish high school let alone college and graduate school. Money was also a problem from the beginning and the lack thereof significantly reduced my opportunities to do research, summer internships, semester-at-sea, including a Fulbright Scholarship, and a host of other activities while leaving me with $70,000 in debt by the time all is done (being from Hell…er, I mean Nebraska, meant being out-of-state at any oceanside university or college.). And being fabulously ghey certainly had its drawbacks especially in places like Texas where I started graduate school the first time but even at San Francisco State (where one prominent oceanographer told me that “people like me” don’t belong in science) and UC-Davis. I’ve since changed my focus and study neuroscience and neurotoxicology, in part, due to limiting my search for positions in parts of the country that, at the time, recognized my relationship. I found it rather annoying that I had to remind heterosexual mentors that moving to, at the time, 44 states in the country would mean that suddenly my husband and I had no legal rights. This constraint also followed me during the search for a faculty position, which I was able to secure in a state with civil unions. There are certainly all kinds of privilege and its sibling, discrimination, that needs be addressed and discussed and fully counteracted by initiatives and programs. Discussion like this are a good start. Thanks!

  25. Thanks to everyone for an brilliant and thoughtful comment thread. I have updated the original post with some quotes and links, and hope that this post can become a resource for starting this discussion. Keep the amazing comments coming!

  26. Aloha Miriam,
    Thanks for this absolutely brilliant post on such an important subject. I agree with David above regarding the importance of pre-undergrad experiences- whether it is science camp or band camp, these experiences often catapult a student into a select group once they arrive at undergrad.

    In terms of finances, there is also huge barriers in terms of trying to get loans, buy a house, or anything that grown-ups try to do, when you are on a fellowship. I found my stipend didn’t “count” as regular income, even with a three year NSF grant (which I thought would have been more stable then other jobs, right? But no). I know it is really lucky to be able to even consider buying a condo/apartment/house in grad school but without getting a third party backer (thanks, Dad) we wouldn’t have been able to do it–not because my dad paid anything. He didn’t. It was just because the banks wouldn’t acknowledge my income.

    In terms of solutions- Dr. Sarah Mesnick was working with CMBC at SIO to try and increase diversity of the program there. I know there were several reports and meetings (I participated in a few) and it would be interesting to see if that program did have success over the last 5 years or so with increasing numbers of more minorities, women, disabled, lower-income, etc. candidates. If no, why not? If so, what did they do right that could maybe be scaled?
    I’m going to share this blog with Sarah and I’ll get back to you if I hear anything…

    One last thought: I think that most people just have no idea what salaries/job opportunities are like within the sciences and assume they are low, which of course, most are. So, maybe pimping the numbers of top biotech positions at Pfizer, or the chemical engineers at Dow, or the lead agriscientist at Monsanto or something, might help the field to gain some interest… I’m only half joking.

    Thanks again Miriam and good luck with the health care.

  27. Hi Miriam,
    Good to see this laid out. I work in human origins, and we have a similar issue there. While gender representation has greatly improved, in the 13 years since I started my undergraduate degree I can probably count on one hand the people of colour I’ve met as colleagues, and most were at the World Archaeological Congress which funds participation for scholars from emerging nations. Similarly I can think of only a couple of openly LGBTQ colleagues or those who are visibly differently abled. And economic background/class is certainly an issue as we also have fieldwork/data collection trips as a major part of our work.

    It’s a big challenge and a shame, because frankly human evolution is *everyone’s* story, and the more diversity we have in our researchers, the more varieties of perspectives we can bring to our research.
    I wrote about gender and diversity last week following a UK human evolution conference, and have edited it to reference your post and DNLee’s also.
    http://www.therocksremain.org/2013/01/beyond-science-at-unravelling-human.html

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  29. I can completely relate to health insurance issues. I was diagnosed with Type I/Juvenile diabetes when I was 6. It is an autoimmune disease. Due to an issue with my 6th chromosome, by immune system did not recognize the beta cells in the Islets of Langerhorn section of my pancreas (which are responsible for making insulin) as belonging to my body and destroyed them. I have been insulin dependent ever since. I (used to) have the disease under fantastic control, having had decent health insurance. I did field research, and was able to plan to be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on an ocean kayak just fine. In my current graduate program, the prescription coverage for student health insurance is crap. The co-pay for just one of my (several) prescriptions is over $200. And that’s just one of them. When I can access affordable healthcare, my disease is not an issue at all. However, since I literally can’t afford my prescriptions, this has become a major issue in being able to complete my program. I’m actually leaving my department and trying to either transfer to another program that is much shorter so I can get out and work, or leave academia all together and go back into industry where I can access affordable health insurance. But I can’t let my disease kill me (which will literally happen with Type I diabetes), and the advanced degree isn’t worth losing my health when I’m still relatively young. I’ve tried every path available to me at the university to get help with prescriptions, but 1) Hands are tied to a certain extent and 2) most people see this as just “unfortunate for me”, not an actual issue with the university and for diversity in the sciences. And, on top of Type I diabetes, I’m a woman and a lesbian. I have triple diversity going for me and can’t stay in because of the high prescription cost due to the (probably cheap for the university) health insurance the university provides students.

  30. One more thought. In my field, humans are the subjects, and I’ve experienced uncomfortable lab meetings (at two different labs) due to how people in the lab were discussing the population of interest–in these cases the population was be described as “at-risk” for certain maladaptive outcomes because of coming from low-SES areas, less educated families, etc. Almost everyone in the lab discussed the theoretical “at-risk” participants in a way that I don’t think they would have if they knew someone in their presence identified with this population. There was one moment in a lab meeting where someone said something that I thought was very offensive regarding a completely off-topic situation that one of these theoretical participants may find themselves in, and everyone laughed but me. I felt as though I couldn’t say anything because I would offend everyone, and that no one would even understand. There needs to be more awareness of how these prejudices may influence the way researchers view participants that may not come from the “control” population.

  31. I would point out another inconsistency- while maternity/paternity leave may not yet be ideal for parents, they represent a HUGE financial benefit to those who choose to have a child/children. Work-life balance for non-reproductive scientists is seldom taken into consideration. If family/project leave is available to all who wish to participate in a creative project (art?, garden? puppy?) then I’m supportive. But if it is just for reproductives, then it is just another form of discrimination.

    • I don’t think puppies or art projects should be privileged at the same level as reproduction. I speak as a vegetarian and a writer who works part-time and very much suffers the financial consequences of doing so, in order to pursue my art. That is the nature of creative projects; you sacrifice in order to create. Babies are not creative projects; I’m not sure why treating them as small human beings rather than creative projects–and their parents as stewards of a future generation–is discrimination.

      Reproductives is a weirdly objectifying term; it sounds like “breeders.”

      • So what would you like to call reproductives? And why should reproduction be privileged over non-reproduction? Currently we have a structure in which reproduction is favored, and that extraordinary support is even complained about. “Stewards of a future generation”? More so than non-reproductive educators and family? While opportunities for GBLT folks to have kids are increasing, reproduction is still incredibly biased towards straights, and your arguments are incredibly heterocentric. And unsurprising.

  32. Nice piece Miriam on something I have often thought about. The higher the prestige and selectivity of the program (e.g. grad programs) the more these effects stand out. Your REU advisor was intimidating? :) I think we should do whatever we can to counter these effects.

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  34. Hi,great post.

    There is a wide gap between the working class and upper middle class cultures. As a student I always found it difficult to blend in, in no small part because I came from a less privileged background. Not blending in is a problem because so many opportunities depend on who you know.

    I was a marine science student, and diving was an issue because of the costs involved. I managed in the end, but I found it difficult to keep up with the regular diving expeditions that were organised. I often had to refuse, and I think this was misinterpreted as lack of enthusiasm by some.

    As a PhD student with 2 kids I worked a couple of jobs on the side in addition to being a full-time student. Not easy. I will say this for having kids though: they are a hell of a motivation for getting things done. If you don’t, you’re not the only one who ends up in trouble- they might suffer as well if you dont get a grant, a paper published, the Job.

    Strangely enough I still feel a little bit like an outsider today in my permanent full-time job as scientist. Not nearly as much as before, but most of my colleagues take a lot of things that I never had for granted. I guess this is never going to go away, but that’s fine..Thinking of them as spoiled children helps.

  35. David Brooks has an opinion piece in the NYT that talks about meritocracy. The pull quote is

    Robert Oprisko of Butler University found that half of the jobs in university political science programs went to graduates of the top 11 schools. That is to say, if you have a Ph.D. from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and so on, your odds of getting a job are very good. If you earned your degree from one of the other 100 degree-granting universities, your odds are not. These other 100 schools don’t even want to hire the sort of graduates they themselves produce. They want the elite credential.

    Do you think a similar trend shows up with marine/field/ecological sciences.

    (The Great Migtation)[http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/25/opinion/brooks-the-great-migration.html]

  36. There is another kind of privilege that I think about, captured in this skit from Friends: White Lab Coats versus Blue Blazers. It’s akin to the Nature Blog versus Science Blog argument. Science is a big building and there more than just white lab coats in here. But hanging around with those who have had the “privilege” of making it through grad school, it sometimes feels like an exclusive club house. My thanks always goes to all the Deep Sea News and sciblogs of the world wide web that try to open the doors a little more.

  37. Awesome post, Miriam, and great comments, too. Definitely got me thinking about how I can do my part to help address these issues in my mentoring and and outreach programs!

  38. Another point on life/work balance is the issue of fieldwork. Fieldwork can be a real challenge for young mothers for practical reasons. A colleague had two children during graduate school. Her family did not think she should travel when pregnant (which was not something done in her culture), let alone go to sea! I thought it quite heroic that she convinced them and brought a breast pump with her so she could continue to breast feed when we came back ashore.

  39. Wonderful post, although I thought you came from a very professional upper class family! Your points are well taken…David Brooks also wrote an Op Ed piece in the Times on much the same topic.

  40. In my field, volunteer work is almost necessary for getting a job. Some organizations always (or nearly always) hire people who have been volunteers for the organization. In my field, virtually everyone is white. Virtually everyone has a middle class background. We do good work as far as it goes, but our ability to communicate effectively with people who are not white and middle class is limited. Frustrating.

  41. I’d like to add a remark about the role of family and peers (as well as mentors) in helping people set reasonable expectations for what the job entails. Myself, I got the benefits of class and social privilege (summer camps, travel, and an Ivy college), but graduate school has been rocky, due to pitfalls I’ve seen hit plenty of other people too: “hands off” (i.e., functionally absent) advising, lack of guidance in picking projects, lack of experience in how to take skills + a topic and churn out SCIENCE.

    The thing is, people’s backgrounds affect the ways they respond to adversities. Some people get angry and leave. Some people decide they’re not cut out for research and leave. Many (including myself) over-idealize the profession and are afraid they would never be good enough. The people I’ve seen cope the best? Those whose parents are professors.

    Is this fair? Of course not. Surprising? No. What do they have (beyond me)? (a) Stable parents who can provide career-related advice, and (b) a reasonable idea of what the career and the work output should look like. These really help.

    Among people I’ve known, the most common stressor isn’t even financial or logistic, it’s anxiety about finding one’s place in the profession. To get past that, you need serious support and guidance either from your professors, or from your peers or your family. For those coming from outside, those additional safety nets (support networks and role models) are much less available.

  42. I’m absolutely thrilled to see all the comments on your excellent post. 51 years ago, when I went to the Dean of our university who was providing funding to students who applied, he told me he never gave funds to young women because they would just get married or pregnant, and it was a waste of money; this after he gave significant amounts to three of my classmates who were almost failing their courses. As a shy girl from a poor working class family (father a local truck driver, mom a part-time waitress), but loving loving loving marine biology, I let my dream die. There was simply no money to cover all the fees, and although very bright, I certainly wasn’t a genius therefore not eligible for those kinds of funds available to the truly brilliant. I went on to do a B.Sc. in Nursing, and much later an MA in Counselling Psychology, made the best of my life, but yearned for so much more. I now follow what I can in the marine biological sciences, and enjoy it a great deal. I’m very pleased to see that financial aid at most universities is better-organized and tries to support students with financial problems to still move forward in their goals. And since I’m in Canada, health insurance (in B.C.) for a single person is under $60/month, plus our hospitalization is funded by part of our sales tax, so at least medical considerations wouldn’t have been a burden. (We think health care is a service like transportation and education.) Cheers for bringing up this very important topic – and the comments are superb – I’m hopeful for even more changes in the next generation.

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  44. My experience was being an older non-traditional student. I had the idea of getting a master’s in environmental science and when I talked to the advisor he suggested that I needed a science bachelor’s even thought I already had a BS in business administration. So I proceeded to get a BA in geography. My main prof did suggest conferences and volunteer research. But being 40 with 2 kids, I didn’t have the time or money to do that. Now I can’t get a job in that field. Other students were able to work entry level jobs in the summer to get experience. I already had a full time job to support my kids and so there was no way I could quit that for an entry level job. I only managed to get to one conference because my sister lives in that city and I could spend the 2 nights with her. I talked about it with the professor but he really had no idea what to do. I’m interested in a different master’s program now but it would involve moving 6 hours away and program itself requires living and doing research in Mexico for a year. How can I do that?

  45. I would agree that even at the undergrad level, science classes and programs are all but impenetrable to people who didn’t start building their resume in high school.
    As someone who attended a high school with a remarkably weak science department and few opportunities for extracurricular science, I was disappointed to find myself all but disqualified from the chance to do real science in college.
    I was good at what science I did in high school, and had perfect grades and a ton of interest in going further. And the non-major classes I tried had me doing lab work to find out whether photosynthesis needed light, the exact lab I did in fifth grade. For obvious reasons, any non-classroom opportunities were reserved for majors. With a full course load and a scholarship to maintain, the opportunity costs of trying to find a way in were just too high.
    Now, I was a white middle class A student and an accident of geography created quite enough barriers. Think about what it’s like to have class, race, or gender also in your way.

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  47. Solid discussion and thanks for posting and responding to comments.

    One important solution involves changing how we assess and select students to our research programs (at all levels). Our applications and interviews RARELY address the personal/professional “distance traveled” by a student to get to your door or application pile. The characteristics of grit, determination, and creativity it took for a lower socio-economic/URM student to even get into the pool of applicants is rarely assessed….these characteristics are why I was a good investment in offering research opportunities that led to a PhD (native american, PhD, field biologist, trailer park, 1st generation college student). My CV, to this day, has zero hint of my “distance traveled”.

    Note: there are some great University programs that are doing more comprehensive assessments of student applicants (ie distance traveled, parents ed. level, etc), but the institutional reward structures for Deans/Faculty that can lead to systemic changes in our universities are not currently in place at R1 universities.

    3 Other tangential thoughts….
    1) As a minority in my field, I wish I had a dollar for the number of times I have heard from liberal faculty friends ask me about ways to increase diversity of graduate students to their labs. To these friends I learned to say the following: “how many URM students have YOU taken as grad. students in your (insert years)?” Nearly all of these faculty have tenure and yet, at both universities I have been a grad. student, my labs contained the majority of the URM students within the departments. Note: both PI mentors were white, males with tenure. These two labs were the outliers and all of us graduated.

    I also encourage my faculty friends to recruit graduate students at these two national conferences (1-2k students presenting their research): SACNAS and ABRCMS.

    2) The cultural capital in the form of networking and norms of behavior in academia had to be learned on the fly (I made some huge mistakes that undermined my perceived credibility with some faculty early in my career that I would never make today.).

    3) I recommend reading this article: I have used it in mentoring grad., postdocs, and faculty about the challenges facing URM/1st gen. graduate students.
    Susan K. Gardner & Karri A. Holley (2011): “Those invisible barriers are real”:
    The Progression of First-Generation Students Through Doctoral Education, Equity & Excellence in
    Education, 44:1, 77-92

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