Thursday, November 11, 2021

On class differences in research

 My guilty secret is that I like to browse Quora, and occasionally answer some questions. One question I wrote an answer for, was "What is it like to get a PhD when you grew up in a poor family?". Below I reproduce the answer I gave, explaining that while I wouldn't have considered myself poor by the standards of the time, I probably would be now. I also wouldn't have been able to get a PhD if I had been born twenty years later, it just wouldn't have been feasible.

For some time, whenever I went to a conference or workshop, I would ask the PhD-holding researchers I got to know, what their parents did for a living. In almost every case, their parents were professionals of some description. The number of researchers who had working-class parents, like I did, were very, very small.

This very unscientific polling leads me to believe that while improvements are being made in the diversity of researchers with respect to race and gender, the impediments caused by class to access to higher education, and ultimately becoming a researcher, are still there. It is already hard for working-class kids to access tertiary education, and the current pandemic is exacerbating that inequality. But what can we do about it?

Below is the answer I gave to the Quora question above.


Poor is a relative term. Forty years ago in small-town New Zealand it was possible to live a good life even on a small wage.

My father left school at 14, and worked manual jobs his entire life - working on building sites, as a truck driver, a postman, a garage attendant. My mother left school at 15 and did clerical and shop assistant work until my older brother was born, when she stopped working.

My parents owned their own home. While we never had a lot of money, we never went hungry, and always had presents on birthdays and Christmas. We even went on holiday over summer break, although we didn’t go far away, and never overseas.

Nowadays, none of that would be possible on my father’s wage. So, definitely by the standards of today, and largely by the standards of forty years ago, I did grow up poor. Just not very poor.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. As my parents were low income I got government support in the form of a student allowance, and study fees were low enough that I could save up enough money to pay them. This was the early 90s. By the mid-90s I’d finished my undergraduate Honour’s degree and started my PhD. My parents were so proud when I got First Class Honours, and when they watched me graduate for the first time.

By the time I finished my PhD in 2004, I was working full-time to support myself and my pregnant wife. My parents were amazed that their youngest son was now called “Doctor”. It’s something they had never imagined would happen.

So how do I feel about getting a PhD when I grew up relatively poor? That’s complicated.

Growing up without a lot of money means I had to get good at managing my money. I knew my parents would never be able to help me out so I had to sort myself out. That meant the small amount of financial help I got through scholarships and tutoring work was enough to get me through the early parts of my PhD study.

Growing up that way, watching my father working in the garden growing food to feed us, watching my mother making or repairing clothes, means I learned how to do things for myself and make do with what I had, rather than spending money on pre-made solutions. This meant I was able to find and create solutions to problems that came up during my study.

Growing up that way, motivated me to make sure my daughter would have a better start than I had. That motivated me to get my PhD done, to publish and use that to get a decent-paying, stable job. Which I now have, thanks to my PhD.

My research and teaching work has meant I have been able to visit many countries for conferences or teaching exchanges. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t earned my PhD.

Finally, it makes me realise that if I had been born twenty years later, the changes to government support, and study fees, and the cost of accommodation, and the cost of living, means I would not be able to do what I did now.

Getting a PhD when I grew up poor makes me sad because I know that kids in the same situation now, won’t have the same opportunity to earn a PhD that I had.

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