Walking With "Them": The Academic Elites
While thinking about how to begin this article, I turned to Google for some inspiration. I began typing “The British worki…” which Google kindly finished for me as: “The British working class are useless.” I laughed for a moment, as it sums up what many Brits think of the working class, and certainly how Britain often makes its working class feel.
The stereotype of the UK working class is lazy, unintelligent, and rough. In this blog, I’ll explore what it’s like to be someone from a working class background navigating their way through the elitist profession of academia (and yes, it is elitist). My intention is not to discredit the challenges others have faced – all of us have hurdles to navigate on the route to being successful in academia – but to share my own experience.
“How did they let someone like you in here?”
Being the first of your family to attend university is something to be celebrated. For me, it means being lovingly referred to as the “clever clogs” of the family. For some people though, it can mean having immense pressure placed upon them as the “family genius”. They might feel they cannot fail as they will let their whole family down, especially considering the sacrifices working class families often make to support their child to excel at school.
Like most students, I found beginning my university journey exciting and terrifying. However, the added pressure of not having guidance from someone who had done it before and could provide insight into university life added more anxiety. Even as an undergraduate, the disparities between the working class and those who are more privileged are clear. For example, it was essential that I could budget, and budget well, because I couldn’t ask my parents to bail me out if I needed more money.
I recall so many conversations about how poor and broke people were, only to watch their parents refill their bank account whenever they needed it. That’s a luxury I just didn’t have. I had a part-time job to ensure I could afford to do everything I wanted and participate in all social events, just like my peers. The difference was that I was losing study time, and adding the stress of a job to my life. Of course, I’m not the first (and won’t be the last) to do this, and I thankfully never found it overwhelming – but it can be for some.
This difference in disposable income is one thing that makes it hard to relate to peers and can cause social exclusion for those from working class backgrounds. A fellow student was horrified that my parents didn’t pay for driving lessons when I turned 17 and thought it meant they didn’t love or care about me. When I explained how my family was unable to afford it, they turned their nose up and looked at me like: “How did they let someone like you in here?”
Learning the “social codes”
To an extent, the disparity described does continue into the postgraduate environment. However, like many science PhD students, I’m funded which means I don’t need to be picking up an extra job anymore. This is one perk of the “step up the social ladder” I made in becoming a PhD researcher. The challenge of the working class in academia isn’t just financial though. To believe this is misinformed, and massively simplifies a complex problem.
There are lots of subtler ways that academia in the UK excludes its working class members. And I would argue these are more damaging than financial disparities because they are harder to track, quantify and account for. This makes them difficult to recognise unless they work against you.
The hardest one to see, explain, and break down, in my opinion, is “social codes”. Probably the easiest one of these to identify is an accent. Whether consciously or subconsciously, certain British accents are linked to the working class, and therefore linked with not being very intelligent. My accent is viewed as “rough” and “unintelligent”, which I am constantly reminded of by comments like: “You don’t sound smart,” or “There’s no way someone with your accent does a PhD,” or “No one will trust your science if you sound like that.”
Initially, it’s easy to brush these comments off, eye roll, or tell yourself they don’t have an impact. However, when you receive comments like this with the frequency I have, it does start to make you question whether you deserve to be here. It can cause you to become anxious about contributing a point of view, as you fear your accent invalidates the importance of what you’re expressing. Ultimately, it tells me that how I sound is what’s focused on rather than what I am saying.
Interestingly, I have now developed a “presentation voice” that I use to speak about my work to academics. Essentially, I mimic what I think “an intelligent person” (i.e. someone with a higher social standing) sounds like. When I use that voice, I have people tell me how much more professional, articulate and polished I sound when I give a talk rather than in day-to-day life. They praise me for it, which encourages me to hide my natural accent and continue to use my “posher” accent because it is so well received in the academic community.
What I find even harder than putting on my “posh, intelligent voice” is navigating the vocabulary. The vocabulary I would choose to express myself SCREAMS working class. The language I was brought up using, and am comfortable using, is seen as unintelligent and inarticulate. By this, I don’t mean I struggle to use the scientific terms to explain my work – everyone who gets to where I am has to learn the scientific jargon of their chosen field. I am referring to how I learnt to express myself in my daily life, at home with family, during dinner, with friends at school, and at the pub.
The language I learnt to express myself in social situations differs vastly from those who were brought up in a “higher” social position. Sometimes, I feel like I’m in English class again, sitting there using Google to look up the words people are using in normal conversations. For many people like me, this can make us feel excluded not only because we sometimes struggle to follow conversations, but when we do contribute we may be ridiculed for our choice of language. This can make it harder to form relationships with peers at university, to fit in, and to feel included. It can make us feel that we don’t belong here, like we’re just “playing scientist”.
Coming from a working class background, the social codes I’ve needed to learn to be accepted into the world of academic elites aren’t limited to my accent and vocabulary, but these are the simplest examples for me to articulate.
Do I belong here?
Imposter syndrome – doubt in one’s self and the persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’ – has become a talking point in academia. It affects academics from all backgrounds at all different career stages, and I would argue it’s even more common for those from a working class background.
But why are working class people – who have probably had to fight harder and work harder than many other groups to get where they are in academia – still not believing they belong or have earnt their place?
Why do I – someone who’s outgoing, confident, and loves to socialise – still panicking about networking and presenting my research to academics when approaching my final year? Why do my supervisor, family, and friends need to reassure me weekly (if not daily) that I am capable of achieving my PhD? Why do I find it so hard to feel I belong, or can achieve in this environment?
Many of my colleagues haven’t understood how unconfident I’ve felt in “their world.” And of course, they’ve had self-doubting moments too. But they belonged in this world of academia, whereas I have felt so out of place and unworthy of existing in this space. From speaking to other PhDs with a similar background to mine, I realise this isn’t uncommon. We just don’t have the same confidence as our more privileged peers in this environment. This lack of confidence can make us more critical of our work, more sensitive to feedback, and more likely to amplify negative comments.
Feeling out of place led me to think maybe it just wasn’t for me, and a close colleague from a privileged background told me “Well, a PhD isn’t for everyone” when I confided I was feeling like I didn’t belong. Their words play in my head frequently when I self-doubt. Why was that their response, and not a supportive one? Did they believe I can’t do this and shouldn’t be here? It added to my feelings of self-doubt, and to me convincing myself they could see I was only “playing” the role of a PhD researcher, and it made my “acting” even more evident.
I know I am probably being hypersensitive here, finding a meaning in their words they probably never intended. It’s likely they simply wanted me to assess whether I wanted to complete a PhD, and let me know it was ok if I didn’t. But my lack of a sense of belonging didn’t give me the capacity to see their words as any way but negative, and only affirmed my fears of not being good enough.
The difference privilege makes
Through my time in academia, other PhDs from working class backgrounds have commented on differences in confidence between us and our more privileged peers. Many of us grew up without knowing we would go to university someday. We might have attended schools that didn’t encourage it, because “people like us don’t go there.” It’s easy to feel like we ended up here by luck, instead of it being part of the plan.
I have certainly felt that I couldn’t ask for help when I was stuck, fearing it would make me look incompetent, that admitting I needed help would make any doubters correct that I shouldn’t be here. It caused me to act like I had a clear, detailed understanding of what I was doing when in reality I felt like I was going to drown. Unfortunately, this view was solidified by a few individuals who were unhelpful when I asked questions and simply looked at me like I was stupid. I will never forget the response of one colleague in my first three months of my PhD: “Really? You don’t know that yet?” before they just walked out. It made finding my feet even harder, and my sense of drowning stronger.
That’s not to say I don’t have many amazing, helpful colleagues who have supported me throughout my PhD. In fact, I wish I had confided in them earlier and let them help me rather than letting my feeling of not belonging restrict me. I’ve found that acting over-confident, pretending to know more than you do, and feeling like you can’t ask for help is a common feeling in PhD researchers from working class backgrounds. Not to say that those from a more privileged class don’t ever feel like this, but I would argue it’s heightened in those from a working class as we feel we have more to prove. The hard truth is that this behaviour, which many working class PhD students exhibit, harms their projects' progress. It also makes the PhD harder... and I can certainly vouch for that.
Playing the “elite character”
A feeling of alienation may be why many successful working class academics begin to mimic the people who are accepted within the academic environment. Playing this “elite character” can help us feel worthy of being part of the academic world.
Successes start to be linked to this new persona, encouraging more mimicking of elite colleagues, and further development of this persona to the point where it forms part of our personality. This can cause an identity crisis, especially when you have a strong connection to people back home to whom this new “elite approved” persona is not relatable. To keep that strong connection, you need to revert to your “old” persona with them. This ‘Hannah Montana’ lifestyle can be damaging to mental health, creating a struggle to be accepted as the lines of “who you are” and the “character you play” become blurred.
Social mobility is hard work
While the experiences I’ve detailed are either mine or others that I’ve spoken to, I appreciate they don’t tell everyone’s story or experience. But social mobility is hard, and studies do show this.
Amol Rajan’s BBC documentary How to Break into the Elite explores this complex subject not just in academia, but for elite jobs in general. It highlights fascinating statistics like the fact that around a third of the population is from a working class background, but less than 10% make it to an elite profession – and when they do, they earn around 16% less.
They also presented Russell Group University data which suggested that a student with a privileged background with a 2:2 class degree is still more likely to go into a top occupation than someone from a poorer background with a first class honours from the same university.
You always hear the phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” and this will be one factor contributing to this statistic, I’m sure (a survey by Lou Adler revealed 85% of jobs were filled by networking in 2016). But I do not doubt that mannerisms, dress, and accent will signal who was brought up in the world of elite professionals and who was brought up poorer, and that these also play a role in the disparities seen (this is also touched on in Amol’s documentary).
I don’t think academia is as bad as some other elite professions, but that doesn’t mean it’s doing as well at retaining talented working class people as it could be. It’s widely known that a large percentage of science PhD students leave science after receiving their doctorate, and it would be interesting to see how socioeconomic background plays into that.
I do think the UK is making progress towards becoming more diversified. Although arguably too slowly, groups are lobbying for change, companies are changing hiring practices to become fairer, marketing is becoming more inclusive, workplaces are improving accessibility, and there is an increased diversity of role models in elite positions who are inspiring our next generation to believe they can be anything they want.
We need greater representation in academia
Before I close, I want to highlight the scientific community on Twitter. So many of them work to showcase scientists from all walks of life so that the younger generation can see someone like them, and believe their dream of becoming part of this community is possible.
They also openly and honestly highlight the challenges they have faced in getting to their position, enabling us to work together to overcome barriers to diversity and pave the way to more innovative thinking and scientific success.
In writing this blog I hope to have done my part in highlighting just some of the struggles of social mobility in academia, and the progress academia still must make to retain our talented working class scientists.
Summer Rosonovski is a third-year PhD researcher investigating the mysterious i-motif DNA structure at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. She is enthusiastic about sharing her love for science and has recently started to build her CV towards science communication. Since high school, Summer has been involved with and led science experiments and workshops for kids, although it never clicked that she could make a career from her passion for science communication until a colleague suggested it.
Outside her PhD research, Summer has been involved in organizing Pint of Science, designing a DNA science board game (still in progress), organizing the Summer DTP Conference, presenting her research to non-specialists, and taking on a role in the Sci PGR committee at UEA. When Summer isn’t finding a new science communication project to sign up for, she’s training for pole fitness – her newfound sporting love!
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