The academic migrant experience



At a dinner not so long ago I got into an interesting conversation with a third generation academic. She complained about her father giving her advice on how to do her PhD. I joked that this was bound to be Thesis Whisperer Jnr’s fate, but I couldn’t help contrasting her stories with my own experience.

My father was sincerely impressed when I started my PhD and pleased as punch when I completed, but he would never have dreamed of giving me advice on how to do it. You see, I’m a first generation academic – what I like to call an academic migrant.

I know my father reads the blog – hi dad – and I’m sure he wont mind if I describe him as a highly intelligent, but largely self educated man. My father graduated from RMIT, before it was a university, with a trade certificate in industrial chemistry. My mother only just made it into high school. Due to the far sighted educational policies of the Whitlam government in the early 1970s, my sister and I were the first members of our family able to go to university.

University opened my eyes to another world – one defined, I have to say, by wealth and privilege. I was one of only three students, in a class of around 60 in my first year of architecture school, who did not go to a private school. My parents cared about my education, but they couldn’t afford to pay for it. I went to whatever local government school was nearest my house. My education wasn’t terrible, but being interested in learning lead meant I was a target for bullying and class was often disrupted by kids acting out.

The differences between the private school kid world and mine sound subtle now, but at the time they didn’t seem so. I worked in a local take away shop; they worked in upscale department stores and bookstores. I went to goth clubs; they went to wine bars. I read trashy science fiction; they read the latest Booker prize novels and, you know – classics. I lived in a newly built house, a long way out of town and did not own a car; they lived in older style, lovingly renovated period homes and drove themselves around in cute little hatchbacks gifted to them on their 18th birthday.

My new private school friends welcomed me into their world without judgment and I’m grateful. You see, those private school kids taught me how to be middle class. These middle class ways often boiled down to quite simple things. For instance, I had never eaten pesto or drunk plunger coffee until my first year of uni – in fact, I didn’t even know what pesto was, or that coffee could come any other way but powdered and in a tin.

Luckily my parents had worked tirelessly on my speech at home, correcting me whenever I ‘spoke like a bogan’; I suspect it would have been much more difficult to fit in otherwise. To this day people at universities in Melbourne express shock when they hear where I grew up and went to school, such is the extent to which I learned to be like Them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the majority of my friends at work are first generation academics too. Migrants often feel an affinity for each other.

You are probably wondering why I am telling you my migrant story. Well, since having that conversation with a 3rd generation academic I have been wondering how our upbringing might affect our experience of PhD study and whether being a migrant makes a difference – or not. These are early thoughts, but I wanted to share them with you because I’m interested in hearing what you think.

There are some studies of experiences of ‘first timers’ in undergraduate courses, these show that having college educated parents is a decided advantage. There are no studies, at least that I can find, about first generation academics’ PhD experiences.

Is it harder to be a PhD student when you are an academic migrant as well? When I started my PhD I didn’t have many study skills; they weren’t taught at school and my parents didn’t know how to help me at home. I didn’t even know how to take useful reading notes until halfway through my PhD. I’ve had to learn things about writing that I should have known long before I got to university. Things like the role of topic sentences, the difference between ‘then’ and ‘than’, ‘that’ and ‘which’, the proper use of ‘also’ and how verbs work to boost argumentative ‘voice’. Was it that I just wasn’t paying attention in class all those years? Perhaps.

I had always thought of my migrant status as a handicap, now I wonder if that’s really the case. Maybe there’s some advantages to learning how to be academic from scratch? Many of us probably deal with the pressure of parental expectation, but I imagine a parent with actual PhD experience could be quite annoying. I suspect I would not have appreciated my father telling me how to write my introduction.

Being a ‘normal’ academic is not just a case of being able to write properly of course. Over the last couple of years I have been compiling a Tumblr blog to study the role of food in academia called ‘Refreshments will be provided’. It’s made me realise just how much academic life – and academic business – is conducted at dinner tables. You need a little recognised, but highly valuable skill set, to deal with this aspect of academic social life.

I know what pesto is now and I buy my coffee as beans, not in a tin. I don’t shame myself by not recognising a foodstuff at dinner anymore. But I had to learn how to cope with the academic dinner party – and it took a long time to feel comfortable at one. If I’m entirely honest I still find them difficult sometimes. Are you disadvantaged, career-wise, if you can’t hold your own in the sometimes excruciatingly polite conversations that take place at such events? I’m not sure, but I suspect you might be.

Are you an academic migrant too? Given the increase in numbers of PhD students in the last couple of decades it’s likely that you are a first generation PhD student, if not a first generation academic. How do you think your upbringing and early education affects how you cope with PhD study? Do you think it’s made a difference to your career? Did you, like me, have to learn to fit in? Are you still learning?