I like to sum it up in this quote from Friends (what life lessons I didn't learn from The X Files, I learned from Friends)
Ross: I guess I never think of money as an issue
Rachel: That's because you have it.
Money, as I'll talk about is a big player in this. But in academia it's more than that. What we're really talking about is class. Working class academics have a much tougher time of it for more reasons than just money. And it's all something we should be talking about.
I'm British, by way of explanation and disclaimer. If you're reading this elsewhere in the world the terms and experience will be different but I think broadly speaking here I have something to say.
Being born into a working class family in the 1980s, Thatcherism at it's height, I think it's fair to say I've never known what it is to be wealthy. In fact at times during my childhood I think to apply the term 'poor' to my family isn't to much of a stretch. The funny thing is, I never felt poor, underprivileged, or even (shock horror) "common" until much later in life, when entering academia. The first in my family to do so by a long shot the world of Higher Education might just as well be another planet to my family.
Despite attending a quite, in the words of a friend at the time 'rah rah' University for Undergrad, I never felt too common.Thanks to the student loans system I felt on a level playing field financially. Ok so I wasn't jetting off to the Maldives or going on the boat at Easter. But we were all pretty much on the same income in term time, so it didn't matter. Basically I passed as middle class like (almost) everyone else. In terms of life experience, I guess I was able to stay 'with my own kind' not taking up any activities that marked me out as different. I also found the subject made a difference in history, the topics covered are so vast, and curriculum at school so limited, very few of us had a wide-ranging knowlege so the playing field felt level, unlike later in English related disciplines.
Only when I got to Masters level. At, quite frankly the most 'rah rah' of institutions imaginable (I mean, Oxbridge aside I'd wager RADA is as 'rah' as it gets) then I felt it. Both through being poor in London (always a joy) but also having not learnt all the things that nice middle class children learn at School. And it's not just about school, it's about all the things outside that having privilege affords. It's the extra music tuition, it's the sports clubs, it's the trips to museums and theatres. As a working class kid from the dodgy end of Cardiff in the 90s, people like us didn't go to museums and the theatre. It wasn't for people like us (and let's face it we couldn't afford it) My cultural radar was very different. And before anyone cries 'You could have taught yourself, learned things yourself' I did, a hell of a lot. But in the pre-internet days resources were limited, and it's a difficult thing to explain to those who are from that background, but certain cultural 'staples' were just not on my radar. In some ways the cultural experiences related to class are as strong as those by nationality, you can be aware of what other people do, you can want to do it, be interested in it, but it's not native to you.
So I've felt like I was doing cultural catch-up ever since. I feel like Julia Roberts in 'Pretty Woman' looking at the forks in the fancy restaurant and sending a snail flying across the room. Except the forks are cultural references, and the snail is the reaction to me asking who Alfred Prufrock is. Like Julia Roberts as a prostitute, I was never stupid, but until someone takes you to a world where you need more than one fork for dinner, you're never going to know which fork to use.
This continued, tenfold, in PhD land. The further up the scale you go, the fewer people like me hang on it appears. Or actually, more accurately, we get better at hiding in plain sight. It feels like to admit you haven't heard of/read/seen the 'key' thing, or that you can't speak Latin, or that you've never been to a certain place, means you are more of a fraud than you naturally (as an academic type) already think you are. Because I grew up in a different culture. It's hard to quantify exactly but a gradual niggling feeling over the years that somehow I had missed out on some fundamental education, because my background wasn't sophisticated enough. I had always read obsessively since a young child, but with no concept of high/low or good/bad literature. Personally I think this has made me a better, honest and open reader and critic. As the saying goes, I may not know art but I know what I like. Sadly the further up the ladder I got, the more what I liked was irrelevant, and what I should like was the only answer. I constantly felt like I was losing a race I didn't know I was running. And while playing 'cultural catch up' on one hand, on the other, there was a game of 'catch up' I could never win, and that was financial.
The 'I never think of money as an issue' sums up my PhD experience, from dealing with supervisors/full time academics, to fellow PhDs with scholarships and family backing. From my trying to explain why I had to hurry up and finish, to why further archival research or conferences weren't on the cards. And now to explaining why barring some kind of divine intervention that chasing an academic career indefinitely, without secure employment, wasn't going to be possible.
Money. It makes the world go around, and if you have it you don't notice. It is also the biggest gatekeeper to academic success.
As a self-funded PhD student there's the stigma also that it makes me "lesser" somehow. In the same way that I see Independent scholars regarded as "lesser" when in fact those of us somehow supporting ourselves financially whether as students or later as scholars should actually be respected for juggling both finance and a life/job that is outside the academic and still producing our thesis/work. However that isn't the case, we're viewed as the 'not quite good enough' be it for a scholarship or a job. Personally I'd doff my ridiculous graduation hat ten times to all my fellow self funders. At best/worst I juggled teaching and 3 part time jobs. At worst I was getting by on one zero hours, minimum wage job. It impacts everything, not only your research as above but the rest of your life. I turned down social engagements because I was watching every penny, I constantly traded off what I needed-new clothes or one more book? visit friends of stow money for a conference? Friendships suffer for it, relationships suffer (or cease to exist) family relationships are strained. Because you take the most stressful academic endeavour imaginable, and add the stress and strain of money issues. And money issues without a safety net.
That lack of safety net is the crucial thing for working class students. For others, sure there will be tough financial times, none of us are rich doing a PhD. But for those from better-off backgrounds there is always a safety net of family financial security. I, and many others do not have that. My Mum, already past retirement age was like me working for minimum wage on a zero hours contract during my PhD. Then the company went bust. Just like that, things go from precarious to even worse. And add to this the pressure and the guilt. The guilt that I having worked hard and trained should be helping out my Mum in this situation, not relying on her for a roof over my head. I paid my way, I took that roof over my head yes, but I paid my way, and every step of the way I was racked with guilt that I wasn't providing for my Mum. All the conversations about money were me saying 'I wish I could help more' or 'One day I will help more' There was no question of relying on a fall back at home because one didn't exist. It's a scary place to be balancing without that safety net. And a miserable one when those who are so used to having it fail to understand. And let's face it, self-selection means that those at the top of the pyramid academically also have a high percentile of those with large (parental or partner) income brackets.
Let me be clear, I resent nobody their success if they work hard and happen to have a helping hand. What I do resent is those who have no concept of the helping hand they've been given in life and fail to see that others don't have that luxury. And I have been called in so many words a failure and a quitter so many times by people I thought were friends, or supportive acquaintances/colleagues. So I'm going to spell it out: not everyone has that. And it's hear that academia also becomes a class issue. It also increasingly is becoming those who have the luxury to stay in it and those who don’t.
I've known people take on extra Masters courses to stay in the country they want to, take on only part time teaching work to develop their research profile, turn down work from establishments they think won't look good enough on a CV. These are all well and good if you are in the position to do so, and the only way you are in a position to do so is this: MONEY. Don't tell me these people don't have family supporting (read: financing) them.
What this means for me is I didn't have options at the end of the PhD, and I don't have options now. I have taken a job in a University, that yes draws on my PhD, but isn't an academic post. Bearing in mind I was working in University Administration before the PhD (and before my PGCE) there is a slight edge of disappointment that I've moved not one inch. And that inch make no mistake is financial. I had to apply for this job, I had to take it. And I'm grateful for it? Hell yes. Do I intend to work bloody hard to keep moving my career forward? Hell yes again. Always have always will. Is it what I worked for? is it my dream? no. And those decisions were financial. Those are decisions that people in other industries make every day also. And its fine, it's all fine. Except when those privileged academics look down their noses at your "lowly" support role, or at your minimal research output, or question your commitment when you don't attend many conferences.
And it is what it is. The financial climate is awful, jobs scarce. It’s the same across many sectors I know, and in life those of us who can’t be unpaid interns forever make these decisions.
What is different here to in business is the guilt, dear Lord the guilt. This idea that I should be waiting it out, that it's the right thing to do, that I HAVE to pay out to conference, to publish to keep networking. And I ask on what? I also say there are more important things.
I work hard for the money I earn (ok to quote Friends again, I work for it) and to me, there are more important things. For the cost of a conference I could save up and take my Mum away with me somewhere for the weekend. That academic book? that could keep my poor old doggy in the tablets she needs for a month. We aren't on the breadline, but there are priorities. And 'staying in the game' or actually 'playing the game' isn't one of them right now.
I can defend my knowledge background, attitude and tastes. I'm not ashamed of where I come from. Nor am I ashamed of having different cultural experiences. My background gives me a killer work ethic, and a no nonsense attitude that doesn't suffer fools. All that I could bring to academia and quite frankly academia could do with. I work damn hard, and I bring a slice of diversity that the middle class (cough white, cough male) bastion of academia could do with. At the University I did my PhD at I was incredibly proud to see many working class students come through, and I could identify with their experience, and be empathetic to their life experience. The 'Academy' in all it's ivory tower glory needs people like me. But sadly more and more that tower has a hefty admission price, and leaves me wondering if it's really worth what's inside.