First-generation academics and the insurmountable work pressureAYA Magazine #2
During a conversation on work-life balance in academia, we realised that we both had different outlooks on the topic. We wondered what the effects were of being the first person in a family to pursue an academic career on a person’s mindset and success within academia.
There is sporadic evidence of doctoral candidates and early career scholars struggling to grasp the social and practical frameworks of academia, especially on social media. The question ‘What did you wish you knew as a doctoral student’ – a recurring topic of discussion among academics on Twitter – is especially prevalent among those who struggle because they never learned how to conform to the academic framework. Such struggles often result in missed opportunities and the well-known imposter syndrome. One of the main reasons why people struggle to fit in is because they never learned to do so, as their parents were not academics and maybe never even had any university experience. It takes longer to find your way, and to fit into a highly competitive environment. More attention should be paid to whether first-generation students reach the early career stage and how they experience this stage.
First generation scholars deal with questions such as: ‘When is it possible to ask for help and advice?’, ‘How critical can I be towards my supervisor?’ and ‘Is it appropriate to tell all my colleagues about my recently published article or should I be more modest about it?’ Silke, for instance, struggled to figure out such social rules in academia. She was the only one in her family who had pursued a doctorate. One of her family members was even anxious about her starting doctoral studies, believing that if she failed, she would have to repay the money the university invested in her. Therefore, scared of failing and looking weak, she hardly dared to ask people for feedback or to network in case they would realise that she was an ‘imposter’. Many years later, still in academia, she realised that asking for advice and feedback is an important step in knowledge creation. For Sanne –being among the first in her family to get a university degree – making her family proud was also a driving force behind building an academic career, but she also needed to find the best way to navigate the academic world, with its customs and unwritten rules. Building a network of peers and talking about the work pressure with others helped her to learn (and cope with) this.
“For first-generation scholars, it is important to realise that their perception of those academic ‘superheroes’ they look up to is often mythical.”
The internet is full of blogs written by first-generation graduate students who reveal that all the fears and struggles connected to undefined rules in academia become amplified during graduate studies. Being more flexible with your working hours, by working in the weekend or evenings, might be perceived as more normal when your parents also have such a work ethic. Or being confident when presenting your work might be easier when you have family members that are more used to pitching or showcasing their work. Similarly, doctoral students and early career scholars who are not first-generation students, might be more confident at networking and reaching out for help. You do not have to have parents in academia to quickly pick up on the practices and get a feel for the field, but it certainly helps. Silke wonders how her doctoral studies might have gone if she would have had the confidence that she sees in students who are not the first scholars in their families. She realised that it is okay, and even vital, to network.
When we think of achievements and work pressure, the path to academic success – especially in the long-term – can seem like an insurmountable mountain to the first-generation scholar. One scholarly article from 2011 even discusses attrition risks among first-generation graduate students. In the meantime, it may well be the case that higher education places greater demands on those working in academia, physically and mentally. For first-generation scholars, academic life can feel even more overwhelming than it does for those who have learned that work pressure is normal. We do not know what the drop-out rates are for first generation scholars, but we would implore the academic world to think about such aspects and offer more support. For firstgeneration scholars, it is important to realise that their perception of those academic ‘superheroes’ they look up to is often mythical – they also had their own winding career paths and they also experienced bumps along the way. We often talk about people’s achievements in academia, but not about the circuitous path that led towards it. And that path, with all its bumps and obstacles, should be given more attention.