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?

*Late addition:  many thanks to Linda Steele from University of Sydney, who kindly sent this reference to an academic paper on the topic. The paper reports on the experiences of 20 doctoral students and makes for interesting reading:

Gardner, S. K. and K. A. Holley (2011). “”Those Invisible Barriers Are Real”: The Progression of First-Generation Students Through Doctoral Education.” Equity & Excellence in Education 44(1) 77-92.

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79 thoughts on “The academic migrant experience

  1. long way from home says:

    I am also an ‘academic migrant’ and your description of coming into the private school world is very familiar 🙂 I’m curious when and why you decided to do a PhD. I feel like I dealt with the social gap in terms of things like coffee and pesto as an undergrad, but I managed 5 years of undergrad without realising that the uni was about (broadly speaking) research, which might have something to do with my upbringing. I was ‘smart’ so I was encouraged to go to a good uni to get a good job. It’s only after a few years in the real world that I fell into research. I now have a Masters and a PhD and I’m part way through a postdoc, and only now am I starting to think of an academic career and what you need to get there – something I find many of my colleagues have had as a driving force since early undergrad. I guess I think my background made me less aware of the big picture of career progression earlier, and now I’m trying to learn all those things like planning a research agenda that one is supposed to learn during a PhD, but I never knew to ask about.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I fell into PhD study in much the same way you describe actually. I did a practical couse like architecture because I wanted a job. I still don’t think strategically about my career really. I really didn’t care about the ‘name’ of the insitution I got my degree from – but by PhD I had wised up and went to the most prestigious institution in town. I am already positioning my son to enter the academy with the idea of doing a PhD if he wants to – that’s a big difference right from the start I think, especially because he is science oriented.

  2. Judy Redman says:

    Ingrid, in some senses I am also an academic migrant, in that I am the first person in my family to go to university, but my mother had been to teachers’ college, taught high school English and History and upgraded her certificate to degree equivalent while we were children. My father was a motor mechanic, but he came from a family of quite comfortably off graziers. His mother was taught to cook, sew, play the piano and paint water colours but also how to read and write French, Latin and Greek! Her sister-in-law was one of the first women science grads from the University of Sydney although i hardly knew her. I went to an old state high school on Sydney’s North Shore so I already knew the social things you talk about and my study skills were reasonable. I had also worked in universities providing student support for years before I enrolled in my PhD, which helped. I think, though, that how well a supervisor mentors a doctoral candidate is really important, as is how well they are integrated into the school/department and therefore how much contact they have with other academics.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Yes – even if you are an academic native – or partly so – becoming a PhD student is another kind of migration. Integration into a department is quite a different process from being an undergraduate.

      • Judy Redman says:

        A friend got her PhD as an external student and is now a teaching academic. She says that she is constantly discovering things that other people picked up just by hanging around in their departments as doctoral candidates.

  3. Dave Snell says:

    I’m also an academic migrant, and I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I felt that this positioning was to my advantange, as I think my working class upbringing helped me cut through some of the waffle that can sometimes come with academia. It meant learning to write academically was a lot harder though! I find my situation amusing, and I chuckled at your comment “talk like a bogan”, as I am a bogan studying bogans (did it for my PhD and continuing with further research now). So I went from being a bogan, to being an academic, to being a bogan academic. Not that I ever switched 100% one to the other, but these differing roles were constantly in dialogue throughout my studies and beyond.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Oh Dave – I didn’t realise you read my blog. I know your work and I love it! I had topic envy when someone pointed it out to me. Glad to hear you are continuing. It sounds like you have done the academic equivalent of a double backflip off the high board 🙂

      • Dave Snell says:

        Haha wow thanks. Yeah I’ve been reading it a while now, really enjoy it. First time I’ve commented though (first time caller, long time listener!). I’m on twitter if you wanted to keep in touch @burtoncbogan

  4. Janet Fulton says:

    Not only first with PhD and first academic in family but first with a degree and a late migrant (started my undergrad degree at 35). I have a very close relationship with the Imposter Cloak syndrome 🙂

  5. Debi says:

    Hi Ingrid and fellow academic migrant. Doing my PhD at the moment feels like being in the ship migrating! The swells help and add some momentum until you reach the dip and have to ‘paddle hard’ to reach the top of the next swell. Coming from the Pacific and migrating to Australia 2 yrs ago to do my doctorate I’m a migrant in more ways than one and am still learning the ways of an academic and the ways of Australia. The first in my family, although both my kids graduate with undergraduate degrees this year which is pretty exciting. I, like you, don’t ‘know’ many things assumed I should know and of course don’t know what I don’t know! I want to thank you for your blogs and honesty for helping me learn and find my way

  6. pat thomson says:

    There is academic writing on this starting with Pierre Bourdieu’s Sketch for a self analysis, UK studies by Reay, Plummer, Mahony and Zmroczek… And some US literatures too, these often combine class and race analysis, eg Bell Hooks and Patricia Williams. Much of this but not all uses Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and the UK writing focuses very strongly on class taste issues and the feeling of out of place- ness.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Are you aware of any that address PhD students specifically? I couldn’t find anything, but was looking mostly in educational literature. Might be some in sociology. Think there might be a study in this.

      • Lisa says:

        Hi Inger,

        A few references for you:
        Harvey, A. and Andrewartha, L. (2012). ‘Minorities have right to share postgrad pie’, The Australian, June 20, 2012, p.37.

        Thomas, L., & McCulloch, A. (2010). Widening participation to doctoral study: Issues, methodology and a research agenda. In M. Kiley (Ed.), 9th Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference: Educating Researchers for the 21st Century (pp. 49-58). Adelaide, South Australia: The Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods, The Australian National University.

        Wakeling, P. and Kyriacou, C. (2010) Widening Participation from Undergraduate to Postgraduate Research Degrees: a Research Synthesis. Swindon: ESRC and NCCPE. Retreived from

  7. Lughna says:

    Your story is very similar to mine: my father was excellent in secondary school (receiving the highest grade in the country in chemistry), but his family couldn’t afford to pay for him to study it at university. He dropped out after a term. My mother didn’t even finish school. I grew up with her telling me that if only my father had a degree he could earn much more (he became a top accountant, but with no professional training was never paid accordingly). Neither of them put pressure on me, but I internalised this and it made me very driven. While many of my friends had parents who would push them to study, telling them when they could stop, I motivated myself entirely and took control of my own learning.

    Years later, an undergrad sociology lecturer told my class that ‘you’re all only here [in the country’s leading uni] because of who your parents are’. He was implying that we had all the privilege of going to private school and receiving grinds. While there was certainly some truth to what he said, it bothered me since I had the luxury of neither. I went to a bad school and took the initiative to learn what I needed to at home. (In retrospective I realise that this ‘independent learning’ was similar to that of a PhD student! No wonder I didn’t find that aspect too difficult!) Then, when I received a prestigious scholarship, one of my lecturer’s asked me where I was from and his response was similarly elitist: ‘Really? Well haven’t you done well for yourself…’

    I could go on, but I agree that being an ‘academic migrant’ has its advantages. You appreciate that higher education is a luxury item and, knowing that your parents/grandparents didn’t get to experience it, you may be less likely to take it for granted. Thank you for another great post!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thanks 🙂 “well haven’t you done well for yourself” is a comment I have heard many times over the years. I’ve never really thought of it as elitist, but maybe you are right. It is condescending – I bought many skills and attributes from being working class to my study. In feedback from my workshops students always talk about how they value my ‘practical’ approach. This is straight forward working class pragmatism in many ways.

    • Neph Wake (@nephstar) says:

      I’d have interpreted it as acknowledgement that you have done it *yourself* without the subtle benefits that accrue to those who have inherited cultural capital. Thanks for alerting me to the different perception.

  8. Sarah says:

    I would say I am a migrant. Neither of my parents have their year ten certificates. The expectation was that you drop out after year ten, get an entry level job and work your way up through the company. The majority of girls at my school got jobs in retail and a lot of them are still there ten years later. I loved to learn and had no interest in anything all the other kids/teens were interested in so was bullied mercilessly all through school. My decision to go through to tear 12 and to uni was no shock to my parents but immediately it distanced me from my family. They no longer had a clue what I was doing and as I did my first degree biochem it was a fair few worlds away from their experience.
    I’ve now completed a masters and have started my phd. While I don’t think having non academic parents disadvantaged me, I don’t think it helped either. There was never anyone to ask for advice which was hard but at the same time it taught me self reliance; every study skill I now have is self taught. They could not help financially but also didn’t see the relevance of spending the money either which meant I worked a lot but left undergrad with lots of experience. Their response whenever anything was difficult was to drop out because I didn’t “need” a degree but I think getting one was both the saving and defining moment that got me where I am now.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      That’s a great story Sarah. An a testament to your courage. My parents had great expectations of me and would have been very disappointed if I didn’t finish. I nearly dropped out after 2 years of undergrad andit’s only the thought of their disapproval that really made me go back!

      • Sarah says:

        Thank you. For the most part my parents had no expectations other than good morals that was drilled into us from a young age. What was very interesting was that when my father remarried he married a woman who had come from a family who placed a lot of value on academic achievement and all of a sudden was obsessed with all of our grades. Quite a change in tune! He’s most recently taken to talking up my phd to be far more impressive than it is! Another interesting perspective – the influence of one’s partners on one’s attitudes towards academia.

  9. Andreas Moser says:

    I am the first and only one in my extended university to have attended university and I am now over my 2nd and 3rd degree (no PhD yet).
    I am very happy with that situation. My family is filled with awe, they don’t try to give me tips which I don’t need, there is no sense of competition. I am the odd one out, like the only clown in a family. They leave me alone and let me carry on which is all I want from them.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I imagine so! It’s good that they are in awe, rather than disgust. Do you find it hard to have conversations at family parties? I wonder if it’s hard to ‘go back home’ if no one else in your family has had similar experiences?

      • Andreas Moser says:

        I am lucky in two ways: (1) I don’t see my family very often, some of them only every few years. (I live in another country.) (2) Many of them are quite smart and self-educated to a high standard and keep themselves informed about current events. In any case, all of them have an open mind. – But then I never could stand family gatherings for more than 2-3 hours.

    • robyn74 says:

      Thanks Andreas…it’s like two worlds isn’t it; not fitting in anywhere! I also am teased for being the ‘egg head’ in the family but at uni (I’m doing a Phd and I’m an academic) I’m the ‘class clown’ from the ghetto…. But my family’s response is like yours and i agree it’s great!

  10. Alexander Hayes (@alexanderhayes) says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post as it comes at a time when I’m reflecting on why on earth I’ve taken this path when so many others have been available to me. I could have become a tradie earning far greater than I do now, or perhaps could have followed through on that ambition to run a fitness gym and looked fantastic but I’ve ‘become’ a PhD student and likely to follow the academic route post completion. I am an immigrants son with loving parents who sacrificed everything in order for the children to have the best opportunities possible, particularly in education. I am also the very first person in my whole family from both sides to have pursued post graduate education opportunities. Your post beautifully illustrates for many people (who find themselves questioning where they fit in) that perserverance is not the only antidote to the distance that one finds themselves from others who perhaps don’t share the same ambitions. It is a tough road full of challenges however, your post for me points out that it is possible to approach it also from a self-learning perspective, to positively line the road with measurements of achievement. My academic supervisor is the most inspiring person I know, in many ways that I hope to be for the students that I supervise and join on their PhD journeys in years to come….there, I’ve said it – that’s my ambition and your post has inspired me to say it 🙂 Thank you for a great insight into your life’s journey.

  11. Lucy I says:

    The academic migrant is an interesting term. I’m certainly the first person to go to university in my family, and I know a total of one person with a PhD and one who enrolled this year. I’m in the midst of my application and I keep hitting stumbling blocks. For me it isn’t about the social class markers (like food/accent) or the study skills (I slotted right into academia as an undergrad and I’ve worked as a librarian for the past seven years) but just knowing the options.

    It’s almost ten years between my honours year and my PhD, if I get in. I refused to even consider the possibility after I’d finished honours – I’d gone through three and a half years of commentary about ‘professional students’ and ‘useless degrees’ to shy away from it. I also had no internal frame of reference for what a PhD was, what it did, what I would do. I had the definitions and all of that, but emotionally there was no context to it.

    Even now, doing the application, I keep hitting this wall where I feel like this is useless. To quote an academic I talked to about it, that I’m “just not middle class enough” (she went through the same thing). It isn’t just Imposter Syndrome, or a lack of confidence in what happens after, but that a PhD, and academia, is this entire new world that I have no experience in. I’m learning as fast as I can, asking as many questions as I can, but it’s all so new.

  12. Marisa Monagle says:

    I am well and truly an academic migrant … my schooling was stretched over 13 school three different countries and failed year HSC. Pretty much told i was dumb academically most of my life or it was inferrred. I started off my career as a paediatric nurse doing hospital based training always thinking I was too ‘dumb’ to go to university.

    Come mid 90’s lots of pressure on hospitial trained nursed to do a uni course. So with much fear I started. Since then I have completed a bachelor of public health, grad dip in adolecent health and welfare and a Masters in Youth health and education management. A whole new world was opened up to me one that I have embraced totally. No one in my family has gone this far at university. In fact only two of us have uni degrees.

    I am now at the end stages of my phd why am I doing this? I am 54 now have had and am having a succesful career working with adolecent in the community. I did this for so many reasons but mainly because I wanted to show the little girl who thought she was ‘dumb’ that she isnt. I am not really that fussed if it leads to a great academic career it was so much more about the journey. I have loved doing my phd so much was a privledge to get a scholarship to do it and to be given the time and I have not doubt it will open some doors up for me.

    I have learnt so much on this journey which is not over yet as I am at the pointy end of the phd …. leanrnt about my self etc. Both my daughters have a couple of uni course behind them and I think in there own way are proud of their mum who has opened up the door for them to be second generation academic migrants

  13. BJ says:

    I’m the first in my family to get past year nine at high school. One of my parents only had one year of high school and the other was out in year eight. My brothers made it to year nine but left before finishing the year. Me…I’m now in my 4th year of part time PhD. I’m not sure how I got here and my family has no idea what the heck I am doing. I’m sure some of them still think I am going to be a medical doctor.

  14. Sarah Thorneycroft says:

    Interesting post! I’m going to come at this from a rather different angle from you and other commenters here. I’m a second-generation academic and by far not the first person in my family to go to university. But – as you will well know academic salaries are not what one would call lucrative, so my upbringing was not so far removed from yours. I went to a public school (along with all the other kids of academics – Jess Drake knows the one :D) and also had no idea about pesto or real coffee until my hospitality whore working days. I did admittedly have a hatchback but it was a crappy old one. I read Booker prize novels but also spent rather large amounts of time at our own rural version of goth clubs (mostly odd house parties and the strange phenomenon known as ‘forest doofs’). But where this was different for me was there was no real class divide, at least not one that I felt. It was perhaps a function of living in a small university town rather than in the city, but nobody got bullied for being the smart weird kid, there were private school kids who worked at Maccas and public school kids who worked in the nice cafes, and university classes were a motley mix of public and private school kids and mature-age students, some who had probably never finished high school and nobody knew who was who.

    The main thing for me about being a ‘native’ academic, so to speak, was growing up and seeing how the system worked I swore up and down I’d never be an academic and yet here I am. I don’t think it’s been a particular advantage for me other than having parents who valued education and a year 6 assignment referenced in full APA. And for the record, I still suck at academic dinners.

  15. strictlykaren says:

    Thank you Inger for writing such a thoughtful and honest account. My own experience is very much similar to Marisa’s. neither of my parents went to university and it was not expected of me or my siblings. I did my nurse training which was hospital based and since then have worked full time whilst studying for a BSc then masters degree part-time. I am now in my final year of my phd whilst working full time as an academic. I like to think of my journey as “the scenic route”. It’s not exactly typical of many of my academic peers, apart from those in nursing and I have never really experienced “proper student life” but juggling work, study and family life does allow me to empathise with my students’ struggles. As for my parents, I know they are very proud of what I have achieved, they love to see my name on papers even if the subject is of no interest.

  16. Jackie says:

    Thank you for a very interesting post. I’m a welfare class girl from rural NSW, and the first person in my family to go to university. I didn’t start my undergrad until my mid-twenties, because going to uni just never seemed like an option to me (I applied at the end of year 12 and was accepted, but even with HECS, the amenities and services fee put it completely out of reach).

    I eventually started my undergrad at a very un-prestigious ex-technical college when I was 24, and I felt a huge sense of relief to have found a place where I could engage with ideas (as I was ridiculously bored with the drudge jobs I’d been doing). I loved being a student, and knew by second year that I wanted to try to be an academic.

    After my first year, I moved interstate and transferred to the “most prestigious institution in town” – not realising that it was, in fact, so prestigious (if I had have know, I may never have applied, since folks like me aren’t supposed to go to places like that!). 95% of my cohort were private-school educated, and it was total culture-shock for me.

    I think the class divide is much deeper that things like pesto and coffee. Financial security has always been a huge issue for me, and with no family safety net, it’s meant I’ve had to work continuously while I study, both at undergrad and postgrad level (the sessional nature of tutoring means that I’ve not been able to engage as fully as I’d have liked with academic life as a PhD student). And while I know that impostor syndrome is a common experience for PhD students everywhere, I think class adds another layer to it for me – not only do I struggle with feeling smart enough, but with weather I belong at all.

  17. Siobhan says:

    Great post Inger!

    I was certainly not the first in my family to go to university. My mother was a teacher and my father a lawyer with a Masters degree. My older sisters both went to university before me too. But I was the first in my family to do a PhD and my family and friends really didn’t understand it. So while I had all the middle class knowledge and skills to fit in, my struggle was more about trying to explain to those back in the ‘mother country’ what this new world was like. Postcards from the edge, if you will.

    I remember one friend, a nurse, saying ‘oh so it’s just like a really big assignment’. Um, no.

    The father of another friend patronisingly said, ‘are you STILL at university?’. Um, sort of.

    While friends and family tried to be supportive, they really didn’t get it. After completing my PhD I worked for two years in the not-for-profit sector, before returning to academia to take up a postdoc. When I told my family and friends that I had been offered a postdoc, they didn’t really understand it. That same friend’s father said ‘do you mean you’re going back to university? Don’t you have enough degrees? Why don’t you just get a job?’. I try to explain that this is my job, but people don’t really get it. If I could say I was a ‘university lecturer’, that would make sense. But saying I’m a ‘research fellow’ doesn’t really translate. I often joke that, when asked what I do for a living, I’m going to start saying ‘I run a brothel’. At least there would be less judgement!!

    My sister recently commenced her own PhD and it is only now that she really understands what I did and what I do now. (It’s as if she’s joined me on a family visa!) It was only when she told a fellow student that her sister was a postdoc (who replied ‘wow! they are really hard to get’) that she understood the magnitude of the situation.

    I often wonder though, how much of this misunderstanding is our own fault. Perhaps academe needs to get better at communicating with the outside world about what we do and why it’s important?

    • Emily Kothe (@emilyandthelime) says:

      This reply really resonated with me, my parents (and 3 of my grandparents) went to university, and I went to an academically selective school which meant that intelligence and study was always very highly prized in my family. But at the same time, my Mum had tendency to discourage TOO much academia. We had quite a few family friends who were academics while my Mum works in banking, meaning that there was quite a big income disparity between my family and their’s. I remember when my Mum would try and explain why so-and-so couldn’t afford to go on that holiday or didn’t have the best new whatsit she’d say in a hushed voice “They’re academics…”. I didn’t really know what an academic was but I knew it wasn’t the way to make money!

      All through my undergraduate studies my parents tried to encourage me to do something that was “commercially applicable” so that I could get a job at the end. It was quite a big deal when Mum called me up one day and said “You know, I wouldn’t mind if you did a PhD”. She’s proud of me and wants me to be happy, but I think she sometimes struggles to know how impressive some things are!

  18. Regan says:

    Interesting discussion thread. I meet the criteria for being an academic migrant, but for me the experience of going to University felt more like ‘coming home’ than visiting a foreign land. Maybe it’s because my parents had quite ‘middle class’ habits and tastes even if they didn’t always have the economic circumstances to match. It was more at my working class high school that I felt like the square peg.

    Some of the jobs my Dad had you’d probably need a degree to get now, but that certainly wasn’t the requirement back then. He often had to do a lot of hosting, wining and dining of clients, etc, so I probably picked up a bit of the social aspects by osmosis. I certainly don’t feel out of place at work dinners, etc.

    I think my ‘migration’ experience actually took place over two generations when you compare my life to that of my grandparents and my parents. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t such a jump for me.

  19. Vijay says:

    Hi Dr “Bogan” Inger:)

    Thanks for the excellent post. I am the first one in my family to go overseas for PhD. My parents were not educated. Since coming from a poor/middle class family I end up in studying governmental school. But am really happy that I made up to this level – I mean, now stand shoulder to shoulder with my private school educated friends. I do think that when it comes to writing and some time even thinking/applying the mind, private school trained got an upper hand (that’s what I felt). I felt that they know many things I never heard of. So am still learning all those tricks of the trade these kids learn at their early stage. When they treat PhD as 9 to 5 job, I have to treat it as my means of livelihood and have to work longer hours – am not complaining. I am enjoying the process but was telling the difference. I guess at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter where one studied provided one is willing to put a bit more hard work and go the extra mile to learn new things.
    Am still learning especially how to use words effectively:)
    Warm wishes
    “Bogan” Vijay (the place where I live is known for more number of Bogans)

  20. Natalie says:

    I think it would be nice to be able to talk to your family about your work and ideas. I think the PhD is a lonely journey.

  21. Aka says:

    Facinating post.

    The gap for Indigenous PhD holders is obviously much further than just completing undergrad and a PhD.

    As the first person in my family to go to uni and also complete a PhD after having only gone to year 9 in a remote, mostly Indigenous student, school, it is obvious that the social fit, or knowledge of mainstream society in general would certainly help in university studies. Knowledge of the academic class system would also be useful.

    Perhaps this ‘class system’ thing can go towards explaining why there are so very few of the 200-250+ Indigenous academic Drs who have any form of secure employment in the tertiary sector, as if employed most are in short term or contract positions.

    I am now doing a second PhD (slightly mad I know). This second PhD arose from my first PhD, where I documented the theory that informs Indigenous Australians in the helping professions. I feel very privileged to have had the community support to have done this.

    However in my first PhD, a few of the people who shared their knowledge with me pointed out that while researchers come and research them, mainstream researchers have never considered that we, Indigenous Australians, might have some questions we would like answered about mainstream culture. It was also suggested that a PhD would be a good way of doing research into mainstream culture as it is more ‘pure’ research and not tied to funding sources etc. So, here I am doing another PhD, life circumstances mean it is do-able for me but – I also figure if I cant get a job with 1 PhD maybe 2 will be a lucky number :).

    Reading the posts on this thread, I was struck with the thought that perhaps some of the commentators might be interested in being interviewed for my 2nd PhD, Shifting the Lens: Indigenous Research into Mainstream Australian Culture, as there seems to be some thought into mainstream Australian culture expressed here. The only requirement for interested participants is that they self-identify as non-Indigenous mainstream Australians.

    Lorraine Muller

    • Cassily Charles says:

      Wow Lorraine – what a fascinating and worthy research topic – I instantly feel like putting my hand up and no doubt you’ll be flooded with interested participants!

    • pikir kool says:

      hey lorraine. im also doing a 2nd PhD, but don’t you think it’d be more fun if you do something completely different from the 1st? i mean if your 1st phd is on linguistics, wouldn’t it be more of an adventure if the 2nd one is on say.. robotics? just my two cents. 🙂

      • Aka says:

        Hello Pikir,
        My 2nd PhD is totally different from my 1st in so many ways. This had to be the case in order to be accepted to do a 2nd. I did have a few ideas for a post doc, or other research projects but this one is just so needed. I do think that it is easier to do a PhD if you are truly interested and committed to the research project. I totally enjoyed most of my 1st PhD.
        On the other hand there are so many interesting subjects that I would love to have the time to study but I didn’t start my undergrad until I was almost 40. I would have to live for another half a dozen life times to do half the things I would like to do 🙂

  22. Carolla says:

    Hmmmm, I like this post. I am both a first-generation academic and PhD student in a long list of ‘first’ things. My mother didn’t finish high school because she got pregnant with me and my dad, I don’t think he even went to high school (I stand corrected). Their story is common for a small village in a Caribbean island where most folks in their time didn’t go to school or dropped out because of pregnancy or some other issue. Those who did graduate from high school just started working immediately after – college/uni life was not an option then. And, strange but true, I will be the first person from my village to get a PhD.

    However, I came from a generation of academics on both sides of my family – all are or have been at some point in the academic ring teaching, in administration, or both. Going to school, for me, was compulsory and it was pretty much all I ever knew for the more than half of my short life (after all I have been in school since I was 2.5 and now I’m 29). My family would have me do nothing else than stick my face in a book 24/7; I assume they want to live vicariously through me. So, I had the support of my family even though academic life beyond high school was a new (and frightening) thing for them.

    Like Inger, they taught me how to be cultured and not ‘country’ as we so lovingly call it on the beautiful Caribbean island of Dominica so I was able to blend in nicely with everyone when I started undergrad in the US. My getting a PhD is just as important to them as it to me and it is one of the things that keeps me motivated while on this journey. As times changed, people including some family members, have gone back to school and got a diploma, certificate, training, and more recently bachelor’s degrees. I know my parents and even those members of my family who have gone back to college will NEVER be able to tell me how to do my my PhD (thankfully since they tell me how to do everything else). As a matter of fact if you ask my mother what I’m studying, all she will be able to muster is “a PhD”. This is not because she is not interested but my thesis topic alone is enough to give her a concussion. I am looking forward to the hour-long or more conversation where I may have to break down the entire thesis to her once I graduate.

    I am really thankful for the support of my family and I know being a migrant academic has its difficulties. Many of the females from my community who went to school with have not been so fortunate; most of them dropped out of high school and those who graduated either struggled to find a job or went to community college (and those were a very few). My uni colleagues think I’m smart (whatever that is) but I know it is more than that. They often have hundreds of questions about how I made the transition and the answer is the same every time – though I have grown to be cultured, I still haven’t forgotten how to be ‘country’.

  23. Barry Peddycord III says:

    I’m also a first-generation academic: fresh out of undergrad and into the world of the PhDs to pursue fame, fortune, and academic freedom. I’m actually the first person to pursue a PhD from my high school (which is cheating since I was in the second graduating class, ^_^).

    The weird thing is that I never felt like I belonged until reaching graduate school. I always felt uncomfortably out of place around my colleagues during undergrad – while they were talking about getting interviews and doing internships, I was envious of them… not because they were doing what I wasn’t doing, but that they had more conviction about the life they’ve decided to live and I still hadn’t really figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

    Since entering “academia”, that couldn’t be clearer to me: I connect more easily with my fellow grad students, I enjoy the process of reading, writing, research, and teaching, and most importantly, I feel as though I’m in control. Of course that doesn’t mean it will always stay that way, but I feel like I’m where I need to be right now, which is a very comforting feeling to have.

    My parents are proud of me, but I think grad school defied their expectations since they were hoping I’d get a job that would end up… you know… making money.

  24. pikir kool says:

    contrary to popular belief, having parents with PhD might not be so bad after all. my parents introduced me to research when i was 12. we talked about experimental design and what not during dinner as opposed to transformers or spiderman.

    since then, they have always portrayed PhD as something FUN. they even invited me to join some of the intellectual discussions held in campus. this has taught me that stern and seemingly snobbish professors are not to be frightened. they’re just cool people who speak in their own language.

    i guess the issue is not whether your parents have PhD or not. rather, whether they can be supportive in cultivating the innovative culture in you.

  25. Juna Tan says:

    I’m an academic migrant at undergraduate, masters and PhD. My parents graduated from high school and worked hard to give us a good education. But we moved all the time (in the agriculture industry) and lived in little rural town where my sis and I were either the only kids of Chinese descent, or (in some towns) the only Chinese kids who didn’t speak Mandarin (we spoke the Hokkien dialect and English at home). In my undergrad days, I had no idea university was about research, had no study skills and largely got through with lots of luck and by following my parents’ advice to swot for exams.

    My dad was a voracious reader and had lots of science and current affair magazines and books. He planted in my sister and I a love for books and I think inspired my curiosity about everything. Hence my interest in research. While my mom drilled into us the need to be able to work and support ourselves. Not to depend on anyone else. For that I have the utmost gratitude to them both.

  26. debwain says:

    How wonderful to read everyone’s stories & I really like your term of ‘academic migrant’, Inger. By the time I started my similarly practical undergrad studies to become a teacher, neither of my parents had been to uni (Mum, a nurse when training was hospital-based & Dad, an aircraft engineer). And until I started uni, they were both the best educated in their families.

    I don’t know about disadvantages in terms of what you know but I do detect there is a distinct ‘something’ missing in terms of what I believe I can do. I loved writing as a child & I read like it was breathing but I knew nobody whose job it was to write & therefore it didn’t enter my head that I could. Similarly, I now have a little bit of hesitation thinking of myself as an academic because I’ve had no role-models as such. I think in both cases, I looked up to these roles and therefore didn’t aspire to them because they seemed so ‘otherworldly’ to me. It’s an interesting and challenging place to be… migrant, explorer, adventurer.

  27. Idaliya Vasilyeva says:

    Thanks for such a wonderful post! Having read all the previous comments, I feel relieved that I’m not alone, I’m just one of a big family of academic migrants 🙂
    I’m indeed the first one in my family to go to grad school. Now, the terms are slightly different, because I live, study and work in Russia, so I’m getting a “candidate’s degree”, which is basically the same as PhD, in linguistics.
    My parents have been very supportive, but my large family don’t fully get the concept of doing a PhD. They don’t realise it’s hard work and think if I’m at home, I’m not working.
    But the main problem is with me. I really lack the skills for research, which I try to make up for by reading books, blogs and talking to a couple successfull students that I know. Sadly, most fellow grad students are even in worse shape than me. I often lose the perspective. As everyone works outside of the academia and earns more it’s a little discouraging too. Said that, I’ve noticed that 2nd generation PhD students don’t even hesitate whether they need it or not. I’ve heard a lot: “What else are going to do? go to industry? teach at secondary school? It’s not as good as beeing a researcher”. Well, I don’t have this inbred belief.
    I remember studying with a 3rd generation academic at undergraduate level. It really shows 🙂 He would skip lectures he was not interested in and go to the library instead to work on his own project. We all had individual assignments and papers to write, but he treated his own research as the most important thing in the world. Quite often I had to help him just to pass the tests… But finally his thesis was exceptional, he had quite a few publications when he graduated and got into 2 grad schools simultaneously, in Russia and in Europe. I lost his track now, but damn sure he’s doing OK. That’s the way to go if your father and grandfather are worldknown researchers.
    But I agree that trudging through a PhD for the first time is very hard but rewarding and eye-opening. You can choose whatever models you want to follow and get out of parents’ control in this area. I think in the long run the differences between self-made and “hereditary” academics are erased. Do you agree?

  28. berlinickerin says:

    This post really hits home for me and actually clears a few things up in my head. So thank you very much!

    Both my father and my sister went to university but both majored in arts (not art history but doing arts – how is that called in English?). So I was the first one to actually go into academics and the first one to tackle a PhD. Maybe because I was brought up with literature (my mother worked in a book store and still surrounds herself with books, books, books) I never had problems writing, not with the language nor the structure of a paper or a thesis. And since my parents already made the leap to middle-class I also did not face your challenges with food things etc. But where I think the first generation-experience gets me after all is with my complete naivete when it comes to how academia actually works. The networking, the small talking, the publishing – I still would like to have a manual, please. 😀

  29. Lyndsey Jenkins (@Middysmrs) says:

    This was a lovely piece, nice to see someone who feels the way I do! I am too the first in my family to go to university (at all). My parents completed basic school education… my father went into a more vocational profession and my mother went straight into work after school. Not one person in my family has gone to university and most (like the relatives aorund my age) have not even gone to college. I really did not want to do this. At college, I was pushed into going to uni, and even stuck in a classroom full of teachers/lecturers who tried to literally force me to apply to the best 3 universities in England… obviously not the most fantastic decision they made. My parents are the most supportive ever. They always say that if I ever need help with my degree (I have an undergrad and Masters degree) just to ask, but I cant ask about the course content as they do not ahve the academic knowledge of this. In a way, I feel that this is a good thing. They do not and have not pushed me into any education.. they have provided valuable support in any applications I have submitted and have always gone by their rule of ‘always try your best, not for anyone else, just for you!’. this is one thing I admire greatly. My college was just a regular state/public college, not private school, so when they were presented with students who MAY get accepted into universities such as Durham, Oxford or Cambridge they tried to push the students into applying for these universities and tried to convince them that this was the best thing for the student. This is not good. I often tihnk that I am privilaged to be able to choose what direction my edication goes without having the added pressure of family chosing for me… and I know my parents are proud of what I have achieved (when I got accepted into Durham for my MSc my Dad had pretty much everyone he knew told before he returned home from work – thats his way of saying he is proud!).
    So, now, as a PhD applicant (also at Durham) I now feel that I have the experience of skills required for academia as well as all of he other skills/knowledge of non-academia… and have been able to develop these myself throughout my education without the added pressure of ‘you must do well’.

  30. Lisa says:

    Hi Inger,

    I’m about to start a PhD on a topic around these issues in the Australian context. I’d be happy to email you some resources that I think you will find useful.

  31. HVS says:

    I’m in the UK, and one of the first generation in my family to go through any sort of higher education, so I guess I definitely qualify as a migrant. I found getting used to being at university for my first degree very hard; it came as a shock just how big the culture shock was! Since then I’ve expected to have to work at finding my niche in new environments, both academic and industrial / commercial, and had some idea in advance how to go about it, so it hasn’t felt so alarming.

  32. Nisha Ray Chaudhuri says:

    I would proudly wear the banner of the ‘academic migrant’. I think i like that it is that way, i would have been most annoyed to have parents who constantly reminded me how they had gone about their doctorates. I think the journey of self discovery is much more fun, despite being paved with many failures.
    Not only am I an academic migrant, but academia was always my first choice as a career.

  33. Elizabeth says:

    Neither of my parents even went to secondary school and although I went straight into undergraduate after school it has taken me 20 years to start a PhD. The most difficult hurdle I faced was the notion that you are either smart or you’re not. I was identified early as ‘smart.’ No-one in my extended family had any experience of education and so didn’t really understand that knowledge is learned, so I never ‘learned’ (ie studied) anything! I did better than everyone else at my (as I now realise very poor) school and so continued to feel ‘smart.’ This arrogance endured until I met my now husband, who was the child of educated parents, got firsts in everything but also studied very hard. This was a revelation for me. Unfortunately study takes practice to be effective and it was only when I went on to professional training after my degree that I got the hang of it. Even now I have to constantly remind myself that the thesis will not magically appear in my head, I have to work at it. I don’t think universities recognise that they have very able students who underperform because they just don’t understand that being ‘smart’ is not enought, you gotta study.

  34. liammoorecoaching says:

    Hi Inger,
    I have recently completed my thesis for an MA in Coaching and Mentoring Practice in the UK (your ‘Why you might be stuck’ post was very useful). I did a narrative analysis of the learning experience of people on the course which was prompted by a desire to understand my own learning history and processes.

    I had had mixed experiences of education after the age of 16 – doing poorly at A-level and failing my undergrad dissertation the first time round – and these experiences impacted on my perception of myself as an academic learner. I noted your comment about ‘study skills’ and that was quite apt for me too. I hadn’t got to the point of discussing the influence of the lack of educational experience on my parents part – and perhaps took it for granted – so this is great for further reflection.

    I noticed someone above mentioned Bourdieu’s notion of Habitus and you asked about specific PhD level stuff. *Fenge (2010) uses Bourdieu’s Habitus in writing about her experience of doing a practical doctorate and considers her own academic background.

    There’s a bunch of other stuff that I’ve referenced that might be useful so if you’re interested drop me a line and I can send my references list. And I’d be happy to chat about it further.

    Either way, good luck. It’s a great subject!

    *Fenge (2010) ‘Sense and sensibility: making sense of a Professional Doctorate,’ Reflective Practice, Vol. 11, No. 5, pp. 645-656

  35. Belinda says:

    mmm this post really made me think not only about the fact that I am a first generation PhD student and undergrad student that went to a public school and a rural university, but also the fact I was and probably still am an average student. I was lucky if I managed a credit average at university, the only HD I received in my entire degree was my honours thesis.

    I never received outstanding comments on any of my school reports and everything I have succeeded in is because opportunities were there and I had the attitude of ‘well I’ll have a go’. I still feel I am where I am today because they couldn’t find anyone else to do the job.

    My parents and partner were so very proud of me and what I was achieving that I probably couldn’t have pulled out of my undergrad or PhD even if I wanted to because I couldn’t let them down. However, I also feel that because it was never expected that I would be a first generation undergrad and PhD student, something in me wanted to prove I could be.

    I still tell my students today, it’s determination that gets you there not smarts and I am a pretty stubborn person when I want to be. However, I do think my determined/stubborn side was probably born from my working class upbringing. If it had of been easier maybe I wouldn’t have been so stubborn? I think also when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, that in itself can be a luxury.

    Thanks for such a thought provoking post 🙂

  36. Carlos A. Rivera says:

    And that is not even taking into account the cultural shock of migrating from México to the UK only to realise that being a straight-A student in your own country doesn’t means much when you cannot perform analysis that are suppose to be easy even for a 1st year undergraduate student.

    Add to that being immerse in a different culture, trying to speak a different language (that you thought you knew) and living in a town with high levels of discrimination against foreigners.

    It reminds me of this:

  37. The British Asian Blog says:

    You have written a fantastic post, one which includes the memories of so many people who either are children of migrants or 1st generation who entered the alien world of PhD research.

    In my case, I’m a PhD student, my parents are migrants who came into the UK to fill the economic gap and labour short fall following two World Wars. My father was immensely educated for his age, and despite my mother never really achieving success as my father did, both sacrificed almost everything to ensure their children got that opportunity which they never got, they took risks so big that it could have potentially disadvantaged the entire family for live – only to ensure our education was correct.

    As a result, me and my siblings being the 1st/2n generation realised at a young age that we had to give it all we had, more than 100% to make sure we didn’t disappoint our parents and ensured that their risks and sacrifices were all worth it. Despite graduating from University with a degree where I was one of 5 people with the highest pass mark, I continued to follow a post-graduate Masters – all the while working part time ever day throughout my studies – often finding study time late evening and early hours of the morning. On completion of my Masters, not only did I succeed in getting my first real job which related to my degree and masters, but I managed to launch a little business venture, where till date has grown successfully and has now branched out to few other businesses – yet I still strive and succeed in my profession. A few years into my career, I realised I wanted to do more – that fire inside me still raged and I then decided to go back into further post-graduate research studies, and therefore enrolled onto a PhD research program but on a part time basis.

    I am now half way through my research programme, and I now contemplate a career in academia and teaching/researching at the University, all the same trying to integrate my profession into it somehow. Should I be awarded a PhD, I have no plans on pulling the plug, for I have that same fire in achieving my next objective which is the title of a ‘Professor’.

  38. Thesis Whisperer says:

    Thanks to everyone for such amazing, detailed and honest comments on this post. I knew this topic was dear to my own heart, so I’m glad it resonated with many of you too. You have all given me a lot to think about and no doubt I will be following up on many of the points you raised in further posts. Thanks again – you are an amazing bunch of people, truly.

  39. kurisu says:

    I’m also a first generation academic – although I still don’t really consider myself one. I’m a PhD student nearing submission, and so much of what has been said here resonates with me.

    As far as I know, I’m the only one in my extended family to have ever been to university, let alone start (and hopefully receive!) a doctorate. That determination that comes from not letting your family down, the completely ‘hands off’ approach that everyone in my family takes to what I’m doing, down to feeling distanced from them because of it is all stuff I’ve felt before.

    That ‘imposter syndrome’ really resonates as well – there’s something about not having ‘lived with’ the persona of myself as an academic for a long enough time that sticks with me. Perhaps those with academic parents/private school education would have had a longer time to sit with the idea of being an “ideas person”, and are therefore are a bit more comfortable with it?

    As someone who has come from a previous, non-academic working life too, I’ll be really curious to see how my degree will be viewed when I head back to industry. Like I said, I’ve never really considered a career in academia, and I still don’t see myself being in it long term. I find myself making plans to work for myself though, which I think is partly due to not wanting to give up that intellectual freedom I’ve learnt to love, but also definitely related to seeing my parents work so hard over the years.

    Seems like I can’t shake either influence now. All I know is that doing a phd has been transformative for me in ways beyond just gaining the knowledge that’s attached to it.

    Entrenched curiosity!

  40. Kelly Taylor says:

    Great, thoughtful post Inger, and one that really resonated with me as it apparently has with countless of others. While I am not the first in my family to go to university – my mum’s a primary school teacher (although got her qualifications in the days of teachers’ colleges), as is one of my (many, many) cousins – I am the first to go onto honours, and now a PhD. I guess not having someone tell you how to write your introduction or whatever is a bonus, but personally I would really like it if a family member (or even friend!) knew the work that is required to go into a doctoral thesis. I’m just coming up to the end of my first year, and I already have my mum telling me I’m working too hard or spending too much time at uni (why can’t I do this at home? why can’t I take a break? why can’t I take the day off?), my younger sister complaining that I don’t spend enough time with her, and my friend expecting me to be able to take a day off to socialise, because she has the day off and surely what I’m doing can be postponed for another day? Writing a humanities thesis with a heavy application of theory as well, my hours and days of looking at the computer thinking, or reading lots and lots of books, doesn’t exactly look like hard work. (My older sister, when I told her that I would be spending that day reading, once said ‘Well, you’ve really got the easy life, don’t you?’). They are, of course, proud of me and what I have achieved so far, but it is difficult when the people you love have such difficulty understanding what it is you’re doing (or even why). It certainly adds to the imposter syndrome, of which I am a sufferer. However, my supervisors have kind of taken me to task (in a good way!), saying that there’s nothing to suggest that I don’t belong or am not good enough, and any negative thoughts simply have to be let go of (or it will become much more of a hurdle for me to overcome). At the end of the day, it’s them I have to listen to, and so I just keep reminding myself that I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t deserve to be!

  41. preganaidoo says:

    this was so cool to read, i work at a university in the department of e-learning, i find my self consistently surrounded by words of masters and Phd students experiences, and also thinking of registering for a masters in Information Technology.


  42. Christine Healey says:

    Hi Inger,
    What a great post, thank you. I’m the first (and only) person in my generation to complete a degree. Of my three children, one is completing her MA, another completed honours last year, and the third dropped out part way through year 12. Go figure! At high school my dream was to go to university and become a teacher. My parents said that a university education was only for the privileged and would be wasted on a girl anyway. My dad went to grade 2 and mum to year 9. I went from being a straight A student to failing year 12 and spent most of my life being very embarrassed by that. My teachers were the only people I ever knew that went to university, certainly my parents didn’t know anyone. I married, had children then got divorced, and the time came for big life choices so I bravely decided to go to uni. I had no experience (or confidence) so needed to complete a diploma first. Then I got into a bachelor degree course. I loved it and discovered I wasn’t as stupid as I had always thought. Although being a mature age student, I never really fitted in socially. A dip ed followed and I couldn’t get a job, so I kept studying and taking short term contracts. This year I started a PhD and am back to feeling completely isolated, overwhelmed and lost. I’ll keep faking it and see how far it gets me.

  43. Cat Mitchell says:

    Kia ora Inger,

    It was great to read about your experiences of being an ‘academic migrant’. Your comments resonate with me and my research interests as a first generation student now studying for a PhD in Aotearoa/New Zealand. My own experiences of being the first member of my family to go to University have provided me with the inspiration for my doctoral work. I have recently completed my first year of study and my thesis is focused on first generation students experiences of doctoral education (It’s currently titled, although I expect it may change, ‘What are the dreams and promises of doctoral education for first generation students? A narrative analysis of doctoral student experiences in the discipline of education’). Reading the responses to your blog demonstrates to me that there is lots of interest in this topic. It has also provided me with much food for thought!


  44. Kelly Dombroski says:

    Yep. What they said.
    And kiaora Cat, your research sounds great.

    In my hometown in the Wairarapa of Aotearoa/NZ the distinction between private and public schools is not so strong.. one of the major public secondary schools has a long history and runs a bit like a private boarding school, and there are an equal amount of private and public schools, many with boarding facilities to provide for farmers’ kids. I went to a semi-private Catholic school (in that it had extremely low fees and was not limited to the ‘privileged’). It was very small and nicely messed up the class boundaries for most stuff (although looking back now I can see there were some class-based cliques but we didn’t really know that was why….). I think that absolutely helped me in fitting in to university, since my parents also didn’t complete secondary school and I went to primary school in an underprivileged school with few resources and pretty bad teaching. Although I didn’t start drinking real coffee til university either 🙂

    But on the other hand, my background absolutely informs my research perspective, as I feel drawn to focusing on minority and marginalised groups in society and feel the importance of questioning the norms and concerns of middle-class society. I also think it contributes to my teaching, as I now seek to instil an awareness of inequality and its social reproduction in my first year privileged students. But on the other hand there is a big gap between them and me — I paid for my undergraduate education through loans and fulltime manual labour in a vineyard every uni holidays, and I scrimped through flatting, eating weetbix for dinner, and not going out clubbing. My degree was something I really really had to work for and I loved every minute of it (once I switched from engineering to environmental studies that is!). I am totally bewildered by the number of students I have (in Sydney) that treat my fascinating unit as boring 🙂 and are more interested in getting the marking criteria so they can wangle a grade than absorbing every interesting bit of information I have to share with them (OK so maybe I am not as interesting as I think I am 🙂

    I have a theory that the public school students actually do better in my unit than the
    private school ones, because I teach and identify with their concerns, and they also don’t push my buttons as badly (with those expectations of exam tips, perfect marking criteria and correctly aligned curriculum with a focus on assessment rather than learning). I relate better to stduents that are interested and respond to the material, and I think they do better becasue of that. Although I do try to manage my annoyance and produce good criteria 🙂

  45. lizkzn1 says:

    Hi there, great post. I did my doc study on the stories of ten women pursuing PhDs, and your observations are right on the mark, in line with what the stories revealed. PaperHeaDs, living doctoral study” is the book from the thesis. It’s set in South Africa, and documents the conceptual and ontological thresholdswe lived through over eight years. Thanks. Liz Harrison

  46. robyn74 says:

    Dear Fellow Migrants! Thanks so much for this post and your comments. I too had a hard time at uni as a ‘first in the family’ . My alienation extended to in extracurriculum activities. Having ex-miltary parents was not cool in the left-wing activists clubs i joined or my social circle. On our first meeting, my uni boyfriend’s liberal inner city parents asked me what my parents did. I cheerfully replied that my dad was a security guard and my mum a child care worker. It was only about 5 years ago that i worked out what they were doing.

    Although my parents couldn’t help me navigate the world of uni (we watched the Goodies at dinner rather than debate Foucault); without their support and pride I would not be pursuring a PhD.

    Having “working class roots” does give you street cred; and i agree it helps you cut through the crap. I just got back from an overseas conference, felt ‘uncentred’ from all the waffle and name dropping. so i did what i usually do to get back to earth; bought some junk food and a trashy mag and listened to heavy metal, i was all refreshed and ready for the next day. Better go, have a fresh copy of Rollingstone to crack open… Robyn 😉

    • justine says:

      Nice! I’m second generation, but grew up rural and can totally relate (my PhD mum never ‘got’ Foucault). I don’t have a doctorate, I keep finding excuses. Probably too anxious about my mother’s offhand critical comments.

  47. Valerie says:

    I just found this article (and your blog as well!). I love it! I’m an academic migrant too – neither my parents nor their siblings went to college. Besides adaptation, I’ve also had to deal with explaining to my relatives what I do and why I chose this path. My parents, like your dad, are thrilled that I pursued a Ph.D., but the extended family doesn’t understand why I’m still a student at age 30 instead of finding a husband and having children.

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