Too poor for science

I went to an awesome conference in my subfield a few weeks ago. The location was gorgeous, I got my own room, the talks were all well prepared and about stuff I’m gaga over. There were enough acquaintances attending to feel comfortable and enough new folks to make some useful connections. Plus, the conference sponsors gave away lots of free and super nerdy books.

I also got to interact a lot more with two postdocs from my university who I had developed little science crushes on and started to really admire. When I prepare for discussion groups, I try to work through the material as deeply as they do. When people ask me questions, I try to respond as carefully and thoughtfully as they do. When they say a book really made an impression on them, I go read it. So, naturally, I was pretty excited to spend more time with them.

The thing about role models, though, is that they can really let you down.

I took a walk with these postdocs after a long day of talks. Somehow the conversation turned from cool research in my subfield to poverty and homelessness. Specifically, how the homeless people one postdoc saw couldn’t possibly be homeless because they were sitting out in the rain instead of finding shelter. Then the other postdoc jumped in, and suddenly they were talking about how annoying it is to have to walk around homeless people on the sidewalk, how offensive it is for homeless people to ask you for money, and just generally being disparaging of the poor and especially the homeless.

I’ve never been homeless, but we were poor enough that my mom used to put water in the milk to make it go a little further. I’m now one of the most financially stable people in my family, and I’m a fucking graduate student. My family isn’t lazy or buying lots of fancy toys, they’re just really unlucky. (Things are a little better for them now. With a lot of hard work and a little good luck, they aren’t putting water in the milk anymore. My mom even saved enough money a few years ago to visit me!)

Anyway, at some point in the last six months, I’d started to identify with these postdocs, to see some part of myself in them. And that made me feel more confident (or at least hopeful) about my own potential. When they started talking about the poor like they had some sort of disease, all that vanished. Suddenly, they were just impossibly clever and talented people that I had nothing in common with.

Later I got angry, told myself how ignorant and privileged they were and got right back to doing my work and loving it.

But in the moment, I couldn’t say anything to them. Instead, I just muttered an excuse and took a different trail, irrationally terrified that if I opened my mouth they would know that I’d been poor. Being poor is nothing to be ashamed of, but when people talk like those postdocs it is so hard not to be hurt and humiliated. If I hadn’t looked up to them, personally and professionally, it would have been easier for me to deal with their poor-people trashing. I still would have been hurt and angry, but I wouldn’t have spent even a second questioning my ability to do my job.



  1. Mike says:

    I was just talking to my inamorata about how for years when I was a kid my family ate off plates that came out of dog food bags.

    I don’t remember the brand of dog food, but sometime during the early 80s a manufacturer included a “free” plate or sometimes a bowl in each bag of dog food. They were yellow and hideous to behold, but they cost us nothing.

    And that’s the brand we bought anyway, so we ended up with probably a dozen or so of these dishes of indestructible plastic that were better than what we’d had before (they matched! and there were more than three of them!).

    I had at the time no idea how odd this must have seemed to non-poor people and I thought nothing of it. But looking back at it now, after I’ve been economically secure for a long time, it seems completely bizarre to me and yet not, as that was another version of me who remembers that time quite well.

    About the post-docs, people I’ve wanted to like have said similar things around me before and that does make it really hard to do so. I remember all too well what it’s like to be teased because of my old Wal-Mart shoes and my lack of anything considered fashionable. I remember helping my mom look for change in the couch cushions to buy food until payday.

    I’m so glad my dad somehow found the money to buy a computer, no matter how crappy it was (which is probably why there was no food in the house for like two years), because that changed everything about my life. That, and libraries.

  2. Donutszenmom says:

    Disappointing. Luckily, you’ll be able to serve as a role model one day who does NOT disappoint grad students with your secret ignorance. I’m happy you put this in perspective and got back to loving your work.

    • Sarcozona says:

      I think one good thing that will come from having these kind of experiences is that I am so much less likely to inflict them on others!

  3. I identify with this very strongly. Academics often don’t realize how incredibly privileged they are, and how alienating that can of talk can be. It brings to mind the recent ECOLOG discussions where people equated wage freezes and benefits roll-backs with the plight of the working poor. I also had a colleague of mine, when I told what I thought was a funny anecdote involving my working class family members (not as a caricature!) say “I’ve never even TALKED to people like that.” I didn’t even know how to respond. 

  4. Natasha says:

    Thank you for this very relatable article. I am just an MA student at the moment, but lately I’ve been confronted with the question on whether or not I want to continue with a PhD. I feel too afraid to even try really. I grew up on welfare basically, or rather what was left of it after alcohol was accounted for. I often need to lend my parents and brother money that I don’t have and I really feel I am without a safety net in pursuing my academic interests. I look at my feet when childhood experiences or holidays are discussed. I cannot afford to socialize, or do fieldwork abroad (which is quite the fundamental experience for someone studying archaeology). I am realizing I have aimed too high for someone with my background and I wish someone would have told me in high school about these class hurdles in stead of the usual “you can become whatever you want to be”. The weight of these realizations is really crushing my motivation and pushing me into depression. My Uni seems to have brought greater attention to mental health issues among students, but I feel it is often seen in a kind of vacuum, a personal chemical imbalance, and completely unrelated to socio-economic factors. I feel that at least in my case these things go hand in hand.

    • Sarcozona says:

      Oh I just want to send you a huge hug! I’m so sorry.

      I understand feeling too afraid to even try. The risks are so high when we don’t have a good safety net, but it feels devastating to stop because it feels like that limits the chances of building our own good safety net.

      You aren’t wrong or alone in noticing that <a href=""depression often isn't an individual problem but a structural one.

      You might find something useful in some of the writing on TSW about coming from a poor background. I wrote a longer version of this post over there and Acclimatrix wrote on the topic as well.

      Feel free to email me as well.

    • Gregory says:

      Oh boy, I can relate to this totally. I too grew up on welfare and am in a PhD program around peers who are more affluent than me. My mothers keeps asking me for money, but I really cannot afford to lend to her all of the time. I actually have a record of all the money I sent to her and it’s nearly $1,000. For me, there is no safety net and I have no choice but to look out for myself. It’s often difficult to talk about because few can relate and get uncomfortable when issues about social class come up.

      • sarcozona says:

        Getting a good fellowship was complicated for me because I wanted to help my family so much, but there wasn’t really “extra.” The lack of a social safety net for us and those we care for makes it very hard to succeed in academia for those from poor backgrounds.

  1. […] and sarcozona have posted about economic background and academia (respectively here and here).  There are obviously many groups of under-represented scholars that lie outside the defined […]

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