A field guide to privilege in marine science: some reasons why we lack diversity


After I successfully defended my Ph.D., and as I and packed up my belongings to move across the country for a new job (more on that in a later post), I’ve been reflecting on privilege in marine science. The word “privilege” often makes people turn away, afraid of being made to feel guilty and scolded. Certainly these discussions are way less fun than talking about the latest wonderful ocean discovery. But by driving people away from science, we are missing out on so much talent and so many wonderful discoveries, and so I want to use this post to detail some of the invisible barriers that are keeping talented people out of our field.

To quote from the excellent Finally, A Feminism 101 blog:

Privilege, at its core, is the advantages that people benefit from based solely on their social status. It is a status that is conferred by society to certain groups, not seized by individuals, which is why it can be difficult sometimes to see one’s own privilege.

Scientists don’t always recognize the additional barrers, besides hard work, that prevent people from succeeding at science. My perspective on this is as a person from a non-professional middle class family (father a small business owner, mother a physical therapist) who went to mediocre public schools and then to an Ivy League college. My family was well off by the standards of our town – homeowners, two cars, regular vacations within the USA- but nowhere near the financial level that was the norm for a prestigious private college. Entering college was quite a shock, both academically and socially. I have never forgotten that terrible feeling of inadequacy, and I was already coming from a white college-educated family in the middle class. It’s much, much more difficult for people, particularly those of color, coming out of working-class and poor households.

Here, I present a short field guide to type of privilege that I’ve observed in science, and explain why becoming a scientist becomes immensely more difficult for people without that form of privilege. This is aimed at professors, since academia is my experience, but please add your own perspective in the comments.

Before college [added 24 Jan 2013 18:3o PT]

David Shiffman made the excellent point in the comments:

I’d also consider adding pre-undergraduate experiences (summer science camps, internships, etc) which help getting into an undergraduate college with a good science program in the first place. They’re also a good way to get people excited about science at an early age. However, these are expensive (though many have scholarships, there’s still an opportunity cost associated with not working).

David’s absolutely correct – summer experience before college set many scientists on the path. I participated in two no-cost summer programs as a high school student: the University of New Hampshire Math & Marine Science program (which no longer exists), and in the Earthwatch Student Fellowship program. The Math & Marine Science program took me to Shoals Marine Lab, which blew my mind with awesomeness, kept me taking science classes, and indirectly got me involved with my undergraduate lab (a long story involving student theater & Jarrett Byrnes).

Another obstacle that comes up in high school is Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. Entering college with credit are a great help with completing the many class requirements of a science major. However, many schools do not offer these programs – my high school didn’t.

Alison notes the lack of stability in science:

In my experience, high school students from lower income backgrounds, even those who are interested in math and science, are wary of starting down a career path where they are not likely to be financially stable for 10 years. They often feel guilty about attending a four year school or leaving home to go to college because they won’t be helping their families during that time. Just the idea that this financial uncertainty might extend for many more years excludes a grad school path for many of them.

Undergraduate research experiences

The main pathway to becoming a scientist is through research experiences as an undergraduate. However, many of these cost substantial amounts of money, or at least don’t pay enough to fulfill financial aid work/study requirements. Barriers for undergraduates include:

  • Research that costs money to participate in, even if that money is just for equipment or room/board. This is extremely common in the field sciences, like ecology & geology.
  • Volunteer research that prevents a student from making money. Remember that most financial aid packages REQUIRE a student to make a certain amount of money over the summer. If they aren’t getting paid to do research, then they are either adding to their debt or working two jobs, neither of which is setting them up for scientific success.
  • Transportation. I had a Research Experience for Undergraduate internship (REU) that required me to have a car, which I was fortunately able to borrow from my grandfather for the summer. This REU launched my independent research career, but I would not have been able to participate at all had my grandfather not coincidentally become unable to drive at that time.
  • Family expectations. Many undergraduates are expected to help out their families, by caring for younger relatives, doing household chores, and making money for shared costs. It is therefore more difficult for them to have as flexible a schedule as undergraduates who do not have these responsibilities. They may not be able to stay late or come in on weekends.
  • In the comments, Stacy notes:

    I would like to point out another thing that I think is a really big barrier — not KNOWING that you SHOULD BE seeking out opportunities to do research as an undergrad.

    Similarly, SMA says:

    As a first-generation, minority, female student I would have never ever done something like apply for an REU, let alone graduate school (who goes to grad school?! No one I knew)…I very well may have never gone to graduate school if it wasn’t for programs that were aimed for people like me.

It’s really important to remember that undergraduates – particularly the driven and responsible undergraduates most likely to succeed in science –  often don’t want to explain the details of their financial and logistical difficulties to their professors. They may mysteriously turn down opportunities that seem perfect, or not show up to lab activities. For my REU that required a car, I certainly did not wish to explain to my intimidating PI that I had no way of getting to the marine lab – I wanted desperately to appear worthy and responsible. This is why it’s important for professors to think about the invisible barriers that might be preventing certain talented students from success.

Graduate school

Graduate school can be much easier to navigate than undergraduate, simply because expenses are paid from fellowships and grants. (Though see Jessica’s comment.) The major invisible difficulty that I’ve observed has been the reimbursement process. It’s common practice for people to spend their own money on scientific supplies and then apply for reimbursement from their grant, actually receiving the money 3-8 weeks later. For people without substantial cash flow, this can lead to credit card debt and future problems.

[EDIT 11:05 AM ET]: Oh man, I can’t believe I forgot LGBTQ-ness! Science is social and people are going to meet your partner. It’s a privilege to be certain that your advisor/committee/classmates won’t be (at best) nervous and awkward around your partner.

Britt adds in the comments:

Coming at this from a field biology perspective, I think there is a big privilege issue related to socialization and cultural fit. We literally live with our bosses. PIs tend to pick RAs and students they feel comfortable around, because otherwise the field season will be terrible. But that privileges students who are already equipped with middle class intellecutal tools and experience, to get each others jokes and get along.

Post-graduate school

Oh, the real world come crashing down again! But frankly, some aspects of the post-doc life are worse for post-doc than they are for non-science fulltime employment.

  • Work-family balance. This has been amply written about elsewhere, but many late-20s & 30s people are partnered and have children. This means they can’t just pick up and move anywhere there is a job. Having a partner who WILL move with you is a privilege! Especially a partner who takes care of domestic work so that you can just do your science.
  • Debt. Many post-doc jobs pay rather poorly, and students with substantial debt (e.g., from not working in the summer during their undergrad so that they could do science!) may be unable to stay in science.
  • Health insurance (USA only). This is the one that really blindsided me, and is causing me substantial problems right now. Some fellowships do not give you access to group health insurance, but require you to purchase health insurance on the individual market.  This makes health insurance impossible or unaffordable for fellows with a health history – for example, people who have common conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, mental health problems, or in remission for cancer. People with disabilities are likely also to be excluded, and women of childbearing age have to purchase a separate maternity policy, penalizing them. In my case, I had a pancreatic tumor when I was 17, which led to major hospitalization and surgeries, and has made me difficult to insure ever since. (I have a couple awesome pirate-ly scars, at least!) My husband and I have spent weeks trying to figure this out, but may be forced to spend over $13,000 just on health insurance this year. Since health insurance and travel funds come out of the same pool, my health insurance difficulties may prevent me from traveling for work, leading to lack of future opportunity. Stay tuned!

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I’m very interested in hearing from people from different backgrounds and at different career stages. Please comment, and I’ll add relevant comments to this post.

General comments

Erin notes the importance of culture. Erin says:

In my opinion, even if people have the financial means to pursue environmental/marine science as a field of study and career, they may not believe this type of work has the same sense of stability and prestige as the fields of medicine, business, technology, etc. Studying the ocean or the environment just simply doesn’t seem practical to most people from immigrant communities – more of a hobby than a profession.

Other perspectives [updated 24 Jan 18:30 PT]

A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door good. By Danielle Lee.

Who I am, since #IAmScience. By Jennifer Biddle

Miriam Goldstein (230 Posts)

74 Replies to “A field guide to privilege in marine science: some reasons why we lack diversity”

  1. I am running into the age factor, and it is blatant. As a child of 1960’s and 70’s small town America I was actively steered away from science. One bad math experience after two years of doing well, and it was suddenly, “Oh, she’s a girl. Girls are bad at math.”, not, “Hey, what happened, here? You were doing so well, and this year it all fell apart. Let’s see if we can get you back on track.”
    My mother, the school system all decided I was going to be a Spanish teacher like my mother, and there was nothing I could do about it, and anyway, I didn’t have the math skills for science. Reading science fiction and talking physics with my dad? That was just for fun. I wasn’t smart enough.
    Yeah. I ended up a college drop out, working as a bank clerk in a dead end job, wishing I had been a doctor or an astronaut.
    Fortunately, I married the best man in the world, who helped me see what a brilliant mind I had. I used it to raise two autistic kids, and then I lost my wonderful husband to cancer.
    After two years of grieving I am now going back to school to study animal behavior and animal human relations, but I keep running into the old, “well, you can’t get a PhD, because you will be too old to use it.”
    You can stuff that one with rice and beans and eat it for dinner! I will be 97 years old, going into the research lab, hugging the puppies, reading to the little kids whose brains I am taking MRI’s of, and teaching in the classroom at whatever University is smart enough to take me on! Women in my family live forever if they keep working and thinking and I plan to.

  2. This is a topic that has been on my mind a lot. We had very little money when I was growing up, but a lot of that is because my father was in graduate school in biophysics, the first person in our family to complete college, much less enter grad school. What I had, that my neighbors lacked, was the idea that science is a normal pursuit and that I had a path to take me into the future. I worried about money for tuition, and so I was amazed when scholarships came along — mostly need-based, but some was overtly academic. I never would have known about financial aid at the level that I needed it if I had not just bulled ahead with the notion that everything would work out, somehow. It’s easy to see how my background gave me that attitude, and easy to see how lots of people, deprived of my background and my attitude, never get far enough to find out what they might be able to do.

  3. I am a white, middle class daughter of college educated parents, one with a Ph.D. who was in science, and one who was in medical research as a tech. Even so I encountered a lot of these problems and I can’t even imagine what a kid with more disadvantages would need to overcome the barriers.

    When I was in grade school it was still believed that teaching girls math would make them unmarriageable. Yep, true fact. While most teachers no longer take that approach, we still have the cultural hangover. Boys are discouraged because their obstreperousness names them less appealing to an overloaded school system where things like recess have been undermined. Girls are discouraged because there’s a HUGE amount of social pressure to be nice and appealing and that includes not out-competing the boys, or even other girls.

    When I was in college I did so-so in pre-med elimination courses – I wasn’t happy but I was told it was good enough to justify continuing in sciences. On the other hand, I also knew that I had to maintain a B average or higher to keep my financial aid and while I might have been a successful science student, the risk of dropping grades eliminating my funding was too high. SO I went to liberal arts where I COULD be more sure of high high grades. This amounts to science being elite and elitist (in the negative sense) and punishes students who learn it but don’t grade well enough to get consistent high marks. The risk of being forced out of college by this is so high that it makes sense that it selects against exactly the kids we need in sciences.

    Our education system now treats middle class and working class as an ATM for banks and investors and leverages those students with HUGE debt. Science is the source of most of the innovations that fuel our markets, but the people who profit are bankers and marketers, not ordinary researchers. That means that science is a high cost/low return education. Any kid smart enough to get a science degree is also smart enough to recognize the barriers of risk (losing college and grad funding), poor return (low pay for sciences), and low respect (we reward the people who sell the fruits of research but underpay the PhD and MS holders who do the research, and claim they should be satisfied with paltry funding).

    The Koreans and Chinese are lauded for lots of math and science majors, and our pundits blather on about how to get American kids to learn math and science. I think it’s much simpler than culture. I think our kids are smart enough to realize that while we talk the talk, we refuse to walk the walk. We want our engineers but want to pay them Walmart wages. Guess what. Those kids are smart enough NOT to work hard and assume huge debts in order to be treated like fast food clerks by our market. There are other factors but it seems very likely that the most daunting problems in our education and in our science skills are market structural. If we start funding sciences like we did in the fifties and sixties so that researchers made as much as most bankers, and if we fund our colleges so that students aren’t always at risk of losing funding if they actually learn new and unfamiliar things, then odds are we’ll see a LOT more scientists and engineers as a result.

  4. One more factor to add may be, for grad school and afterwards, being an international student in a north-american (or at least Canadian) university. When I moved from Brazil to Canada to start my PhD, I was impressed by how much your “track-record” in getting fellowships and awards also mattered.

    When I tried to jump into the bandwagon, I quickly found out that, as a foreigner, I wasn’t eligible for 99.9% of the awards. It came to a point where I’d scan an award announcement for “Canadian citizen/permanent resident” even before I checked for applicability to my research field. And then, on my last year, I started job hunting in academia and keep running on the “proven track record of securing grants and awards” on the ad descriptions. Well…

    Relating to Jessica’s comment about salary disparity, I was even more surprised by how many of these awards also had the prerequisite of…already holding another award! This is completely opposite from the Brazilian system, were virtually all research assistant/grad/postdoc fellowships forbid you to hold any other award concurrently. Year after year, the same names would pop-up as new award recipients on the dept. email list, while other students would work at retail and plant trees to be able to afford grad school, and keep doing their equally interesting research.

  5. Amazing post. As a definite recipient of a leg up due to class privilege (some monetary and some about my parents making choices and sacrifices so that we could get the best education possible), this is something I think about a fair amount — especially after coming from The College of the Super-Privileged to a large, diverse state school.

    One thing I often think about regarding marine biology and racial diversity in particular is the gap in swimming ability in the US. From an article in the WSJ: “…70% of African-American children and 58% of Hispanic children have little or no swimming ability, compared with 40% of Caucasian children.” (article here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704717004575268912714114950.html)

    I don’t care to get into the reasons for this, as I don’t know enough about it to make an argument, and there is certainly a class dimension to this problem as well. But no matter the cause, this is possibly another case of students not having all of the necessary information; not knowing that ‘marine biology’ doesn’t have to mean ‘SCUBA and dolphins.’

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  7. I wish this article had been written in 2007 when I first entered College as a bright eyed lower middle class student. I was not born to privilege by any means.I managed to snag some college credit in high school which put me 15 credits ahead of the game, or so I had thought. I struggled financial since my grandfather passed away and my grandmother was left disabled and taking care of me. But, I managed to moved from WV to SC with less than a couple hundred dollars in my pocket ready to pursue a future in Marine Science. I struggled my entire college career balancing any where from 1-3 jobs at a time on top of a full course load. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take most REU opportunities due to financial reason which put me behind until my junior year where i managed to snag an opportunity to work on paid research at my university with two professors. Which I am very fortunate to have had the privilege to be able to work with both the microbiologist and molecular biologist whom have helped shape my interest in the the application of microbiology, molecular, and genetics in understanding ecological relationships in the marine environment. However, I can’t help to think of all the opportunities that I could have had if I came from a more privilege family-SAT tutors?, Ivy League?, More Summer REU instead of two retail jobs and just getting by?
    Would Privilege have helped stack the cards in my favor? Would I have had higher grades if I didn’t have to support myself and pay for my education? Would I have gotten into a Graduate program straight out of college? Would I still be here today almost a year after graduating still fighting to get my GRE score up and a paper published just so that maybe just maybe a professor and university would give me a fighting chance to become the future Dr. Lechliter.

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