Cultural and Social Capital


  • Know that while coming from a poor background might be a drawback in some areas (not being familiar with certain terms or niceties, not having traveled or taken music lessons), it is an advantage in other areas. For instance, having been at the "wrong end" of power dynamics provides one with more insight into how power dynamics work because one had to be highly aware of them in order to survive. This insight often results in more astute analysis of theory--which is largely concerned with the workings of power dynamics--than many of ones colleagues can offer.
  • Find allies - it's hard to figure out who they are, but don't be afraid to be open and upfront about your situation even if it makes more privileged people feel uncomfortable. They are just not used to meeting someone like you/us, because they are so used to being surrounded by similar others. Don't let them assume that you are one of them. If there are no allies immediately around you, extend to beyond your department, university, city - go online. There are always others who are out here, who can be an ear to listen, a friend to brainstorm or troubleshoot.
  • Be prepared for the culture shock. Know that it is natural
  • Rich kids can… well, they can suck sometimes.
  • Having come from a family where not everything was handed to me, it was not apparent to me that my program WANTED me to succeed, and that meant giving me resources that I needed, but didn't know how or where to get. There are all sorts of hidden benefits you never know exist unless you ask; not having come from privilege, I had no idea I COULD ask. So always ask. Your computer breaks down? Ask your department. Unexpected health care costs? Ask your department. Having trouble getting clothing for the job market? You'd be surprised the kind of resources at your disposal. It took me 7 years, but I finally realized that budgets existed for these kinds of problems you may encounter (and yes, my department stepped in to help me on all of the above scenarios).
  • The hardest thing for me about going to graduate school was presentation. In fact, I think my failure to grasp this new language of professionalism and scholarly talk had a role to play in my eventual exit from academia. I don't look people in the eye enough. I laugh at the wrong things. Nuance doesn't come naturally. I can't drink around these people, because I get angry and violent and while that's fine in some circles, it's really not fine here. I've got a lot of fucking.... problems rising from the way I was raised. My parents were basically laborers and wouldn't know professional networking if it came up and punched them in the face, which it wouldn't (which is why they wouldn't recognize it, actually). In the end, I have no advice. I wasn't able to overcome my past, which is ironic, given that my PhD is in History. It's also ironic given how much I could advocate for the students from white trash America that these very institutions seem to eager to educate. Rome wasn't built in a day, I guess.
  • Being a good/successful student is NOT the same as being an independent student. It's okay to ask for help when you need it. Privileged students have had years of practice at this, and it is perfectly normal. Don't waste a bunch of time banging your head against the wall if you don't really understand an assignment; ask the professor for help. Don't withdraw from school if you are faced with a financial emergency; seek help from your department's admin, financial aid officer, TA union leader, or whoever else that may be able to help. This goes for mental health as well.

    So the university was a huge change for me. When I entered it for my "undergrad", I didn't even know what was "under" about it, because I didn't know that there was "graduate school." I had to learn how to dress, to speak in full sentences instead of sentence fragments, and that aggression and hyperbole was not valued. Other things also came clear - drug use is not ordinary here, people who are committing felonies are rare and they mostly try to hide it, and you need to pay a person to cut your hair or other people can tell. I used to panic because upper-class people are untrustworthy, but you don't have to worry about it because the stakes are very low (despite the bluster).... no one is dying, no one is in any real trouble, everyone has enough to eat, and no one is inclined to murder, so the likelihood of you having to really trust anyone is negligible. All those skills you learned, like how to recognize a junkie at a hundred paces, or a con, or how to throw a punch, or how to live without any real justice... these hard-won lessons don't really mean anything now. Unless you can use it to hustle some rent money, as many poor people do in graduate school, by running some sort of side hustle or dealing drugs or becoming a high-end escort or whatever. You wouldn't be the first one of us to pay for grad school through prostitution. Try to avoid it. But maybe it's better than taking out 100000 in loans, which will sort of put you back into the poverty you are working to avoid.

    In the end, my PhD helped me jump all the way up to the middle class (I will work in an office now for better money, instead of a filthy warehouse or outside), and eventually I will hit the upper middle class, but the transition has only been painful. It was necessary, because the money IS better and, despite what rich people say, money does buy happiness. I'll always be a stranger in a strange land, but my kid probably won't be, which is really what poor people want - a better life for their kids. So aim high, fall far, end up in the middle class, and your kids won't have to watch your face scrunch up with worry every time they have to go to the doctor.
  • Do everything to understand structures (civil, media, financial, academic, legal) of power.
  • Find allies among students and faculty ASAP. Be respectful of peoples' time when soliciting mentors, but if one person doesn't seem adequately responsive, find someone else. People of wealth often have this kind of coverage naturally, without having to seek it or even be aware of it. That is the definition of entitlement -- it doesn't have to be a dirty word.
  • Don't waste time envying anyone. But begin to observe the times and situations and company in which you feel most alienated and powerless. Don't judge yourself for feeling inadequate. Affirm yourself for getting as far as you have.
  • Start and stick to some kind of practice of wellness, whether that means having an active prayer life, meditation, yoga, morning pages -- sports and fitness are great but not enough; some element of stillness and reflection is needed. Better still, find a community in which to pray/meditate/stretch/be still. Nurture an interior life that is separate from the academic institution.
  • If seeking mental health help, try, if at all possible, to seek it outside the institution. This can be difficult, of course, because your school's insurance won't cover it. On some very basic level (because academic institutions are now largely run like businesses) mental health services provided by the school run the risk of being a conflict of interest.
  • If possible cultivate friendships with others who come from a similar background and can relate to the culture shock. This will mitigate some of the loneliness and might just help you feel a bit more connected to your program.
    And maybe this appears somewhere else here, but if I could do anything differently now, it would be to stop dissimulating about my class status. Being white and poor meant I could pass among my also-white but wealthy peers… but I lost a lot of myself in trying to hide my background from my peers and from my profs. I no doubt also missed opportunities in grad school as a result of being fiercely private about this stuff. If you can, be open and unapologetic about class issues. If you cannot be open about it, find at least a few peers with whom you can be yourself.
  • Know that sometimes people with privilege act like they know what they're doing and talking about, but they actually don't know anything. Don't be afraid to admit you don't know something. Everyone has learning to do.
  • This might especially be an issue with those privileged folks who have never (really) worked or really lived outside of the academy. If you are a non-traditional PhD student - as many poorer students are - you may be shocked to find colleagues, advisers, and professors dictate to you what your own "real-world" experiences were and were like (and how valid they may or may not be).
    • However, the flip-side of that is that you may often find yourself at odds with the standards of expectation in terms of labor, performance, assessment, etc. (e.g. - coming from a labor-intensive background, it has taken me a lot of effort not to scoff every time somebody tells me how much "work" academic life is, or how "unfair" labor conditions are, or how they shouldn't be expected to meet quantifiable standards because of their own pedagogical ideology.)
    • It's important to understand in these cases how your own class and upbringing/experiences inform your understanding of these realities, and appreciate how their perspectives are similarly shaped by personal experience and knowledge.
  • It also will not be uncommon, in programs with a strong social component (such as in the humanities), to have people speak authoritatively on the legitimacy of your own identity and experiences without knowing they are doing so. They may also respond to any correction by insisting you have no idea about X, because it has literally never occurred to them that they may end up in grad classes with a person who has lived X. They may become incredibly defensive when you point out they are talking over your actual history, and in fact, correcting people in this way, however gently, is a great way to make enemies.
    • I think the most important thing to remember in this case is that it's not personal. And that part of what you're doing in graduate school is working to change the discourse.
    • If you're coming to grad school later on, or by a different path, the best thing to do is to embrace that as a unique qualification you have in forwarding conversation.
    • But on this note, see the previous point two bullets up. A network of friends to share ignorances with is so helpful. It seemed like everyone at my program knew what the trivium and quadrivium were -- oh god, and they knew sailing terms! Sailing! I got in the habit of swapping definition-discoveries with a couple trusted noobs like myself.
    • However, never be afraid to be an authority. Everyone, and I mean everyone fakes it at one point or another. It’s better to be corrected than hedge every single thing you say.
  • Learn how higher education institutions work, especially if you didn't pay attention to that as an undergrad. Provost, Dean, Graduate Program Director, department chair, etc and learn academic ranks if you aren't already familiar
  • A lot of contacts, conversations, networking will be done during social events (through your department, at conferences, more informally depending on the professor(s). There will be a whole slew of cultural cues that go along with these that you might not be comfortable with. That’s okay. Go anyway. Watch people, learn, imitate.
  • A large part of graduate school is imitating, at least in the beginning. Imitating those around you does not make you an impostor.
    • And department events, like "brown bag lunches," job talks, speakers, etc.
    • This is very important. One of the big hurdles in graduate school when you don’t have the same capital as your supervisors or colleagues is the ability to discern what is mandatory and what isn’t e.g. symposiums, brown bags, and holiday parties. A lot of events are presented as optional but they really aren’t. Go to everything until you’re sure and watch what others do and how people respond to what they do.
    • It is extremely important to network at conferences. You’ll learn who else you’ll be competing with on the job market and what their cvs look like; you’ll meet senior scholars who can be mentors and outside readers; you’ll make sure others know who you are. There is no dollar value attached to this, but it is essential. Do not just go to your panel and hide in your room. Stay for most of the conference if possible (if you room w someone you are more likely to afford this). If you’re not outgoing, fake it till you make it.
  • Remember what the purpose of the conference is for you. Do not only go to your panel then skip out.
  • Try to network to present a paper with a pre-tenure faculty member at your discipline conference the following year. They'll need it for their record and some conferences give advantage to "new" presenters (Which you would be).
    Ask your supervisor to introduce you to people at the conference. If they’re not there, try to find someone else to rope into acting as your “mentor” and introduce you--sometimes if you know another grad student you can hang out with them and their supervisor, other times you can strike up a conversation with someone senior whose work you know and like. In some fields, conferences frequently have doctoral student get-togethers. Go to those in the first few years of your attendance--whoever is organizing those things cares about mentoring students and can also be asked to help with introductions, etc.
  • Know that a lot of conference networking happens before the conference even starts. Some people go to conferences to see friends from grad school, or to have a conversation they planned in advance. People have their own agendas, and so they seem like they don't have time to talk to you. This is often not true. But people do talk to people they already know. Get known advance. Organizing a panel is a good way know some people before you get to the conference. Ask your co panelists if they want share a meal or a drink.
  • If you have a poster session at a conference, which is very common in some fields for grad students, know that awkward is just how they are. They can be really good for networking, though. Usually, all you have to do is stand there by your poster doing your best to be approachable yet not desperate. When people walk over to look, ask if they have any questions or if they’d like “the elevator talk” (very brief synopsis). If possible, bring your cards and hang them by the poster so people can take them to remember you.
  • Academic units are communities, even if they can be dysfunctional ones. Engage with the community early on. Be the one who gets others to talk about their work, interests and lives. Very quickly this will be noticed and when the are opportunities to be meted out, you are more likely to get a shoulder tap.
    You might “out” yourself as poor/working class in ways you didn’t anticipate, obviously. It will be okay, most of the time. All the time. Don’t be afraid to be you.
    • Yes! Also, don’t be ashamed to be frank about your lack of resources when asking for support from your program and university. This is especially beneficial when doing administration level stuff. Your colleagues and faculty simply won’t think of it. For example, if you need a high limit credit card to book travel to a conference and then wait months for reimbursements? Politely bring up to the department admin or your advisor that you don’t have that, if that’s the case. Often, exceptions can be made to cover those types of things for you. But, again, we just don’t think about it. Closed mouths don’t get fed.
    • This is critically important because NOT ALL FACULTY WERE RICH KIDS. In other words, if you are frank about your background, you will find others who shared a similar background and tap into the network of academics from similar backgrounds.
      • This is very true, even at Ivy League schools.
  • There are going to be many academics who believe all poor people are ignorant, stupid, and/or racist. They won’t include you in that hopefully (you are at the university), but they are going to include your friends, family and acquaintances in their sweeping statements. Unfortunately, on many occasions you are just going to have to bite your tongue and live with their comments.No, do not bite your tongue. Engage with them professionally.
  • Academics like to think they understand all world-views. You will discover they don’t. That’s fine.
    I also think it’s key to make sure your supervisor/advisor/committee is aware of your finances and be sure you explain how these things impact your work (many may be totally unaware, but are in a position to help once they know).
  • Sometimes, esp. at larger schools, there are funds left over at the end of the year that must be distributed. Keep on top of dept./uni/outside funding possibilities. Usually your advisor or the grad advisor will be a big help here.
    • Yes. Now that I'm on the faculty side I realize how important it is for your advisors to know your situation. We advocate for students and student need is something I take very very seriously when it is time to divvy up resources.
  • Academics in general care about things like titles and appropriate attire, esp. If you are a woman/POC/queer. (ie, straight white dude can come in a hoodie & be taken seriously, woc cannot). Learn to share/swap clothes and use thrift stores for shopping. A good consignment store can keep you going for a while if you sell clothes back there regularly. You can wear better brands than you could usually afford.
  • Don’t be surprised when the professor who speaks so eloquently about social justice turns out to be classist, racist or just very liberal (in the political economy sense, rather than CNN or Fox News). Even people who study racism seem to believe--consciously or not--in meritocracy. This is particularly true for doctoral students: you will have earned your place and the expectation is that you will make it work.
  • Develop several support networks, for different purposes
  • If you can find someone who is faculty or higher position which shares your background as a mentor. In some fields they are harder to find but I found it helped so much with feeling more like I belonged and reduced some of the culture shock. She ended up being in a different department.
  • A network to make you feel comfortable, so people who share your worldview and challenges
  • A network to challenge you, so people who you like but whose worldview differs from yours
  • A network of people who are in your town but have little to nothing to do with school. It is easier to survive if you have local friends to grab a beer with who are interested in you and care about you but who don’t really know the nitty gritty of your academic life. If you go to a church, that can be a good community for this, so can peers at a volunteer gig or on a sports team or side job. YES!
  • Avoid that cabal of postgrad students who spend most of their time critiquing the inequities of their programme, unit, school, faculty and university. Even if their critiques are relevant, they are often the ones who either drop out or don’t proceed to candidacy--sometimes unfairly, sometimes not. Make lemonade (#beyoncé)
    Your summers and breaks will look very different from wealthier colleagues. Depending on how you manage bullet 1, money and budgets, you’ll need to get ahead on research/work rather than vacationing etc.
    pros/cons of research output vs. money income. Different years may look different. Some stipends cover first summer, some don't. How to balance productivity & income without burning out.
    • That said, do find time to regularly decompress. The stresses of grad school combined with general anxiety about money, debt, etc. are incredibly hard on you. If you can take a few days in the summer to step back from your work, even if it’s a “staycation” you’ll be more productive and happier for the rest of your summer.
  • The “real” value of graduate school is found in relationships. Building them will be easier for your colleagues. They’ll have gone to the same schools as your profs, have similar hobbies (tennis?!) and know almost intuitively to hang out in faculty offices etc. Some of that you can’t change but you can hang out. It can be uncomfortable but opting out really undermines your academic development.
    • This may well be true, but as a corollary I would add don't get caught out by impostor syndrome if you can. Grad school is a weird, new environment for people of many backgrounds, and your colleagues may be less intuitive (and also maybe less elite) than it at first appears.
    • If all "social" options are particularly unattainable/overwhelming, organize one. By cohort or by dept, its usually possible to arrange on-campus events that are more accessible/friendly to all.
  • Some events are going to require suits / black tie / white tie. If you don’t know what those are, find out. Hopefully a good friend, or your supervisor, can tell you which dress codes are optional, and which are required. When it’s required, do it!
    • Try to find out how often you’ll need white / black tie, and use that to decide if you should buy, or rent.
    • Borrowing is also good
  • Try finding a good, trustworthy friend (in person or online) and regularly have a mutual support session. Anything from venting about others to collaborating on various projects.
    • But also be wary. In competitive departments, other graduate students can steal your ideas. For example, what you are thinking about writing for a paper, or what you thought of a work to share in class. This may not seem significant, but it is. Don’t have people around you that steal your work, it is not worth it. This doesn’t just go for graduate students--there are professors who will skim your ideas for themselves as well. Don’t be paranoid--not everyone is out to steal your ideas!--but do be smart about how often, and to whom, you trot out new ideas before you are substantially into the project that develops from them. Having a few people in a writing/research group you pitch those ideas off of is a good plan, and even better if they are from other departments/field of study, so there’s no competition possible.
  • There is usually a professor who also came from nothing. Find that person.
    • This. Once you find an ally in the faculty, make sure you are frank with them about your struggles. These allies can be crucial for helping navigate funding, program goalposts, teaching, everything!
    • Also, look for these people outside your department and school. They will save you so much suffering. A friend of mine got out and got a tenure track job a few years before me. We’ve NEVER been at the same school. However, for the last two years of my program, when I was flat broke, any time we were at the same conference, she paid for the entire hotel room without blinking. When you are asking for roommates, don’t be afraid to ask faculty--especially junior faculty--that you are friendly with. They have resources you don’t, and if they have come from a similar place, they will probably be absolutely delighted to be able to pay it forward.
  • You will be offered debt. Don’t use it to fund a middle class lifestyle. You’ll regret it down the line. Stay as frugal as you can.
  • Although cooking for yourself is cheaper, you won't have much time to do this during the semester. Grad students resort to eating crap or nothing at all (to save money). I highly recommend batch cooking before each semester and freeze it all. That way you have healthy, fast meals for almost the whole semester. Invest in a high quality lunch box you can use the entire time and that can hold more than one meal at a time. Sometimes you'll spend the entire day on campus.
  • Networking often happens over food, including meals with invited speakers or at conferences. You may be invited to these events--for example, in my department graduate students often have breakfast or lunch with visiting job candidates. You may find that you are expected to know about wine or fine cheeses or which fork/spoon to use. You can fake it if you want, but it is fine to acknowledge that you come from a different background. Not everyone grew up drinking seltzer and eating manchego.
  • I wish to add to my previous statement that I posted this Google doc on Facebook because I thought it was important and urgent. I struggled with the banner of "poor white trash," as did many of my contacts. I understand, and I don't think it's any reflection of self-loathing on the author's part, but I do think that, without a more nuanced contextualization (but preferably with the elimination of the term altogether), it hurts the cause. I also think that if this collection doesn't bring an intersectional perspective -- queer, people of color, immigrant, feminist, etc -- it will be a missed opportunity (I would even argue that it would not be viable as a project). I get the sense that the project is quite open to this, which is encouraging, but here, again, is where I think the term "poor white trash" is alienating. And while the perspectives of international and undocumented students are already represented, the need to address other identities is great. My disclaimer: I am a Romanian-born, queer woman who grew up poor, but with a very ambitious mother. Culturally, I wasn't working class, though we struggled financially -- my mother read Proust, went to the opera, took me to art exhibitions, listened to classical music, pushed me to learn piano, etc. I also came with different social rules that had to do with being an immigrant (children born in the US to immigrant parents would also have these issues), particularly an immigrant from a very religion-dominated society. All of these affected how I adjusted (or didn't) to my academic milieu.

    Finally, THANK YOU for doing this. The need is MASSIVE. Thank you.
  • Remember that you also bring value to the institution and to academe. Try not to feel too crummy about not having vacationed anywhere, or played lacrosse or whatever.
  • You are enough.
  • Be prepared for your relationships to change with your family of origin, too, as you proceed through graduate school. You may be perceived as “leaving” them in ways they are proud of and ways that trouble them.
    Remember that a lot of other graduate students come from the same background. They are going to be less vocal about it, obviously, but most people in academia did not come from super wealthy backgrounds (at least not in my experience). There is no shame in growing up poor! You just have to compensate a little for social etiquette, etc, but I would say that the vast majority of academic culture has to be learned by all entering graduate students regardless of socioeconomic strata.
  • How to manage subcultural affiliations visually: If you have a previous subcultural affiliation with a community where the appearance expectations differ from those of the corporate world, you should take some time at the beginning of grad school (or earlier) to find a visual and verbal self-presentation that works both for your new role and for your subculture. There are a number of hairstyles that can work well in both your social community and your work/academic community. Ask other graduate students or people with mainstream jobs how they manage having subcultural identities while being seen as professional.
  • It's sometimes okay to "fake it 'til you make it". Note that some of this is just the impostor syndrome and "faking it" is one tool that can help you overcome. However, another thing to consider is that the recruitment/networking process tends to favor a middle-upper class and higher sensibility. For example, taking the reins in a conversation may be generally seen in a positive light for those in the upper classes, while working class people tend to favor deference. This might not apply everywhere, but you can observe these cultural aspects at your grad school and maybe adjust your behavior accordingly.

    Some examples:
    • a professor who talked to students about having been in the punk scene and wore a tie, a white shirt, and black jeans to lectures;
    • two multiracial, bisexual women who were previously in hard rock bands who both went to grad school, adopted intermediate hairstyles that were still somewhat alternative, wore business-friendly outfits that were their style during their teaching roles later, leveraged their working-class-related experiences in these roles, and remained open about their relationships and music interests;
    • a genderqueer person who transitioned into a postdoc role while being open about their relationship and subculture interests, doing class-inclusive research, choosing not to disclose their gender identity at work, and dressing androgynously in neutral colors;
    • a faculty member in a very mainstream field who chose to dress in an artistic, fashionable way while remaining open about her bisexual identity, talking about social responsibility, and mentioning her previous subcultural affiliations.