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Academia is often a family business. That’s a barrier for increasing diversity

When Jessica Flake started her Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut, she hadn’t yet figured out that published papers were the currency of academia. Flake, who describes herself as growing up in poverty and was the first in her family to attend college, let alone pursue a Ph.D., found herself navigating an increasingly foreign landscape as she pursued her academic career. “You just don’t know how it works,” says Flake, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at McGill University, and “it gets worse the higher up you go.”

A new study quantifies how underrepresented people like Flake are in academia, at least in the United States, finding that tenure-track faculty come from homes wealthier than the average population and are 25 times more likely than the general population to have a parent with a Ph.D. Compared with the wider population of their Ph.D.-holding peers, tenure-track faculty are also nearly twice as likely to have Ph.D.-holding parents. That’s based on a survey of more than 7000 U.S.-based tenure-track faculty across eight STEM, social science, and humanities disciplines, reported last week in a preprint posted to SocArXiv. The findings suggest that academia is still accessible largely to people from privileged—and academic—families, highlighting a barrier that intersects with race to limit the diversity of the academy, says lead author Allison Morgan, a University of Colorado (CU), Boulder, Ph.D. student who researches diversity in science. Because Black and Hispanic scholars, among other groups, are underrepresented among current Ph.D. holders, generational effects could impede efforts to diversify academia for many years to come, Morgan adds.

The work offers evidence to support the intuitions of many researchers, says Stephen Thomas, director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland, College Park. But it does not address what he considers a more crucial question: “What are we going to do about it?”

It’s the responsibility of academic institutions to use results like these to inform interventions that will help people from every background thrive in academia, says Sherilynn Black, associate vice provost for faculty advancement at Duke University. “It’s really important not to look at this data and say, ‘I didn’t have a parent with an advanced degree—maybe that means academia is not for me,’” says Black, a neuroscientist whose research focuses on race, diversity, and academia. And it’s crucial to consider economic background as just one part of a constellation of experiences that researchers bring with them into the workplace, she adds. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell University, also points to a limitation to the study’s socioeconomic analysis: The authors used ZIP codes to estimate childhood household income, which introduces messiness, she says.

The study’s focus on socioeconomic status “might offer a dangerous suggestion that public policies should focus only on fixing economic issues to address academic (and social) inequalities,” writes Gustavo Silva, a biologist at Duke University, in an email to Science Careers. “As an Afro-Brazilian man in an elite American institution, the color of my skin and the texture of my hair are what have defined major parts of my lived experience and professional relationships. I sincerely doubt that [my parents] holding these degrees or having a higher income would have changed most of my experiences.”

But the results do invite questions about why these dynamics are at play, Black says. “Why are certain groups more likely to have parents with advanced degrees? Which historical and societal factors led to this outcome? What is it about having a parent who has an advanced degree that leads to this difference?” She points to the intersection of myriad factors, including academia’s “hidden curriculum,” that could make it easier for people from academic families to navigate the otherwise opaque processes of funding, publishing, professional advancement, and more. Having a parent who has modeled the career path and can offer advice on the faculty job market, setting up a research group, and applying for grants can “make the invisible become visible,” Black says, and also make it easier for researchers to believe that they can succeed. Academics who had the example of an academic parent “may feel less uncertainty about if they belong or can succeed in academia.”

Thomas also points to the hidden curriculum and the ease that comes with lifelong enculturation. Many brilliant young Black researchers have told him that they find themselves in unfamiliar and intimidating environments, but fear showing gaps in their knowledge because of the high expectations they face, he says. There is also evidence that Black scientists are more likely to study topics influenced by experiences of discrimination or poverty—such as health disparities—and that these research topics are less likely to win funding from the National Institutes of Health, hampering career progress.

The finding of intergenerational inheritance echoes similar patterns across other careers, including doctors, lawyers, clergy, and CEOs, Weeden says, and the research doesn’t address whether academia has a higher or lower level of inheritance than other professions. She also notes that excluding non–tenure-track faculty—who make up 75% of U.S. faculty—risks overestimating the gap between faculty and the students they teach.

But the point of the research is not to claim that academia is an outlier, says senior author Aaron Clauset, a computer scientist at CU Boulder. Rather, it’s to get the “lay of the land” by describing a facet of academia’s diversity problem, as well as to open up new research questions exploring why economic status and parental education are correlated with academic success, or how interventions might help to close the gap.

The opportunity to build support networks across university departments with other people from similar backgrounds could be one such intervention, Flake suggests. And universities in areas with high costs of living sometimes offer financial support such as competitive loans—similar supports could also be offered based on financial need regardless of the area’s cost of living, she suggests, for faculty who don’t have a family financial safety net.

But even with targeted interventions like these in place, says Black, “structural racism will still exist, and historical inequities will still exist.” Without a focus on the roots of these inequities, she says, interventions will only ever be “like putting a Band-Aid over a bullet wound.”