Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Educating the family

My current home puts me very close to my extended family, and I spend time with them at least every 6-8 weeks. We were together this weekend for my cousin's birthday -- chatting and eating, as is always the way. Talking to my family about what I do is always a bit of an adventure because neither science nor graduate school are things that they have great familiarity with. I've been in grad school more than 6 years now, and it was only last year that they stopped asking me what my plans were for summer vacation, or what classes I was taking the upcoming semester. I should be finishing up this Spring, and one of my cousins (21) asked me, "So, when are you applying to [your husband's] college?" My immediate thought was, why would I apply to another school? Don't I have enough education? Then I realized that she meant apply to teach there. So I replied that I would apply this fall, if there is a position opening, and that's a pretty big if. Later in the conversation, her sister (18) asked me if I would be graduating with a degree in science. Well, not just science, I replied, physics, with a focus on biophysics. So, you wouldn't go teach chemistry?, she asked. No, I said, I haven't taken chemistry since high school, so I'd be a very bad chemistry teacher. Still later, my uncle asked my husband if he should be called "Dr.", since he has a PhD.

I don't say these things to poke fun at my family. Really, I wonder when I became aware of graduate school -- what it means to get a masters vs. a PhD, what (sub)fields are available, what you do when you get out, the difference between an MRU and a PUI (in terms of going to teach at one or the other), what a post-doc is. My cousins are both intelligent women, so I can't figure out why the older one would assume I could just apply to teach at a university whenever I wanted. It's not like applying at Walmart; there aren't always positions open. Also, my husband and I talk about being physicists, and he is a physics professor, so I wonder how my younger cousin could believe I was getting a PhD in general science.

Am I just too far into the process to remember how little I knew about it before I started? Or was I maybe more aware because my father has a Master's and I grew up in a University town? And is that awareness, or lack-thereof, indicative of the scope of a person's aspirations? (My sisters both have Master's degrees, and I'm on my way to a PhD, but of our five cousins on that side of the family, only one seems likely to complete a four year degree.)


PUI prof said...

Great post. I can really relate. My family has not yet given me a rough time about our commuter marriage or my career choice, thank goodness.

But my extended family...I come from a working class family, and I recall telling my Mom when I got accepted to a Ph.D. program not to tell anyone in the family, because if I ever "pushed" on a door that said "pull" that they would find that especially hilarious and give me no rest.

daisy mae said...

to be perfectly honest, i had nooo idea about grad school or PhDs until my junior year of college. considering i was 25 at the time, you would have thought the lightbulb would have gone off a LOT sooner. sure, i knew my professors got their jobs somehow - i just didn't know the details (i eventually finished my degree at a very small liberal arts school - part of the naivete, i believe).

but i come from a working class family, and am the first in my family to have a college degree - let alone pursue an 'advanced degree'. while they are proud and understand the generalities of what i do, i think that grad school is one of those things that you have to experience either for yourself, or through a significant other, in order to really understand. families don't necessarily understand the difference between a bench PhD v. a history PhD (ie, many history programs give you the summer off).

i think that overall your family's education level plays a role in the understanding of graduate school, but that there's also enough 'diversity' in graduate programs that it can be difficult to explain.