EUA Council for Doctoral Education


Social background as a challenge for doctoral education

In order to better support first-generation academics, it is important to deal with the particular hurdles that many of them face on their academic career path. The four most important of these are presented in this article, which also shows why universities should do more for this group.

Social background as type of diversity has thus far received little or no attention in doctoral education. While - at least in Germany - there is a growing debate about access opportunities for first-generation students and greater attention is paid to classism in society as a whole, there has been little discussion about their importance for academic career paths. However, the German higher education system is no better at promoting social mobility than the public school system, which has attracted criticism for decades. So how can we address this issue in doctoral education and thus ensure more equal opportunities at universities? First, we must identify how first-generation academics differ from other students and academics and the hurdles that they face.

A special aspect of the social background is that it is not visible and therefore attracts less attention than other categories of diversity. The socio-economic capital of individuals can also differ widely, making them a very heterogeneous group whose personal experiences can greatly differ. However, doctoral candidates and advanced researchers repeatedly describe four main hurdles:

In some fields of study, a lack of financial resources prevents people not only from starting doctoral studies, but often from successfully completing them. Precarious financing models, such as temporary part-time positions and scholarships, further intensify this effect. But many doctoral candidates also lack the necessary financial resources for research trips, study abroad or necessary equipment. In keeping with Max Weber's ideal of the scientist, the German academic community expects a researcher to be someone who focuses not on monetary gain, but on gaining knowledge, and who is willing to make sacrifices for this purpose. However, this is an attitude that usually only privileged social classes can afford. It is therefore all the more important that academic career paths are adequately remunerated according to qualifications and also offer a certain degree of job security and the ability to make long term plans.

Alienating experiences are the second aspect that is commonly reported. Here, affected students feel as if they are moving between two worlds. On one side is their world of origin, from whose language, customs and values they increasingly distance themselves. On the other is the world of academia with its own rules, in which they never feel completely at home, regardless of how successful they are. They describe academic behaviour (habitus) as foreign and difficult to get used to, and most of them have the life-long feeling that they are somehow missing something. There are several effects of these alienating experiences: not only is constantly moving and translating between these worlds a demand on the person, but it can have an impact on selection processes and career paths via the effects of unconscious bias.

Networking is another closely related issue. Many first-generation academics have less developed, weaker academic networks. On the one hand, this is often due to a certain aversion to such networks and to developing that kind of relationship. On the other hand, it is also due to the fact that networking is much more difficult if you feel that you do not know the rules of the game or speak the language.

The fourth point, less access to informal knowledge, goes hand in hand with this. In the academic community, much knowledge about career planning and career paths circulates exclusively in networks. To participate in these networks, individuals must be integrated into them or receive appropriate support from a member of such a network. If this is not the case, they are often cut off from important information.

These four aspects show that people with a non-academic family background must overcome more hurdles on their academic career path than others. Overcoming them usually costs additional time and energy, which in turn has a negative impact on one's career opportunities in academia. There are two reasons for this: on one hand, not fitting in can make it much more difficult to get into the highly competitive system of academia. On the other hand, many first-generation academics themselves decide to leave academia for better-paid, more secure or more family-friendly positions. Even if research is their passion, first-generation academics often find the academic system too unfamiliar and unpredictable, and the cost of failure too high, for them to choose an academic career.

So why should universities work towards more educational equity in academic career paths? And what conditions must be created for that to be successful and sustainable?

The combined effect of all the aforementioned aspects is that academics in the higher education system do not generally reflect the socio-economic diversity of our society. In Germany, for example, only 12% of professors have a so-called working-class background, while 82% of the population still has no university degree. However, research shows that it is precisely a diversity of perspectives that enriches research and science and makes it more successful. With diversity-sensitive support for early career researchers and human resources development, with attention to the researchers’ social background, a university not only becomes a more attractive and competitive employer but can also ensure that the best heads really do stay in the system and thus support excellent research. To do this, universities must also critically question their own actions and make corresponding systemic changes. However, this will not work - at least in Germany - without individual groups having to give up privileges they have cherished, so that all groups really can participate on an equal level. Academia, research and the universities themselves can only benefit from this process.

One promising example is the mentoring programme First Generation Doctorate Mentoring+, which has existed at the University of Cologne since 2017. The programme is designed for doctoral candidates and those interested in pursuing a doctorate with a non-academic family background. Our aim is to support early career researchers in successfully completing their doctoral studies and starting an academic career. The programme, which is unique in Germany, aims not only to support the target group, but also to remove the taboo surrounding the topic. The mentoring programme evolved from the work of the voluntary association Erste Generation Promotion e.V., which has been working for this target group since 2014 and offers free and institution-independent counselling and networking services.

“The Doctoral Debate” is an online platform featuring original articles with commentary and analysis on doctoral education in Europe. Articles focus on trending topics in doctoral education and state-of-the-art policies and practices. The Debate showcases voices and views from EUA-CDE members and partners.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA Council for Doctoral Education. If you would like to respond to this article by writing your own piece, please see The Doctoral Debate style guidelines and contact the CDE team to pitch your idea.

Ann-Kristin Kolwes

Ann-Kristin Kolwes works as project coordinator for the program First Generation Doctorate Mentoring + at the University of Cologne, Germany. She is also a member of the founding board and chair of the non-profit association Erste Generation Promotion. In her professional and volunteer work, she advocates for more educational equity in the university context and especially supports doctoral candidates with a non-academic family background. Being first generation is also a part of her own biography.

Ann-Kristin Kolwes studied History and Psychology at the University of Bielefeld and received her doctorate in Modern and Contemporary History from the University of Cologne in 2019.



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