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Social Mobility and Academia: Neither Here nor There

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Social mobility is the movement of an individual between social classes which results in a change in their socioeconomic circumstances. For example, a person who has grown up in a one-parent family, on a council estate, who subsequently obtains a degree, master’s or PhD and secures a professional job. This enables them to buy a home in a more affluent area, travel abroad, own a car and not worry about where their next meal is coming from. In this example, the individual is moving from a working-class background to a middle-class professional background. 

Living in poverty is the ultimate motivating factor for some people to push themselves in their academic performance and strive to pursue a career in academia. While continuing education can culminate in pursuing a PhD, which is sometimes a natural route into lecturing at a university. But experiencing what it’s like to feel hunger, not having access to materials needed for education and a lack of home security, are facets of poverty which shape an individual and impact them across their lifespan.  

Academia contrasts with poverty and suffering acutely. Academia is about opportunity, education and century-old rituals, which culminate into excellence and achievement. Many people who work in academia come from educated families and sometimes families of academics themselves. Academic working life is full of promise and presents staff with a wealth of opportunities to further develop themselves while shaping the learning journey of students. It truly is an honour to be entrusted to educate, guide, and support students as they navigate their experiences at university. Yet academia is steeped in culture and history regarding how things have been and will be done. There are unwritten rules on every wall in every hallway and these are truly a world away from experiences of poverty, hunger, or debt.


But when you change your social class – do you really change your social class? Living in poverty for an extended period of your life is not something easily forgotten. Being hungry or worrying about having a roof over your head, are profoundly impactful life experiences, which leave an imprint on your very being. Many academics who have experienced social mobility struggle to find their place among peers from very different backgrounds and may even question their “deservingness” to be working there at all.

Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon well acknowledged within academia and culminates in the individual doubting their ability and appropriateness to do their job. Often, academics who have experienced social mobility spend many years expecting someone to tap them on the shoulder and tell them there’s been a terrible mistake and they are really sorry, but they have to leave their job with immediate effect.

Identity and fitting in are further central elements of social mobility in academia. Often, people who grow up under harsh circumstances and within socially deprived areas, bring their life experiences and a unique lens from which they view the world with them. Accent and language use can further prove challenging. Academics from poor backgrounds will often change or soften their accents, to try to blend in and avoid prejudice and will actively work on building their vocabulary to match that of their peers. Yet a constant feeling of not quite fitting the mould in academia can be residual.

Neither here nor there

Yet fitting in post-social mobility can further be challenging, in terms of the original social class. Being acclimatised and cultured within a new class and professional arena can alienate individuals from their working-class peers and family members. It’s impossible not to develop and absorb the culture and norms within your new social class, hence it can be difficult to revert to language, rituals and norms when moving between both places. You are different, you’ve become different and you will never again be the same person you were when you left this place.

Consequently, you may find yourself actively speaking in a more formal manner and with an extended vocabulary in one setting, and actively trying not to speak so formally, or use this extended vocabulary in another setting. You are neither here nor there, you are somewhere in between. You don’t fit completely and comfortably within either social class and find yourself in this unchartered space. 

So what do you do? 

First of all, you acknowledge this space where you are and the momentous effort and determination it took to get you here. Then you hold the door open for those coming behind you. You spend an extra half hour with that student you know hasn’t the easiest home life. You troubleshoot a fee issue with a student you know will make an amazing practitioner. And you fly the flag for people from the no-go areas, the places known for social problems and the estates people lie about being from. You continue moving forward, but with a competent and embracing sense of where your journey began and how your life experience has shaped you uniquely to be an amazingly authentic and driven academic.

Lhara Mullins is a lecturer and deputy director of the BA Social Care Programme at the University of Galway.

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