“I’ll Break His Goddamned Hands”

How one working-class boy found his way to a tenure-track job in chemistry.
By Randall Hicks

"I’ll break his goddamned hands,” my father said. I wonder if he remembers saying it. Nearly twenty-five years later, his words still linger in my mind. My father had spent the entire day in the auto body shop only to come home and head to the garage for more work on the side. I may have finished my homework and, tired of roughhousing with my brother, gone out to help him scrape the paint off his current project, some classic car that he was restoring. “It’s okay for a hobby,” he said, “but if anybody tells me that he’s thinking of doing this for a living, I’ll break his goddamned hands.” Although we had no firm plans and little financial means to do so, he was telling me that he expected me to get an education.

This year, I embarked on a tenure-track appointment as a chemistry professor. I consider myself very fortunate. As I advance into this next phase of my career, I’ve reflected on how I reached this point. We’ve all done this mental exercise: where would I be if I made this choice instead of the other? Assume that for every choice there are two outcomes. Two choices? Four outcomes. Four choices? Sixteen outcomes. And so on. One can quickly see that for n decisions, there are 2n possible outcomes. Interestingly, it takes only twenty such decisions to generate one million different outcomes. I’ve certainly made more than twenty important career decisions; I must be one in a million!

I wonder whether it was harder for me, as a first-generation college student, to reach this one-in-a-million college professor position than it was for those with college-educated parents. How many first-generation students go on to earn PhDs? How many of those end up as science professors?

I’m not exactly sure how I got started in science. There were no baking soda and vinegar volcanoes in my home, and the closest I got to participating in a science fair was watching Mr. Wizard on television. Perhaps the first person to identify and cultivate my aptitude in science and math was my grandmother. I fondly recall working on all types of puzzles with her. It was good practice; chemical research is sometimes like working on a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box lid.

My grades in elementary school were good across the board, but I did gravitate toward science and math courses rather than English and social studies. When I transferred into a new school at first grade, I was further along than most other students of my age. In middle school I was enrolled in the advanced math track, and I stayed on that trajectory throughout high school, where I completed college-prep classes in math as well as other subjects. I had loose plans to attend college, but I had little comprehension of what college truly entailed. Undeterred, and unknowingly underprepared, I graduated from high school midterm so that I could start college a semester early.

I had little understanding of the different types of colleges and universities. Besides, moving away from home to attend college wasn’t a financially realistic option. So instead I lived at home and enrolled at a local “commuter campus” college, in large part because of the full academic scholarship that I was offered. Having mostly breezed through high school, I entered college with poor study habits. And then there were the exciting distractions that are bundled with college. I ended up barely getting along.

Anatomy Lesson

I had decided that being a chiropractor was a good career choice, so I enrolled in courses to satisfy chiropractic admissions, which naturally included chemistry. Having found myself drawn to that subject, I declared chemistry as my major. But I wasn’t exactly topping the charts academically. In fact, I had to take organic chemistry twice. My scholarship was revoked; forced to pay my own tuition, I dropped to part-time enrollment and found employment at a grocery store. Then, when it seemed I was destined for failure, something magical happened. I met a girl. Not just any girl—the girl. In addition to providing me the usual happiness, hand-holding, and heart palpitations, she also became my role model. Beautiful and smart! Without her, I never would have completed the bachelor’s degree. At some point, I decided to forgo chiropractic studies and focus on graduate studies in chemistry. So while I never needed to enroll formally in an anatomy course, I still received a most important lesson in anatomy—how to remove my head from my ass.

Degrees in hand, my girlfriend and I got married and departed for graduate school. Although my undergraduate education provided a good foundation, graduate school was another experience to navigate without the guidance of any familial predecessors. I encountered obstacles in graduate school that nearly caused me to quit with a master’s degree. However, with sage guidance from my adviser, I stayed the course. Again, I changed tracks midway through my educational program. My career goal shifted from industrial to academic chemistry. Although a PhD is academic rather than industrial training, it prepares one for research, not teaching.

Fortunately, I had numerous appointments as a teaching assistant in graduate school, so I learned teaching on the job. I also completed a “preparing future faculty” program at my university in which I satisfied coursework in teaching, attended faculty development seminars, and completed a mentored teaching experience. Best of all, I was entrusted to teach general chemistry while writing my dissertation in the final year.

Unfortunately, my prolonged time as a graduate student necessitated a period of living two thousand miles apart from my wife: she started medical school while I remained behind to fulfill my obligations in graduate school. This situation proved not to be a problem in the end, as I was able to obtain a teaching position immediately afterward at a great small college in the same city in which my wife was living. And the experience I gained in that capacity in turn catapulted me into another great position, where, after a coast-to-coast move, I could remain for the foreseeable future. To quote Jerry Garcia, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

First-Generation Science

My own experience leads me to believe that precious few firstgeneration students ultimately become chemistry professors. My hunch is confirmed by the National Opinion Research Center’s recent Survey of Earned Doctorates. Of the 43,354 doctoral degrees granted in 2005, only 1,776 were conferred upon recipients in the physical sciences who reported that they had employment commitments. Of those, only 40 percent expected to enter academe. From the at-large distribution within physical science degrees, I estimate that a maximum of 240 newly minted PhD chemists—or about 0.5 percent of the overall survey population—would enter academe, and fewer still would have tenure-track appointments.

How many of those appointees are first-generation college students? The data don’t provide an answer here. However, available data on PhD degrees granted according to parental education attained reveal a general trend. The number of doctorates earned by students whose parents’ education concluded with high school has declined steadily, from 44 percent in 1975 to 22 percent in 2005. Over the same period, the number of students earning a PhD who have at least one parent who had previously earned an advanced degree increased from 19 percent to 39 percent. Examination of these data leads me to conclude that I’m a member of an increasingly exclusive society.

The statistics suggest that few first-generation students become professors, but why? This I can answer based only on my own experiences; several issues—material and psychological—quickly come to mind. First, lack of money can make achieving educational goals difficult for any student. Looking back, I think it’s absurd that the financial burden of college and graduate school didn’t keep me from pursuing a higher education. While I was not raised in poverty, I do recall free lunch programs, too many mac-and-cheese dinners, and riding in a car with a floorboard that was so rusted out that it would take on water during storms. There was no family money to spend on college, but the combination of grants, scholarships, and loans—the latter just recently repaid—offset that lack of resources in my case. Many working-class students are unwilling to take on education loans without knowing that they will be able to repay them, however. I suspect that I was more fortunate than others because I went into chemistry, a field in which stipends commonly support five years of graduate study. I recall explaining to my mother, who was lobbying for me to get a job after college, that I would actually get paid to attend graduate school.

To me, the psychological hurdles were perhaps more difficult to surmount. Being the first in my family to earn an advanced degree has in some instances created a divide between me and my friends and family. I’ve had to balance my professional life and responsibilities with being “one of the guys.” Plus, education and academic employment have frequently required me to move, adding a physical distance to the existing divide. Another psychological stumbling block unduly influenced my childhood— my parents’ divorce. This event instantly undermined my self-respect and eroded my confidence. Although I’ve redeveloped confidence over the years, the effects of that initial loss were evident in all aspects of my life and made each educational obstacle that much harder to overcome. Ironically, academic successes, in turn, helped to restore my confidence in general.

At every stage of my schooling and career, I felt forced not only to learn the course materials but also to decipher the educational process. A combination of hard work and fortunate events, cast against doubt and uncertainty, has defined my path. Granted, the hurdles to the PhD are difficult for anybody to clear. I believe, though, that some hurdles are unique to first-timers.

I have developed an external response to express my internal feelings: be thankful and be confident. I repeat this simple mantra frequently. In fact, it’s posted on the inside frame of my office door so that I see it every time I walk out. Above the tunnel leading from the University of Notre Dame locker room to the football field is a sign that reads, “Play like a champion today.” But a football team has an opponent to contend with; I have only myself to battle. They have their sign, I have mine. Be thankful, be confident.

Next Generation

Education has afforded me a lifestyle far removed from that of my childhood, but it is one that remains largely unavailable to my parents. Because of this, I’ve become modest—perhaps to a fault. All parents want their children to have it better than they did. Now that I’m a father myself, I naturally want more for my son than I had, and I don’t want him to feel the same guilt that I do. In some sense, I feel that my accomplishments have been not only for myself, but also for my son. I’ve pioneered the educational system for future generations of my family. I expect that what I have learned will translate into more opportunities for my son and the ability for him to make more informed decisions throughout his life.

I can only hypothesize that one reason for the small number of first-generation science doctorates is that the personal experiences of others have been similar to what I encountered. Surely there are others in my situation whose experiences do not exactly coincide with mine. But it would be hard to disregard the additional barriers faced by first-timers. I may not be one in a million, but my decisions could easily have led to an outcome in which I did not succeed in academic science. But I did succeed, I cannot forget how I got here, and I may well need to remind myself of this  in the future. Be thankful. Be confident.

Randall Hicks is assistant professor of chemistry at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. His e-mail address is hicks_randall@wheatonma.edu.

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