First-generation graduate students, the first in their family to go to college and then go on to graduate school, can lack an understanding of the entire process of earning a Ph.D. and how to navigate the research environment experience – from the application and admission process to career transitions and alumni status. The experiences of first-generation graduate students can reflect the challenges faced by first-generation undergraduates, but graduate studies certainly open up new and unknown obstacles.
We cannot assume that just because first-generation students have successfully passed their college years, they will navigate smoothly through graduate training. From our experiences advising graduate students, we see that institutions are aware of the challenges of first-generation undergraduates, but may not pay as much attention to such concerns for these graduate students. Here are some of our thoughts for both first-generation students and the people at colleges and universities who support them.
For first-generation graduate students
If you are the first in your family to follow the path to a graduate degree, you can often feel completely alone, without people asking for explanations or role models to look for cues on how to navigate graduate school. This is true not only in the learning that takes place in graduate laboratories and research groups but also in all other aspects of graduate student life.
On the personal side, you may feel confused about many aspects of a graduate student’s financial operations, such as understanding income tax ramifications or setting up health benefits. You may not realize the importance of engaging in some extracurricular activities or how and when to apply for fellowships and other funding. You may not know about campus support resources such as career development, a writing center, or tutoring – or, on the other hand, you may feel alone to get remedial support and feel like you are the only one being directed to tutoring.
You may feel a great deal of anxiety about being “the only one” – whether it’s the only person asking a question in group settings or being seen as the only person who knows nothing fundamental about graduate school. In graduate school, you may find yourself for the first time far from the support system of family and friends, yet you may also feel the burden of needing to fully succeed in your education after graduation, and thus not allow your family to see your struggles. Or when your family shares some of your concerns about graduate school, the new realities of your life may be completely unknown and incomprehensible to those who have not previously experienced it.
What first-generation graduate students need most to succeed is a sense of belonging, usually within a community. Fundamental aspects of society include interdependence among members, interdependence, trust, interaction, shared expectations, shared values and goals, and intertwined histories among members. In high school this translates to finding camaraderie and it means more than just a circle of friends – it has to be a safe place where you can ask for anything and be yourself. Research culture places academic advancement above all other things, and research is usually an independent project, but you cannot be successful without the support of the community.
Finding a community on campus is important to all graduate students, and while informal groups and friendships certainly provide support for first-generation students, formal or established groups can provide more information and strengthen and expand relationships. They can also provide safe spaces where you can ask about anything and be yourself, as well as discover that you’re not the only one facing graduate school challenges.
The most common places to find safe, community places are student-led organizations, student centers, or groups focused on health, gender, identity, or diversity/multicultural affairs. These communities may focus on supporting undergraduate students on your campus, but they are at least a starting point for creating or expanding spaces for graduate students if they don’t exist otherwise. Additionally, on each campus, you can find faculty or administrators who are open to nurturing and supporting the development of your group or organization if you wish to create a space for graduate students. Alumni career advisors, diverse educators, and student affairs professionals are just a few of the people who might be able to help.
Be open and willing to benefit from all mentors, other than your academic supervisor. Build trust with your mentors, but also find new mentors. Remember that they will not necessarily come to you and ask if they can guide you.
Get to know the faculty as well as the faculty, and from there develop relationships, especially with those who work in career development offices, writing centers, or teaching/learning centers. Faculty and staff members who act as advisors to cultural organizations and clubs on campus are another important resource. You’ll find a variety of role models, and if you’re not familiar with the other first-generation students on your campus (although there are probably some), you will certainly find role models among graduate school graduates who go out in the world doing amazing things and want to Talk to you.
Build your skills, self-confidence, and self-efficacy. To advance in your higher education and get into a subsequent job, you will definitely have to get out of your comfort zone. But the concept of community means that you will have a comfort zone to return to to catch your breath and regroup when needed.
If you are an older graduate student, remember that not everyone knows the things you do. Once you have a seat at the table, bring more chairs – encourage others and be attentive to new students who may be lost or unsure. Having said that, you may also sometimes feel pressured to guide and help others. Do work that supports other first-generation graduate students if you can and when possible, but it’s okay if you prefer not to focus or need to focus on other things at certain times.
For those who work with first-generation graduate students
All members of the educational community have a responsibility to ensure that training spaces focus on respect, promoting inclusion and diversity, valuable mentorship, and encouraging professional and personal growth. We often don’t share best practices about first generation consulting, or assume that colleagues in other offices are managing it.
Be aware that mentoring is a two-way relationship and avoid making assumptions and generalizing when interacting with first-generation graduate students. Students who may appear to be self-sufficient or thriving may in fact need support, and not all first-generation students should automatically be placed in educational or remedial programs. Individual Development Plans (IDPs) are a great tool for students to engage in self-reflection and then guide you in subsequent conversations to specific areas of interest.
If you are already supporting first-generation students, share what you know with colleagues who may not have much experience. If you are new to working with this population or have not thought about it before, find colleagues who can help you increase your experience. You may be able to develop new knowledge and skills while providing support and key information. If you yourself are a first-generation graduate student, sharing your story can help others.
Think about the resources on your campus that support graduate students, and realize that first-generation students may find it difficult to locate and access them. Consider what it might look like to come to your campus without any knowledge of its culture and practices, and identify avenues or resources in which graduate students can look for help.
As you assess how graduate students may navigate your campus, consider the concepts of accessibility and information transparency. We often fall back into the assumption that our students are demonstrably intelligent and therefore must be able to find their way through processes and activities without direction. If you’ve worked in your role for more than a few years, it’s easy to forget how much information new students have to assimilate to assimilate into the high school culture. So think about how it felt when you were new to your role and environment. Many universities offer “redirect” programming, which is a great way to help students discover or re-engage with campus resources after core courses or qualifying exams have passed.
Finally, consider whether your campus offers communities or spaces in which first-generation students may find support. If you can’t think of anything, work to create alumni and student-friendly collegiate resources. If these groups or spaces already exist, and you haven’t already interacted with them, reach out to their leadership or organizers to find out more.