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From First-Gen College Student to First-Gen Grad Student
December 12, 2013 - 10:26pm

photo of university campusAlicia Peaker is the GradHacker Development Editor and a PhD candidate in English at Northeastern University. Her research examines women’s literary and artistic contributions to ecological discourses in the first half of the twentieth century. She tweets @aliciapeaker and blogs here.

Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at kdshives.com and on Twitter @KDShives.

At my high school, fewer than 10 percent of graduating seniors went on to four-year colleges. I can’t imagine what that number looks like for graduate school. Although first-generation college students are relatively well-studied (though still not well-supported), there is a major lack of research about first-generation grad students (FGGS).

All this week we’ve featured posts by grad students who have shared their experiences and strategies for adapting to graduate school as an FGGS. You don’t have to be an FGGS to identify with many of the themes we’ve covered this week (imposter syndrometranslating your work for your family, and more) or to use the strategies each author has laid out. At the same time, first-generation students do face some unique challenges that can affect performance, time-to-completion, and drop-out rates. So here are a few more strategies for making the transition from college to graduate school as a first-generation student.

Find out how you work. Many grad students performed well in college classrooms. We’re good at school. That’s why we keep doing it. But doing well in the classroom doesn’t always translate to becoming a productive and successful academic. When I entered my exams, I felt like a rug I didn’t even know was there was pulled out from under me. Suddenly I had tons of time and tons of work, but no idea what to do with either of them.

Of all my time in graduate school, this phase was where I was held up the most, and a major part of that was just trying to figure out how I worked. I finally realized that I wrote best in the mornings and in a coffee shop, so I built that into my schedule and my budget. Every time I teach a writing course or workshop now, I ask my writers to work out where, when, under what conditions they are most productive.

Fight imposter syndrome. With so many peers having credentials such as multiple publications, industry experience, or significant time working on their own projects it can be very easy to feel that you don’t live up to the standards set by your cohort or that you somehow don’t fit in. It is amazing how fast you can lose the feeling of accomplishment that comes with an admissions letter when you start comparing yourself to everyone else around you.

The funny thing is that ALL of us (not just first-generation students!) struggle with these feelings from time to time. In fact, you might be surprised to realize that even some of the people you respect the most have issues with this. Talking to other students and faculty is important if you want to stay in touch with reality and not end up feeling like you aren’t cut out for graduate study. You might even be surprised to find that others think you’re doing a great job even though you don’t at the moment.

Get comfortable with failure. While I can’t speak for other disciplines, anyone doing laboratory-based research for a graduate degree needs to have a good understanding of just how much you will fail. Experiments will not work. You will analyze data with the wrong approach by accident. Cell cultures get contaminated. Someone will forget to label a critical expiration date. Always remember that these kinds of regular failures are NORMAL and do not mean that you are incompetent, merely learning. And there is a LOT of learning in graduate school. At a certain point, graduate school is more a test of how well you can learn from failures and keep persevering rather than producing perfect work.

Finally, let’s just take a minute to talk about shame. Many graduate students experience embarrassment or shame when they haven’t heard of that scholar or read that book. But shame can be compounded for first-generation grad students who may feel an extra level of shame about being an FGGS.

For example, when I started my graduate program I realized that I did not know how to really read primary literature. For the life of me I could not figure out how my peers were able to cover all the journal articles for class, and I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t keep up. For a while I thought it was due to me being from a smaller state school while many of my peers were from private institutions and had impressive credentials, so surely they were smarter than me and that was why I couldn’t keep up. Nope! Turns out most of the other students skimmed the figures and discussion sections just enough to discuss them in class. It had nothing to do with my intelligence—I just didn’t know about a common shortcut because I hadn’t had experience with high-volume coursework.

Feeling ashamed about our FGGS status can feel like a betrayal of our backgrounds. A key part of dealing with this feeling of “background embarrassment” is to remember that our lives are not stationary and that while we may have defined our lives by a certain kind of upbringing or background, there is no reason that we can’t honor that history while growing in new, often unexpected, ways.

Graduate school and professional academia may seem overwhelming at first, especially for those of us unused to the norms and customs of this community. Just like Jess mentioned in her previous post on first generation students, there are more diverse backgrounds in academia than we may imagine at first glance. Sometimes taking a moment to speak with those around you can remind you that you are definitely not alone in this process. Many of these feelings and issues are not unique to first generation students, and as such there are many, many other people around you going through similar situations with whom you can speak and find community.

What challenges have you faced as a first-generation grad student? How have you met those challenges?

[Image by Flickr user bram_souffreau used under creative commons licensing.] 

 

 

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