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Old black and white photo of college womenGuest author Jess Waggoner is a doctoral candidate in English at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research specializes in modernism, disability studies and queer theory.

I got lucky with my graduate institution and cohort, where elitism is somewhat unfashionable. However, as a first generation college student entering graduate study, I still struggled with the secret codes of academia: something as small as e-mailing a professor or colleague would take an embarrassing number of drafts.

In my experience, there are comparably fewer resources on being a first-generation graduate student than there are for being a first-generation college student. This post is more specifically directed at those who are both, and for those for whom economic hardship was (and still is) a barrier to higher education. However, it’s safe to say that almost no one is prepared for the paradox of graduate education: the expectation that we dress, speak, and professionalize as if we were making $40K+, while living on a stipend often less than $15K. For most graduate students, this is an awkward class negotiation. For first generation college students or students who grew up in lower income families, this contradiction can produce feelings of awkwardness, at best, and anxiety, at worst.

Impostor Syndrome” is often thrown around as a one-size-fits-all pathology for first-generations, women, students with disabilities, and students of color who feel uncomfortable with the conventions of the academy. Let me change the terms of the conversation a bit: you don’t have a “syndrome.” Academia is just a confusing system that isn’t always the most transparent. I grew up homeschooled in the rural South, then attended a high school where pursuing higher education was uncommon. My undergraduate experience at a private college left me feeling out of place, as no one I knew worked multiple service jobs to pay tuition. As a slightly obnoxious class warrior by the end of my undergrad experience, I knew I had to figure out a way to negotiate the socioeconomic confusion that is higher education, mediating between what could be known as “selling out” but also appreciating the resources graduate study can offer.

I’m still learning, but here are a few things I picked up along the way to help me deal with these feelings of disorientation:

#1: Beg, Borrow and Steal

Books: We all like to feel prepared, but if you don’t see yourself possibly revisiting Being and Time for your dissertation, by god don’t purchase it. I saved hundreds of dollars (which were useful when exams came around and I really needed to buy books relevant to my field) by being honest with myself about which books I really needed to own.

Clothing: Begin accumulating a business-casual wardrobe where you can find it cheaply, of course, but this won’t usually come in handy until after your first year. Don’t make the same mistake I did by panic-buying a nice blazer for the department reception and feeling overdressed, overheated and suckered. My weight fluctuated drastically throughout grad school (oh, sedentary exams) so I’m glad that I stuck with niceish skirts, cardigans, and button-downs, saving the blazers for conferences and interviews. Other GradHacker posts have shared tips for developing an academic wardrobe on a budget.

#2: Observe

Go to department events: see and be seen. It took me four years to stop feeling anxious at academic social events, especially talks and workshops. The solution was to just keep doing it, rather than avoiding it. I found myself attending talks and receptions just so I could see how the “pros” did it (also to snag free food at the reception).  It’s a cheap and delicious way to professionalize and get un-awkward. Graduate conferences are also a great place to do this in a low-risk atmosphere. I wish I had done a graduate conference my first year to demystify the process. Here’s a great piece on rocking the conference proposal.

#3: Always Ask

If you’re not sure if you qualify for an award, ask. If a speaker you are interested in is coming to campus, find out who’s in charge and see if they can add you to a student lunch, or at least allow you to walk them somewhere. If you attend a talk you particularly liked by a visiting speaker, don’t hesitate to e-mail them and (briefly) tell them how much you enjoyed it. Also don’t hesitate to ask questions about the profession itself—what the heck is a dossier, anyway? 

#4: Talking to Your Family

“When are you finishing up? You’ve been in school a long time. I thought you were a teacher, not a student. What are you studying again?” Graduate study can be difficult to explain, even for students whose parents have graduate degrees. Your family may never understand what you do. In fact, hardly anyone understands what you do. That’s ok. It doesn’t invalidate what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it. I still struggle with feeling like a sellout on a daily basis, and these feelings may never go away. But I also can’t believe how many wonderful people I’ve met, how much I’ve learned, and how many new and once-terrifying things I’ve tried in the last five years. When chatting with your family, stay positive about your experience and emphasize what you’ve learned or your most recent accomplishments (I have great students this semester, I’m traveling to Boston to present at a conference this spring, I have an article coming out).

#5: There are more of us than you think

It’s easy to think that all of your professors and colleagues must come from money and always know which fork to use, but this just isn’t the case. Sure you’ll meet the occasional jerk who magically never seems to be in a squeeze for conference funding, but as you get to know your colleagues, you’ll be surprised how many of them grew up in similar situations to your own. Look for allies rather than enemies. They may still be on their parents’ phone plan or are able to ask for a small loan when in a jam, but hear them out. And finally, don’t beat yourself up if those pesky impostoring feelings creep up—they’re a good barometer of your ability to identify the growing pains and strange disjunctures that come along with being in academia.

What other advice would you share with first generation graduate students?

[Image by Flickr user Yvonne Thompson, used under creative commons licensing.]

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