Being the first in my family to seek out a high-level degree through advanced graduate studies has been challenging. In fact, navigating undergraduate studies without guidance or support from my parents was a hurdle in and of itself even before entering my PhD program. When I came to learn that I was not alone in this experience, that I was a “first-generation college student”, it was comforting. The unique challenges that I have experienced are actually quite common for many first-generation students. The lack of financial resources and social capital; the heightened sense of imposter syndrome; the feelings of inadequacy and isolation; and the struggles of navigating the ‘hidden curriculum’ of higher education… It is as though all of the barriers to success are laid out before you when walking into a graduate program without other connections or resources to help you out along the way.
The second year of the program I am currently enrolled in has a reputation for being the toughest year in the program. Whilst balancing a heavier-than-usual courseload, we are expected to teach undergraduate students, conduct an original research project, and learn how to build rapport and apply therapeutic techniques with actual therapy clients. I am sure this sounds familiar to other Clinical PhD students. Talk about a lot of spinning plates! As tough as it was to balance all of these expectations, I persevered and managed to defend (and pass!) my thesis defence – the last major box that needed to be checked before obtaining my Master of Science (MS) degree en route to my Clinical Psychology doctorate. I had heard stories that it is not uncommon for PhD students to forgo walking the stage to receive a diploma for their masters in programs such as mine – as the ultimate goal is really the PhD. However, I decided to do two things to celebrate: (1) I attended a first-gen cording ceremony, wherein I received a cord to wear at graduation as a symbol of my accomplishments as a first-gen student, and (2) I chose to walk across the stage to receive recognition for the work I have put in over the past two years. Every milestone counts in a long-term program such as a PhD program, and the weight of these moments does not go unnoticed by first-generation students.
Importantly, the weight of our accomplishments does not go unnoticed by others. I recently attended a workshop on our campus for supporting first-generation students, and I recall chatting with numerous other attendees. Honestly, I was moved by the interactions I had. Some of the professors I have looked up to for the past two years shared that they were also first-generation students, and I instantly felt starstruck – how did they get to where they are today with such limited resources and support? Further yet, some of my fellow colleagues in attendance shared that although they were not first-generation students, they wanted to learn how to support those who are. These interactions truly touched me, and I was floored by the number of people asking questions at the end of the event that more or less touched on the same idea: What can we do to help support our first-generation students?
Based on my own experiences, I wanted to share some words of encouragement and even some tips to alleviate the struggles you might face as a first-gen PhD student:
1. You may feel like you don’t fit in – it’s OK to remind yourself that you deserve a seat at the table.
Entering a program where most other students have had their parents to lean on for academic guidance and support, or even assistance with buying or renting a new home or apartment, can feel alienating. I know for me, personally, I have felt this way. It can be challenging to be the only one in a room full of colleagues who come from a place of support. Know that your voice can provide a different perspective and challenge the status quo. It’s scary to speak your mind sometimes, but don’t count yourself out before you’ve even had a chance to contribute.
2. Navigating academia will be challenging – use your resources wisely and put yourself out there.
Publishing papers, giving talks at conferences, and teaching undergraduate classes; all of these things are expected in a PhD program, yet there is often little training or guidance in how to actually do any of these things. I often see colleagues publish one paper after another, and I have continually asked myself: ‘How do they do it?’. When I see panels put together for academic conferences, I often wonder: ‘What connections do they have?’. Being put in charge of teaching a class of undergraduate students for the first time this year, as part of my Teaching Assistant responsibilities, I couldn’t help but ponder: ‘How do I help these students succeed if I am still trying to figure things out myself?’.
Leaning on mentors has been immensely helpful for me. For example, letting your mentor, who has likely been publishing in the field for a longer period of time than you have, provide frequent feedback on your manuscripts will only help move you that much closer to publication. Additionally, asking more senior colleagues in your program for examples of their work so that you can get a feel for academic writing and presentation styles in your specific field is highly recommended. Truth be told, wherever you can find an offer for a blueprint, whether it be for a Curriculum Vita (CV), an academic manuscript, or a high-stakes presentation that you will have to do at some point in your program; save it and use it. Don’t force yourself to reinvent the wheel, as you already have enough barriers to obtaining your degree.
If you see someone in a role that you would really like to be in some day, ask them how they got there. Most of the time, folks are more than willing to tell the tale of what it took for them to obtain this position – and networking with them may help later on when you go to apply for or nominate yourself for that role. Never underestimate the power of networking, as it can open doors and opportunities.
Finally, if you find yourself in a role where you are teaching or mentoring undergraduate students, be open with them. Tell them you are a first-generation student and so may require some patience as you navigate the challenges of teaching. You will learn from your students what works and what doesn’t. Plus, those who come from a similar background may feel more inclined to seek out guidance from you, as you are in a role that they are considering seeking out, and the candid honesty will be much more helpful for them.
3. Build a community for yourself outside of academia.
A PhD program is a big deal. Let yourself build a community outside of the lab and outside of the classroom. Find hobbies outside of academia entirely and spend time with friends who are not in your field. Although we often must work harder as first-generation students to overcome the barriers that we face, you cannot complete it without rest and relaxation along the way. Remember that you deserve breaks when you feel you need them – you don’t have to earn them.
4. Don’t forget that you are a trailblazer.
You are doing something that no one else around you has done – whether that be your parents, your guardians, or perhaps your older siblings. In fact, you are quite possibly working to break a generational cycle of poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage, as most first-generation students (including myself) also come from low socio-economic backgrounds. It is tough being the first to do anything – that’s a given. Find a way to remind yourself that you are going places that haven’t been gone before in your family, and that you are working towards goals that are possibly even greater than yourself (i.e., by obtaining a degree in a helping profession, or by working to discover unknown phenomena). I know that you are likely resilient by nature – let that resilience and persevering spirit carry you forward and shatter those glass ceilings.
The pieces of encouragement and tips I have shared above are all things I have learned along the way and continue to remind myself of every week. If you are a first-generation student, know that you are not alone. I see you and I recognize all the hard work you’ve put in to be accepted into your PhD program, to maintain your good standing, and to build a future for yourself that once felt so far out of reach.
In case anyone hasn’t told you yet – I am so proud of you!
Continue striving for the future that you want and let your unique voice be heard.
And remember: you absolutely deserve a seat at the table.