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Advice for First-Generation Graduate School Students

A group of students talking.

The idea of committing to the graduate school application and enrollment process can feel daunting.

How do I know this is the right next step for me? Can I afford it? Are the rumors true about the workload?

While most prospective graduate students will wrestle with at least one of these questions, for anyone who may worry (however unfounded) that they are "out of place" in a graduate school environment, there may be unique concerns and considerations.

My parents were first-generation graduate students. I was the only one of my close friends to pursue graduate studies outside of the arts. As a young woman primarily studying the humanities, I’ve had to fight my way into math and science classrooms, only to surprise my teachers and peers by performing at the level I had always said I was capable of.

Imposter Syndrome isn’t just a term that is tossed casually into research and articles; it's a genuine feeling of self doubt that you might experience if you look around and notice that you don’t quite fit the mold.

Keep calm. You are not alone. You are not an imposter.

Imposter syndrome is a risk, not a guarantee

Ideally, you’ve already been giving close consideration to your reasons for pursuing a graduate degree (or not). So if you've chosen to move forward, then you have already joined a large community of people who are well-qualified, slightly confused, and very anxious about graduate school!

Graduate schools are interested in investing in unique students who are dedicated to leading high-impact careers. If that describes you, then you absolutely belong in a graduate school environment. Whether you are considering graduate school or already enrolled, here are some tips on making it in the world of graduate studies.

Ask for support from your community (and then let them support you!)

Reach out to your undergraduate resources. Between alumni support and support from your major’s department, there may be information about pursuing graduate study that is specific to your degree as well as to your unique experiences. If your college is one that also offers graduate-level study, then you have the advantage of being referred directly to people who are making decisions about graduate students everyday. Your success is also the success of those who’ve invested in you.

Research programs you are interested in and contact whoever coordinates opportunities and services for students (this is usually the program director). Some graduate programs may have a dedicated community for supporting first-generation graduate school students. If not, the program director is the person who is most likely able to answer your questions or connect you with someone who can. As a bonus, if you end up attending a program where you’ve been in contact with the program director, then you have already created a powerful ally who will remember your name when opportunities come their way!

Here's what one first-gen grad student shared about his experience:

"I am a first-generation college student. Graduating with my BS from Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Natural Science with a minor in Secondary Education was already a feat that I was unsure I would accomplish. As a science major I was at times overwhelmed by the weekly exams in multiple classes and the push to graduate in four years. Sometimes, I had to take more than 18 units. When I began my fourth year, graduate school was the furthest from my mind. I needed a break.

Throughout college, I was lucky enough to have the support of my mentor and high school teachers to give me confidence. Initially, even thinking that I would be successful in a master’s program felt a bit far-fetched. However, my advisor (Ms. Carolyn Viviano) believed in me, and I soon realized that I would need a master's degree to keep my competitive edge and began to seriously consider applying.

After speaking with my mentor Neil, he encouraged me to not sell myself short. I believe his exact words were 'There are people you can find who you can leverage for support. Find those people.'

The experiential learning component is key to success in any masters program. Since I really enjoyed my experiences in education courses at LMU, I decided to look into their programs. I found the Los Angeles Math and Science program, a teacher residency program that would lead me into a master’s degree in multiple education concentrations. I decided to apply and pursue my MA in Urban Education with an emphasis in Administration and Policy. It was the best decision of my life.

I am currently in an administration program at Cal State Dominguez Hills and will have the tools necessary to be a school leader when I graduate. Every day I reflect about my decision to challenge myself and apply to graduate school. I know that if I had not asked people who I trusted for their opinion, I would not be headed where I am today."

- Fred Carr Loyola Marymount University alum, MA in Urban Education with an Administration and Policy emphasis

Be creative, patient, and proactive with financial aid

If you searched for scholarships for first-generation undergraduate students, you likely found quite a few. While there won't be as many available to study at the graduate level, it doesn't mean financial aid isn't out there!

Read the fine print, look into past recipients, and research each organization providing graduate school funding opportunities. For example, American Association of University Women is a nonprofit dedicated to empowering women with several graduate-level funding opportunities. They're invested in all issues relevant to promoting equity for women in education, the workplace, and beyond, and if you are a female first-generation student, then your story may resonate with this organization.

Also keep an eye out for any scholarships promoting diversity. If you dig into funding opportunity descriptions, you may find that some are available specifically for students in underrepresented groups, and as a first-generation student, you may be underrepresented in your school’s population. The University of Oregon’s scholarship promoting diversity specifically states “first generation of the family to attend college” as a preferential selection criteria and is open to both undergraduate and graduate-level students. 

Dress to impress (yourself)

Graduate school is a time to hunker down, prepare for your future, and get as much out of the program as you can. The more comfortable you are, the better. If jeans and a t-shirt are your preferred look, wear that to class so you can focus on the lesson and not on your presentation. If you are worried about going overboard on the casual look, you can check your school’s guidelines on attire, visit the campus for some observational research, or look on social media posts for what students are wearing. They accepted you into their program. Be yourself, show yourself.

For networking, professional events, and important presentations, you’ll only need a few staples to get you through the years and it’s similar to what you’d wear for a job interview. One or two dark colored bottoms, three to five tops, one or two clean cut jackets or sweaters, and one or two professional-occasions-only shoes are more than enough to get you started. Rather than splurging on new releases from high-end designers, start by borrowing, trading with friends, browsing less expensive stores, and using your local thrift stores. You can even find classic staples at thrift stores from brands known for quality construction that are in excellent condition. Your wallet and your wardrobe will thank you! Give back to a cause you believe in by shopping at clothing nonprofits.

Prepare to read A LOT, but it won't be limited to textbooks

Expensive college textbooks are officially a thing of your past (!). Instead of purchasing large textbooks you’ll rarely get through, your professors will mostly assign articles and books. The downside is that you will need to spend more time reading, and at a much higher volume, as your reading comprehension is being tested and strengthened. The upside is that the change in reading methods creates opportunities to give your budget a break!

Leverage technology, reserve books early at the library, and ask your professors or colleagues if they have copies to share. Some budget-conscious professors will let you know when earlier, less expensive editions of books are still relevant, or will keep a list of past students you can contact directly to buy or borrow their books. After paying for printing services at my library and waiting in long lines, I bought a tablet (which you can get for $100 or less) and used reading apps that support PDFs. I was able to store all of my articles in one place and could even find free or low-cost PDFs of the books that were needed. I ended up saving more than if I bought used books. 

Investing in your career development is an investment in your academic development

Today is always the best day to start focusing on your career development.

Any experiences you can add to your resume, networking events you can attend, or career-specific resources you use will help make you an ideal applicant to schools and help you make the most of your time in a program.

Internships are your friend. It’s possible to find paid part-time internships that will work with your scheduling needs and pay at a rate comparable to part-time staff positions. They can lead to job opportunities with employers that trust the quality of your work and may be willing to work around your course schedule, show your investment in a cause that relates to scholarship opportunities, and allows you to build “real-life” skills in conjunction with your academic development.

If an internship is not a feasible option for you, some graduate programs will offer courses at times that accommodate those who are working full time. With flexible scheduling, time-management skills, and a commitment to your subject area, balancing work and school is difficult, but not impossible.

"When I started my master's program, all I remember thinking was that I had to get this done as fast as possible, that I couldn't be in school for more than two years, and that I would do whatever it took to graduate in May 2015. As a first generation graduate school student, it was important to me that I was able to make the most of my degree program, prepare for my career afterward, and continue working so I could support myself financially without relying heavily on loans or outside support.

Originally, I was working at Boston's Children's Hospital. I signed up for my first semester and committed to an aggressive ten-credit course load. About a month into my program, my boss decided it was no longer OK for me to leave work at 4:00 pm one day a week to make my 4:30 pm class, a class that was basically the center of the program and the prerequisite for several others. Moving that course to the next semester would have had a downstream effect so significant that it would have thrown off the plan that I so strategically mapped out and would have pushed my graduation by a year!

So I quit.

I ultimately found a position that offered flexible work hours and was supportive of my school schedule.

Working full time and going to graduate school was one of the most challenging things I have ever done. I had to make major sacrifices when it came to both my professional and personal life. Going to class three nights a week for up to seven hours after working a full day required a level of commitment that I do not think I could have made if I had not been truly passionate about what I was learning."

-Shawn Mazor Suffolk University in Boston alum, Master of Healthcare Administration

Chances are, you already better prepared than you think! Use your undergraduate, career, and life experiences to help guide your graduate school experience. What were the strengths and weaknesses of your college applications? What qualities have you seen in the people that have mentored, inspired, or supported you? These types of questions can only be answered by you and will show how much of an expert you already are.

Fred Carr says it best:

"If I could give one piece of advice to first-generation students (undergraduate or graduate) it would be to look at yourself in the mirror. Think about all that you have been the first to accomplish. Ask yourself 'WHY NOT?' Why can't you also be the first to complete graduate school? Why can't you also be the first to earn your doctorate? I know you will have a lot of turbulent times. But that's life. Sometimes you just have to get it done."

- Fred Carr, Loyola Marymount University alum, MA in Urban Education with an Administration and Policy emphasis


By Jhia Jackson

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