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Specialized Degrees: Things to Consider

When First-generation Students Go to Grad School

October 2022

Commitment, stamina, intelligence and ambition are all qualities needed to complete any college degree — let alone one at the graduate level. And while first-generation students can embody these qualities as much as non-first-generation students, they may experience more complex challenges than other students along the way.

What are first-generation college students?

First-generation college students, or students who are the first in their family to attend college, are a growing population at universities across the country. Naturally universities want them to succeed but acknowledge that they may face different challenges than non-first-generation students and are trying to accommodate this population so that they experience the same success rates.

The challenges, or what some might call disadvantages, that first-generation grad students face start long before they even enter college. It has been shown that certain academic inequities such as access to AP® classes, private schools and higher performing public schools, affect first-generation students more than non-first-generation students.¹

Additionally, at-home support may be lacking in certain areas, like ensuring a college-prep academic track, researching schools, navigating the application process and overall advising about the college journey. This isn’t for lack of encouragement, but rather just lack of knowledge of what pursuing a college education entails.

Imposter syndrome

The feeling that one doesn’t belong amongst their peers or isn’t worthy of their position is called imposter syndrome and can be common within the first-generation grad student population. When faculty can support and help those students to feel welcome and worthy in their programs, the chance of program completion will increase significantly.

For this reason, it’s important for first-generation students to have access to a network of advisors and mentors who can help them navigate these waters. This continues to be the case when a first-generation undergrad decides to go to graduate school. They’re less likely to seek academic or financial advice from their parents or siblings, but will often find it necessary to turn to their undergrad academic advisors or professional mentors.

Advisors are crucial

With first-generation students lacking family members or even bosses that have college experience, seeking advice for grad school and navigating that process can be a challenge. This is why advisors in both the undergrad and graduate space are so crucial to this segment of the population. Advisors need to go beyond just helping students choose classes and discuss campus life. Advice on personal statements and who to solicit for a letter of recommendation are equally important to a first-generation student that may need help in these areas.

Taking the next step

Convincing a first-generation undergraduate student and their family to spend more money and time to get yet another degree could be a tough sell. This is yet another reason why undergraduate and graduate academic advisors, financial aid advisors and qualified employer mentors are such important resources. They’re in the unique position to help the student see the value of pursuing a graduate degree.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, people with graduate degrees can potentially earn significantly more income with a master’s degree than with a bachelor’s degree alone, depending on the occupation. However, obtaining that advanced degree will come at some significant financial cost as well.

Justifying the cost

While scholarships for first-generation graduate students may not be as plentiful as for undergrad students, there are still financial aid opportunities available. Researching one’s intended career path and the salaries and degree requirements that are associated with that will help a first-generation student justify obtaining a graduate degree. Statistically speaking, first-generation students tend to come from more underrepresented populations than non-first-generation students. There are a number of scholarships and grants available to students from those backgrounds, and specifically first-generation students.

The bottom line

There are many reasons that you may choose to go to grad school: a job promotion, higher salary, obtaining a dream job, fulfilling a research goal or just expanding your knowledge within your field of study. Whatever your reasons, it’s essential to have support for everything from searching for the right program, to securing financial aid, to getting accepted to a program that fulfills your goals.

1 The Challenges of First-Generation College Students | MGH Clay Center

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