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On Becoming a First-Generation Grad Student


grad studentJust as first-generation undergraduate students often struggle to figure out how the college system works, those who go on to grad school without a family mentor may face some basic challenges in learning the ropes. Add online delivery to the equation and the curve could get even steeper as you navigate the system at a distance.

As I researched one of last month’s posts about online communities and graduate student culture, I came across a couple of references to “first-generation” learners at this level, too. My own experience as a graduate student could be described as first-generation, now that I look back on it. The National Center for Education Statistics’ definition [PDF] includes, “students whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education.” I wasn’t a first-generation college student, my parents had completed associate degrees (in some ways ahead of their time while working and raising a family), but I was the first to go on to graduate school.

From the applications and admissions process to completing your coursework and finding job placement, there’s a lot to do. Whether you pursue graduate studies online or in a hybrid program, take a closer look at some of the things you can expect.

The Same, But Different

The day-to-day life of undergraduate and graduate students can be pretty similar – with classes to attend, assignments to submit, and textbooks to read. However, the nature of these components may require some adjustment as you move from one level of higher education to the next. Idealist.org’s Grad School Resource Center includes guidance on preparing for the shift. You can expect to find:

  • Student diversity: Idealist.org notes that graduate students are, as you might expect, generally more diverse than undergraduates in terms of age and prior experience. Your classmates will enter graduate study from a range of points in their careers, from new college grad to experienced professional. University of Phoenix and Western Governors University are just two institutions that provide student demographics information online.
  • Decisions and choice: Idealist.org adds that “As a grad student you will have more autonomy and less guidance.” While many online graduate programs are quite structured, you should still have some flexibility in terms of your pacing and research interests, working with an advisor to make sure you stay on track.
  • [Virtual] campus life: The traditional campus atmosphere is obviously absent in online programs, but there is still a culture of support that surrounds the experience, often focused on library resources. Take advantage of opportunities to get more familiar with support services for online graduate students provided through new student orientations, and reach out to speak with service agencies by conducting your own virtual campus tour.

Academic Expectations

Bruce Lunceford, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, wrote about his experiences as a first-generation undergrad and grad student, highlighting the “compounded challenges” of advanced degree programs “when first-generation students go to graduate school.” His recommendations for the transition, which help set the tone for on campus and online students alike, include the following:

  • Carefully select an area of focus, “that will sustain [you] through [your] coursework, thesis, or dissertation.” You’ll be spending a lot of time, maybe several years, extending your knowledge in this specific area, so it is important that the topic be engaging enough to keep you moving forward, even when things get difficult.
  • Be willing to immerse yourself in your discipline. Understand that “in graduate school the required readings are merely the beginning …. The readings will become much more intense.” This focus informs your work and allows you to “become not only a consumer of knowledge, but also a producer.”

New Kinds of Opportunity

In addition to opening up advanced courses and research, graduate study can also present new activities and resources, including:

  • Assistantships: Teaching Assistants facilitate lower level courses, Research Assistants are involved in ongoing scholarly research projects, and Graduate Assistants fill an array of roles working with faculty members and administrators. All of these assignments result in additional experience helpful in future career decision-making and networking, especially if you are interested in academic work. They may also offer funding in the form of tuition waivers or stipends. While more prevalent on campus than online, online assistantships do exist, so ask your advisors about the possibilities. Consider proposing an assistantship-type project if you have something in mind that would benefit both you and the program or institution.
  • Faculty Mentorship: You might be assigned an advisor, likely a faculty member, but in many programs it will be up to you to identify potential advisors and ask them to formally serve in this role. As a graduate student in a program focused on research, especially at the doctoral level, it’s important to look for a good fit with topics of interest. North Carolina State University advisors also recommend that you “consider how a prospective advisor’s personality and working style mesh with your own.” There will be many meetings and conversations to come, so it’s important to find someone you can work with.
  • Scholarships and Fellowships: You may be eligible for a number of scholarships and grant programs as a first-generation or first-in-family graduate student. This type of support is often found at the undergraduate level, but many online databases such as FinAid.org list graduate funding opportunities, too.

Resources for Support and Assistance

Many first-generation students find it difficult to convey their academic experiences to their families and co-workers. Higher education is a unique path with its own set of requirements for advancement, which may not make sense to someone on the outside. I remember trying to explain to my parents how important it was, for example, to publish my papers in journals. While I was thrilled at having manuscripts accepted, a result of months of work to accomplish, but with no financial reward, they weren’t so sure. Their support for me was immense, but they weren’t advisors in the process.

I learned to navigate master’s programs, like many others, with a lot of trial and error. My experience working as a career advisor to students on a college campus opened my eyes to things like curriculum and expectations. What can you do to find out more about the experience and what you should do? As Lunceford points out, while finding a mentor is beneficial, many “students are left to their own devices, armed only with a course catalog and online registration system.” Use these resources, but go beyond them to:

  • Connect with your classmates. Chances are you aren’t the only first-generation graduate student in your program or institution. Through conversations with your peers who have similar concerns and questions, you can share what you know and have learned, and support each other throughout the process.
  • Talk with alumni. Online education serves many first-generation students. What can previous grads from your program or program of interest share with you about how to better use available resources, choose your classes, or talk with your professors?
  • Take advantage of institutional resources. It may not be obvious in any of your records and not on your faculty advisor’s “radar” to ask questions that would lead to the referral of resources that could help you reach your goals. From financial assistance to a more thorough explanation of policies and procedures, ask for the support you need.

Being a first-generation student doesn’t affect your ability to be successful, but could add to the list of challenges to overcome. Just as you likely experienced in other new endeavors, as an undergraduate or new employee in training perhaps, persistence is key.

What are your concerns about pursuing graduate studies as an online learner? Share your questions with us here.

August 9th, 2013 written by Staff Writers

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