A Short Guide to Navigating Graduate School as a First-Generation Student

Devon Cantwell, PhD student, University of Utah

As a first-generation scholar in political science, I have learned that a great deal of the information you need to flourish in a Ph.D. program is “hidden.”   These tips are generally applicable to all graduate students but I think they are particularly critical for first generation graduate students who may have fewer resources and less knowledge of the ins and outs of the academy. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but emphasizes some important ideas and resources that I have personally found to be useful. If you want to talk about these any further, feel free to e-mail me at devon.cantwell@gmail.com or Tweet me @devon_cantwell.

Find a Mentor

This must be your #1 priority when you apply and start your program. While you will likely have some restraints in your course work and your research/teaching assistance requirements, be proactive about meeting with faculty who share your interests and who have a personality that clicks with yours. It might be that the person who is *perfectly* aligned with your research is… well… less than friendly or approachable. That’s okay! They don’t even necessarily need to be in your department to be a good mentor.

So, this brings us to the next question– how do you choose a mentor? Good mentors should do the following:

  • Listen well.
  • Look out for opportunities aligned to your work and goals and make sure you are aware of them.
  • Connect you with other scholars and graduate students.
  • Help you set boundaries (with colleagues, superiors, and yourself).
  • Set and maintain clear expectations.
  • Provide regular and open communication.
  • Give good, honest, and actionable feedback.
  • Be able to provide encouragement.
  • Have your back.

Apply, Apply, Apply

There are so many amazing opportunities for first generation students out there to receive additional financial and developmental support while in graduate school. Even if you are in a fully funded program, you should still apply for these opportunities. They will help you build your networks and also sharpen your skills as a researcher and academic. No one will ever fault you for applying for too many things and you can always say “no” if you get something and it isn’t a fit. Applying for external things during graduate school also helps prepare you for the world of grant writing once you have a job in academia.

Build a Network 

As an introvert, this is probably the most difficult part of academia for me. There are LOTS of different ways to do this.

  • Conferences: My least favorite way of networking is through conferences. Generally, it’s way too many people for me and I feel like the interactions can be superficial at best. However, I usually get a couple of meaningful connections through some authentic interactions. The person that got me back on Twitter was actually someone I met at a conference when we shared a tableat ISA last year (shout out to Meg Guliford).
  • Classes: Keep good company. An unfortunate truth is that some professors will use your associations with other students as a heuristic device for assessing how “serious” you are as a student. Build relationships with folks who take their courses seriously and can challenge you academically.
  • Campus Involvement: I’m a strong believer that having friends in other disciplines is a critical part of being a good POLS scholar. Having friends across departments and disciplines will help give you fresh ideas and perspectives. Additionally, because different disciplines may be trained differently, it can be beneficial if you need someone stronger in a particular method (like ethnography or longitudinal analysis) as a co-author. I build my connections through interdisciplinary projects I’ve joined but have also made some connections by taking courses out of my department and being involved with our student governance.

Ask for Help

People often pretend that they know way more than they actually do when it comes to graduate school. You may get into your program and realize that you don’t know how to study as well as you thought or that your time management is a mess. Finances might be really tough. Ask for help. Find people who are good at these things and ask how they do it. Their advice won’t always work, but you are more likely to find a solution by asking for help than by going at it alone, suffering in silence.

I remember I nearly keeled over the first few weeks in. My IR Proseminar class assigned about 300 pages of reading per week. I was reading every, single, page until my professor taught me the magic of skimming for graduate courses. For more on this topic, read this article titled “Reading in Graduate School” from Dr. Sean Lawson.

Everyone is an Imposter—You Deserve a Cut

Imposter syndrome kicks in for everyone at some point. I’ve started to realize that everyone is an imposter in some way and that I at least deserve a cut on this scheme!

Graduate school also tends to wash up mental health problems like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, etc. Joining a therapy group, getting individual help and even medication, using online therapy apps (like Talkspace), or even just increasing meditation through apps like Headspace are all valuable coping tools and resources. When I looked at programs, I made sure to speak with the Graduate Studies Director to ask about  mental health resources and the department’s views on mental health.

It’s additionally important to recognize that graduate school shouldn’t be a traumatic experience. Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel has an excellent piece about this that can be found here. If something seems wrong, it probably is. This is where having a mentor becomes critically important for your success in a program.