Navigating Graduate School as a First-Generation Graduate Student

Published: Tues., April 7, 2020

Being first-generation at the graduate level could be defined two ways. The first is the traditional definition of the student not having a parent that completed a bachelors degree who is continuing on with their education. The second definition classifies graduate first-generation as from families where neither parent has received a degree past the bachelors. Research and services typically focus on the continuing first-generation student. Both populations have similar concerns and challenges.

Continuing first-generation students represent approximately 30% of doctoral degree recipients. They were less likely to have obtained an undergraduate degree from a research-intensive institution (Roksa, Feldon & Maher, 2018). The challenges faced begin near the end of their undergraduate school when students are encouraged to think about graduate school and begin the application process. Just because undergraduate and graduate students interact with faculty regularly does not mean they comprehend what the expectations are or how to navigate through the program, especially if they have never known anyone else who navigated it themselves. There are also some unique nuances of graduate education that can be confusing even for those who successfully navigated their undergraduate studies. If guidance is not provided, it promotes a system of trial and error which may deter or delay progress through to the degree (Lunceford, 2011). Programs such as the McNair Scholars Program recognize the need to develop activities and learning experiences to better enable the participants to go to graduate school. Many postsecondary institutions have or are beginning to develop institutional programs and activities to help the first-generation student navigate through their educational programs and make the most of their experiences. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is one of those institutions.

To make the process less-intimidating, programs and first generation students can take steps to assist in their educational success. The following are some suggestions:

  1. Identify faculty and staff mentors at UNL who can assist in the navigation of the process and overcoming the barriers. This advice is appropriate for all students, particularly so for first-generation. It is understood that there are additional concerns for first-generation students. Finding people that can assist you will help overcome them. UNL has asked faculty and staff to self-identify as first-generation so that students will be able to connect with them. The Dean for Graduate Education is one of them!
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the process, the programs, and the faculty. Become your best advocate. Visit with the Director of Graduate Student Support in the Office of Graduate Studies ( who is also first-generation.
  3. Talk with your program Graduate Committee Chair. This is a faculty member from each program appointed to advocate for the students, graduate education and faculty within their programs.
  4. Learn the resources available to you. The Office of Graduate Studies has staff to assist in understanding the expectations of progress through your program, professional and career development. Be familiar with your program’s Graduate Student Handbook.
  5. Identify resources. There are many resources on campus that will ease the stress and complexity of the process. In all the university offices, the staff members want the best for you.
  6. Explore online resources. Here are a few websites to explore for additional information:


Lunceford, B. (Fall 2011) When first-generation students go to graduate school. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 127, 13-20.

Roksha, J, Feldon, D. F., & Maher, M. (2018) First-generation students in pursuit of the PhD: Comparing socialization experiences and outcomes to continuing-generation peers. Journal of Higher Education, 89(5), 728-752.