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Navigating Two Realities: First-Generation College Students Reaching the Postdoc
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Volume 15, Issue 1 (January 2017)

J. Marcela Hernandez, Vanessa González-Pérez, and Mahadeo Sukhai

Challenges faced by undergraduate students whose parents never attended college make their educational advancement particularly vulnerable. And the challenges persist as first-generation students continue their training as graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.


Compared to their peers, first-generation college students are more likely to carry the burden of financial responsibilities. They may have little to no family support and may lack a mentoring network drawn from family and friends. Not surprisingly, many fail to graduate. Those who do graduate  typically take longer than their peers to complete their bachelor's degrees, and they accumulate high levels of debt.


When first-generation students reach graduate school, they find themselves exposed to a new environment surrounded by peers and faculty from vastly different backgrounds. Most of their fellow students (69 percent percent of doctoral recipients, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates 2014) have at least one parent who earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Financial and family stressors and feelings of “not belonging” or “fitting in” are common for first-generation students. These factors have important consequences for how they navigate the process, seek support, and make decisions regarding their careers and professional development (Cameron et al 2015).


In addition to having to cope with financial difficulties and family obligations, first-generation graduate students have fewer mentoring relationships and behaviors, according to recent work at the University of Texas Graduate Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Biomedical Sciences. However, the researchers identified some useful intervention strategies for these students: personal development seminars and money management workshops, as well as raising awareness among administrators and mentors to the issues faced by this group (Chubin and DePass, 2015). 


Many challenges continue during the postdoctoral training stage, further affecting professional and personal development of first-generation scholars. Developing strategies to support first-generation college students as they progress through their careers could benefit scholars. Yet research institutions generally lack mechanisms to continue support of these scholars on their road to academic or non-academic careers. Even for the few that do reach a faculty position, the support systems to address their needs are almost nonexistent.


“’Academic culture is idealistic, individualistic, and universalist… First-generation students may be more practically and relationship oriented, and they can be torn between the two cultures of life’ in the university and life at home.” (Carrie Cameron, in Chubin and DePass, 2015).


The realities first-generation postdocs have experienced in their personal and professional lives starkly contrasts with those of their peers. In academic circles, people rarely talk about financial compensation as a motivating factor for career choices. Most first-generation scholars can’t afford to ignore this. The financial and personal implications of moving to a new geographical location for every step of training are also rarely discussed. The amount of privilege first-generation scholars observe around them is at odds with their own reality.


Those from more privileged backgrounds have created the current training programs and career paths. Thus, the academic environment has become exclusionary and sometimes toxic for those who are different. First-generation scholars often feel that they do not belong and leave research, contributing to the lack of diversity in the research enterprise.


Vanessa González-Pérez, a contributor to this article, shared her experience:


“As a first-generation scholar, I acknowledge that graduate school was a challenge, and the idea of navigating professional and personal life after graduate school was a scary thought. Scary, because despite the professional development I acquired during my training, I was still trying to figure out how I ‘fit in’ in the different environments I was considering. More important and overwhelming was the idea of how I was defining or representing myself as a scholar and how my decisions would impact those after me. The struggle was real and the pressure to perform above average was a big stressor.”



Though first-generation scholars are more likely to be from underrepresented minority groups, one-fourth of white doctoral recipients are first generation. These scholars come from social groups in the United States that are falling behind in economic and educational attainment and largely ignored in conversations about diversity. The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign made this group and its cultural crisis more visible, as noted in the recent article What Liberal Academics Don’t Get. However, this is a problem that has been brewing for quite some time, as J.D. Vance describes through sociological and personal analysis of in his recent memoir Hillbilly Elegy.


To create a more diverse and inclusive research workforce, more efforts and initiatives need to include first-generation scholars from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Recognizing the two realities these scholars navigate in their academic and personal lives will better enable efforts to retain them in the research workforce.


J. Marcela Hernandez, PhD, is the arts and sciences director for graduate and STEM diversity at The Ohio State University and diversity officer for the NPA. Vanessa González-Pérez, PhD, is an assistant dean for diversity initiatives in the natural sciences at Princeton University and diversity officer for the NPA. Mahadeo Sukhai, Ph.D., is head of the Variant Interpretation Group in the Genome Diagnostics department at the University Health Network in Toronto, the director of research for the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, and past vice-chair of the NPA Board of Directors.


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