Increasingly doctoral programs recruit and enroll first-generation college students without any programs or systems in place to aid their transition into academia. First-generation college students (FGs), or students whose parents did not receive a four-year degree, experience a multitude of barriers preventing or prolonging their educational success as they are more likely to identify as a racial/ethnic minority, come from low-income backgrounds, are more likely to experience a cultural mismatch in academic settings, have lower GPAs, and greater dropout rates compared to students who have at least one parent who graduated with a four-year degree. FGs make up one-third of doctoral degree graduates. Among the FGs who complete their doctoral degree, the majority do not end up at research institutions, instead they are overrepresented at teaching institutions or leave academia altogether. Despite the glaring need for support among FGs who enter doctoral programs little is known about their transition into these programs and the support they do or do not receive from institutions and their friends and family. This exploratory study sought to fill in this gap to better understand the needs of FGs entering and completing doctoral programs.
This cross-sectional study used in-depth semi-structured interviews to examine FGs’ perceptions about attending graduate school, their perceptions about the support received and needed during this time, and about how their relationships changed as they earned more education. To understand the transition into a doctoral program the interview guide was structured into four time-periods: pre-undergraduate, undergraduate, applying to graduate school, and current experiences. Each time-period elicited questions about academic, social, and financial support. First-generation college students in doctoral programs (n=16) were recruited between 2017-2020. Interviews ranged from 45-90 minutes, were digitally recorded, and transcribed verbatim. Utilizing grounded theory informed by content knowledge of FGs’ experiences in higher education, all data was analyzed using an open-coding strategy. Next, concepts and categories reflecting recurring themes were identified followed by the creation of the codebook.
FGs reported distinct differences in support needed and received as they transitioned from undergraduate programs into doctoral programs. FGs reported that their family members viewed attending and completing their undergraduate degree as a non-negotiable expectation, whereas attending a doctoral program was, at best, a foreign-concept. Participants reported that this key difference led to growing tension between friends and family. Additionally, FGs reported that the academic support they were accustomed to receiving in undergraduate, from programs dedicated to minority and FG students, decreased or in some cases were non-existent in their doctoral programs, though their needs for academic guidance increased.
FGs who make it into doctoral programs overcome a series of systematic barriers and need more social and academic support to be successful. To support the success of FGs in doctoral programs more explicit intervention programs, akin to those offered in undergraduate, are needed. As doctoral programs continue to recruit a more diverse student body a concerted effort must be put forth to support FGs so they both finish their degree and persist in academia.