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The Challenges of being a First-Generation Academic

Being a first-generation academic can be tough. You may face many challenges in your education and career. Find out how to cope and succeed in this article.

The Challenges of being a First-Generation Academic

Imagine you are applying to graduate school. You are the first person in your family to have completed your Masters, and are now looking forward to pursuing a PhD? But you do not know where to start, what topic to choose, where to apply, where to look for funding, or how to draft your personal and research statements.

Or, imagine you got accepted into the PhD program of your choice. It was one of your happiest days. However, you have no idea what this would entail. You are nervous because no one in your family or friend circle went to University, and so you had no role models or guidance growing up.

Or, imagine you are a first-generation academic who has just completed your PhD. You have spent the last five years researching and have published several papers in reputable journals, presented at various conferences, and received positive feedback from your supervisors and peers. You are proud of your achievements and eager to pursue a career as a professor. However, as you start applying for academic jobs, you realize that the odds are not in your favour. You face fierce competition from hundreds of other applicants, many of whom have more publications, grants, awards, or connections than you. You also encounter subtle or overt discrimination based on your class, race, gender, or other aspects of your identity. You struggle to fit in with the academic culture that seems to value prestige, status, and elitism over competence, passion, and curiosity. You feel isolated, frustrated, and disillusioned. You also feel betrayed because your PhD supervisor or the University did not train (warn!) you for this.

If you happen to fall into one of the scenarios above, you might be a first-generation academic. This means that you are the first person in your family to pursue a higher education degree. You might also be the first person in your family to work in an academic setting, such as a university or a research institute.

Being a first-generation academic can be both rewarding and challenging. It can be both a source of pride and a source of stress. On the one hand, you have the opportunity to pursue your passion, contribute to the advancement of knowledge, and make a positive impact on society. You have achieved something remarkable and admirable, breaking the cycle of educational disadvantage and opening new opportunities for yourself and your loved ones. On the other hand, you have to face many challenges that your colleagues who come from more privileged backgrounds may not understand or appreciate. You may face many obstacles and barriers that can hinder your progress and success. Some of these challenges are common to all graduate students, such as stress, workload, and isolation. But some are specific to first-generation academics, such as lack of social and cultural capital, financial insecurity, psychological distress, and imposter syndrome.

In this article, I will share some of the challenges that many first-generation academics face, and provide strategies on how to overcome them. My goal is to inspire and empower you to thrive as a first-generation academic, and to show you that you are not alone in this journey.

Challenge #1: Lack of Social and Cultural Capital

person writing bucket list on book

Social and cultural capital refers to the resources and networks that can help you access opportunities and achieve your goals. For example, having connections with professors, peers, alumni, or industry professionals can open doors for you in terms of research collaborations, funding sources, career advice, or job prospects. Having familiarity with the norms and values of academia can also help you fit in and communicate effectively with your colleagues and supervisors.

However, as a first-generation academic, you may lack these forms of capital. You may have come from backgrounds that have historically been underrepresented and marginalized in academia. You may not have any role models or mentors who can guide you through the academic system. You may not know how to network or build relationships with influential people in your field. You may not understand the unwritten rules or expectations of academia, such as how to write a grant proposal, how to present your work at a conference, or how to publish a paper in a journal.

How to overcome it:

  • Seek out mentors who can support you and advise you on various aspects of your academic career. These can be faculty members, senior students, or alumni from your program or institution. You can also look for mentors outside your immediate environment, such as online communities or professional associations.
  • Attend workshops, seminars, webinars, or courses that can help you develop your academic skills and knowledge. These can be offered by your department, university, or external organizations. You can also find many free or low-cost online resources on topics such as research methods, writing, presentation skills, statistics, etc.
  • Learn the rules of the game by reading books, articles, blogs, podcasts, or videos that offer guidance on various aspects of academic life. You can also ask questions, seek feedback, and observe how others behave in different situations. You can also take courses or workshops that teach you specific skills or competencies that are relevant for your field.
  • Join academic clubs, societies, or groups that are relevant to your field or interests. These can help you meet new people who share your passion and goals. You can also participate in events or activities that can expose you to different perspectives and experiences.
  • Be proactive and reach out to people who can help you advance your career. For example, you can email professors whose work you admire and ask them for feedback or advice. You can also contact editors or reviewers of journals where you want to publish and ask them for tips or suggestions.
  • Be open-minded and curious about the culture and values of academia. Learn from others who have more experience or expertise than you. Ask questions when you don’t understand something or need clarification. Respect diversity and appreciate different viewpoints.

Challenge #2: Financial Insecurity

fan of 100 U.S. dollar banknotes

Pursuing a PhD can be financially challenging for anyone, but especially for first-generation academics who may not have any family support or savings. Depending on your program and location, you may have to pay for tuition fees, living expenses, research materials, or travel costs. You may also have to deal with unexpected expenses, such as medical bills, car repairs, or family emergencies. Moreover, you may not have a stable or sufficient income source, as most PhD stipends or scholarships are low and competitive. You may also face restrictions on working outside your program or taking on additional funding opportunities.

This may be especially challenging if you hail from low-income or working-class backgrounds and/or if you have experienced poverty, debt, or hardship. You may also have family responsibilities or obligations that require you to provide financial support or care. As a result, you may struggle to afford the costs of pursuing a higher education degree or working in academia.

How to overcome it:

  • Apply for financial aid, scholarship, or assistance from your program, university, or government. There may be grants, loans, bursaries, or waivers that can help you cover some of your expenses. You may also qualify for tax credits or deductions based on your income or status.
  • Look for alternative or additional sources of funding for your research or education. These can include fellowships, awards, prizes, or grants from external organizations, foundations, or agencies. You can also seek out paid opportunities such as teaching assistantships, research assistantships, internships, or consulting projects.
  • Manage your budget and expenses wisely. Track your income and spending habits and identify areas where you can save or cut costs. For example, you can use public transportation, share accommodation, cook your own meals, buy second-hand books or equipment, etc.
  • Seek financial advice or counseling from professionals or peers who can help you plan your finances and deal with any issues or challenges. You can also find online resources or tools that can help you with budgeting, saving, investing, or debt management.
  • Seek emotional support from friends, family, or counsellors who can help you cope with any stress or anxiety related to your financial situation. You can also join support groups or communities of other students who are facing similar challenges and share your experiences and tips.

Challenge #3: Psychological Distress

woman in black long sleeve shirt covering her face with her hands

Being a first-generation academic can take a toll on your mental health and well-being. You may experience high levels of stress, pressure, and anxiety due to the demands and expectations of your program and career. You may also feel isolated, lonely, or alienated from your peers or colleagues who may not share your background or experiences. You may also struggle with self-doubt, low self-esteem, or low confidence due to the lack of validation or recognition from others. You may also face discrimination, bias, or prejudice from some people who may question your abilities or legitimacy as an academic.

How to overcome it:

  • Recognize and acknowledge your feelings and emotions. Don’t ignore or suppress them. Accept that they are normal and valid responses to the challenges you are facing. Understand that this is part of the process.
  • Seek professional help if you are experiencing serious or persistent mental health problems. You can contact your institution’s counseling service, health center, or medical clinic. You can also find online resources, such as websites, apps, hotlines, or chatbots that offer mental health support.
  • Practice self-care by taking care of your physical and emotional well-being. You can do this by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly, meditating, relaxing, or engaging in hobbies or activities that make you happy. You can also set boundaries and limits on your work and say no to unreasonable demands or expectations.
  • Find your community by connecting with people who share your interests, passions, goals, or backgrounds. You can join clubs, societies, groups, or networks that are related to your field of study, your hobbies, your culture, your identity, or your cause. You can also participate in events, activities, or projects that allow you to meet new people and make friends.
  • Celebrate your achievements and strengths by acknowledging and appreciating how far you have come and how much you have accomplished. You can also recognize and leverage your unique skills, perspectives, and contributions that you bring to academia. You can also seek positive feedback and recognition from others who value your work and support your growth.

Challenge #4: Imposter Syndrome

silhouette photography of man

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where you doubt your abilities and skills and feel like a fraud or an impostor. You may think that you don’t belong or deserve to be in your program or career. You may attribute your success to luck, chance, or external factors, rather than your own merit or competence. You may also fear being exposed or found out as a fraud by others.

Imposter syndrome is common among many graduate students and academics, but especially among first-generation academics who may face more challenges and barriers in their journey. You may feel like you are not smart enough, qualified enough, or experienced enough to be an academic. You may also feel like you have to work harder, prove yourself more, or meet higher standards than others to be accepted or respected.

How to overcome it:

  • Recognize and challenge your negative thoughts and beliefs. Identify the sources and triggers of your imposter syndrome and question their validity and accuracy. Replace them with positive affirmations and evidence of your abilities and achievements.
  • Seek feedback and recognition from others who can validate and appreciate your work and contributions. Ask for constructive criticism and suggestions on how to improve your performance and skills. Accept compliments and praise without dismissing or minimizing them.
  • Find a balance between confidence and humility. Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses, but don’t let them define you or limit you. Be confident in your potential and capabilities, but also be humble enough to learn from others and admit your mistakes.
  • Embrace uncertainty and failure as part of the learning process. Don’t let them discourage you or stop you from trying new things or taking risks. Learn from your failures and use them as opportunities to grow and improve.
  • Remember that you are not alone in feeling this way. Imposter syndrome is a common phenomenon that affects many people, regardless of their background, level, or field. You can find comfort and support from others who share your feelings and experiences.


Being a first-generation academic is not easy, but it is not impossible either. You have overcome many obstacles and challenges to get where you are today, and you have the potential to achieve even more. You are not alone in this journey, and you can find help and support from various sources. You are also an inspiration and a role model for others who aspire to follow your footsteps. You should be proud of yourself and your identity, and embrace the opportunities and possibilities that academia offers.

You are a first-generation academic, and you belong here 🔥

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