Skip to main content
BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

Navigating Academia as a First-Generation Student

Authors: Tegan Hargreaves and Vanessa Parise

First-Generation Student: postsecondary students whose parents never obtained a postsecondary degree.

The University of Georgia states that “first-generation students enroll and graduate at lower rates than do other students”, but these data don’t take graduate students into account! 

Learning to navigate academia is difficult, but may be more so for first-generation students. In this article, two first-generation students, Vanessa and Tegan, discuss their experiences in graduate school and try to help you navigate this unfamiliar landscape.

Vanessa's Story


My name is Vanessa and I am a first year Master's Student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program. I consider myself to be a first-generation graduate student as I am the first person in both my immediate and extended family to pursue a career in the sciences and attend a post-secondary institution. Having this opportunity has brought me both joy and fear as I continue to navigate the academic landscape. 

There have been many challenges as I navigate this new landscape, but there are a few journey that stick out to me. The two most pivotal were applying to graduate school and navigating my first semester there. Below I outline these experiences: 

1. Applying to University for my M.Sc.: As you are all aware, applying to graduate school is much more involved than the undergraduate application. Here, I struggled with three main issues.

  • My elevator pitch: One of the largest parts of the graduate application is the personal statement. In this statement, it is crucial to paint a good picture of yourself. I struggled with how I was going to format everything I wanted to portray myself to application reviewers.
  • Cold emailing professors: Once I thought I had a good grip on my elevator pitch, I had to start applying it to securing myself a potential supervisor. I was unsure as to how much information I should include, what would make me stand out compared to other applicants, and if a professor answered, how would I approach this first meeting. 
  • Feeling as if there was no one to help: The overarching feeling I had with all aspects of the application process was feeling that I had no one to help me. There were people I had around me to review my work but there was no one who could truly provide advice from a place of experience. For many students in my position, this becomes the scariest part of the journey.
It is important to mention that I was rejected from graduate studies at McMaster in the Neuroscience program the first time I applied in 2021. Although this was originally a hit to my confidence, it did help me to figure out the missing pieces of my original application that I was not able to catch the first time around.
    2. Navigating Graduate School: 
    • Although I was overjoyed to be accepted in my second application year, I had this lingering imposter syndrome that made me think that I was just lucky this time around.  The reality of the situation is that we all earned a spot in this program regardless of how we feel about it.
    • Another thing I struggle with are my own expectations as a graduate student. Just like graduating from high school to university, there is always a transition period. Navigating this transition has been challenging as I am still unsure of what is expected of me. Thankfully, through the use of some of the resources available to us, I have been able to figure things out.

    Although I am still very early in my academic journey, I have learned a lot from my trials and tribulations as a first-generation graduate student. Below are my key takeaways.

      1. Think highly of yourself 
      2. Talk to senior graduate students 
      3. The Internet can be your best friend for general tips 
      4. Reach out to your program coordinators for guidance 
      5. Ask for help when you need it 

    Tegan's Story


    My name is Tegan and I am a second-year PhD Neuroscience Graduate Program student. I finished my BSc in Psychology: Brain and Cognition (now the Neuroscience program) at the University of Guelph in 2015 and my MSc in Neuroscience at Queen’s

    University in 2019

    Navigating Graduate School: I first heard the term “first gen” a few years back and quickly found a community of other academics that I easily related to. Neither of my wonderful parents attended post-secondary school and work in more “blue collar” fields; I have a younger sister who completed a certificate program through George Brown. A few of my extended family members have degrees, but none are scientists or in academia. In my undergraduate degree, I struggled with managing courses and time, but in my graduate career, I’ve found the divide to feel much larger

    I have found navigating the political landscape of academia to be especially difficult. As someone who grew up in a family in the customer service industry, worked in this industry, and was late-diagnosed with ADHD, I find I struggle with the nuances of academia. I struggled with figuring out how to reach out to professors for the first time (do you call them by their first name? Mr/Ms? Dr?). I wasn’t sure what a committee was when I started my master’s degree, let alone what a committee meeting was. And, I assumed that as long as I was friendly and kind I would get what and where I wanted to go.

    I’ve realized and learned that while being a soft spot for others to land is important, it won’t get me where I want to be. I’ve had to learn how to professionally stand up for myself and not be okay with tolerating nonsense or unethical behaviour from others (including superiors). I’ve also learned the importance of saying “no” when I have no time left to help. These are two things I have really struggled with, but with some time and practice, it has gotten easier.
    Other Things I’ve Learned:
      1. When you are emailing with someone, always refer to them as Dr. _____ (if they have a PhD/MD) and from there on out, how they sign their emails is their preferred title.
      2. It’s okay to say “This is something new to me. Can you help me with it?”
      3. Taking a deep breath to stop and think about the question has always helped me feel more put together and confident when answering.
      4. Therapy is never a bad idea! 
      5. Get involved with as much as you can. You’ll meet other students, and they’ll help you figure out what to do and how to get where you want to be. Building this network is so important. A lot of academia is who you know - having more connections is never a bad thing!
      6. No one knows what they’re doing. The people that you think have it together more than likely are making it up as they go. I know that’s how I feel!
    While I have found being a first-generation student can be isolating at times, I have also found it to be incredibly rewarding. I have found that being able to tell my friends and family about my research progress and what I’m working on has allowed me to get much better at understanding my project and why it matters. I have a huge team of cheerleaders who are always excited to celebrate my little successes like getting a poster abstract accepted, finishing coursework, or making progress on projects. Having this team of people cheering me on continues to remind me that I can do anything I set my mind to.

    My mom always tells me that “life is not a direct path” and that as long as I work hard, I will get to where I want to be. While my path looks different to some (I didn’t do an honors thesis, my undergraduate grades weren’t straight A’s - anything but!, taking time off after each degree to volunteer/work, having to figure out things on my own through brute force), I have still managed to complete two degrees and am part way through a Ph.D. So, remember life is not a direct path. Work hard and you’ll land where you’re meant to!