You’re a first-generation graduate student—how do you succeed?
By Luendreo Barboza
My mother was born to a poor, illiterate but hard-working family in the slums of Brazil. Education wasn’t a source of income, so it was devalued and prohibited by her parents. Instead, she was forced to work at a young age. Despite this, she spent long nights studying by candlelight and finished high school. Her education and ambition brought her financial stability, despite Brazil’s turbulent economy. However, she was determined to provide better opportunities for her young boys.
My mother emigrated from Brazil to the United States, with nothing but courage and her two children by her side. We didn’t have much money growing up. I too had to work at a young age to help the family, but my education was always a priority. I eventually became the first in my family to attend college and seek a Ph.D. in neuroscience. It wasn’t easy. Without much familial guidance, my experiences in science has been shaped by trial and many errors. I have picked up some tips along the way, and I want to share them with other first-generation graduate students as they navigate graduate school and chart a future career in science.
1) Think big and plan well. What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in the next year, five years, ten years? What do you want to accomplish (these can also include non-career goals)? Take the time to write down a clear plan for yourself to accomplish these goals. Establish deadlines, sub goals and steps to accomplish them. Organize your daily life so that your tasks bring you closer to these goals. You can even use the time management matrix (https://sidsavara.com/coveys-time-management-matrix-illustrated/) to construct a detailed daily planner (I do it by the hour). Be disciplined but understanding about how you plan your day. This is a valuable skill in any endeavor your take on.
2) Get involved! I cannot stress this enough. As a first-generation graduate student, you, by definition, have a smaller network of professional resources. Getting involved in your department or school is an effective way to build up your network. During the end of my second year, I was heavily involved in planning our departmental retreat. I worked not only with other graduate students but also with faculty to help plan scientific and social events for this annual gathering. This was the perfect icebreaker to connect with classmates and mingle with professors. I was even able to joke with a renowned professor about the struggles of being raised by poor parents. His happened to be rodeo performers. If there are any opportunities to work with your colleagues (planning committees, clubs, departmental retreats), take them! Working on common problems generates rapport and brings you into a community of students and faculty and makes it easier to approach them for questions and resources down the line. And who knows? You might find out some professors are more human than you think.
3) Keep your focus. In my second year at New York University, I wanted to do it all. I joined a rock climbing gym and a Salsa dance team; I took day-long bike trips to upstate New York — all while trying to make headway on my research project. Finally, a stern email from my advisor made me realize I was spreading myself too thin.
We need fun, of course, to stay sane. As a Ph.D. student, your insatiable curiosity probably pushes to you to explore new activities and places — that’s probably why many graduate students play in brain-themed rock bands or hike in the French Alps. But your degree and career should be your main priority. After the email from my advisor, I quickly made adjustments to put my work ahead of my hobbies. For now, salsa dancing is enough until I get my degree.
4) “Impostor syndrome” is real. I opened my NYU acceptance letter and after the initial screams of excitement, doubts creeped in the back of my mind. I was lucky, I thought. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. If my interviewers had asked me one more probing question— “What was the main finding in Tom Sudof’s 1996 publication on vesicle trafficking?”—they would have figured out I was a fraud. How could I be in the same institution with other students and faculty who seemed so intelligent?
Impostor syndrome plages scientists and many other high achieving professionals. The reality is, you worked hard to get here. You developed a strong resume, earned the confidence of past mentors, applied to graduate school, outcompeted many applicants and then proved to a committee of senior faculty that you were suited to be in their program. Trust their judgement and your skills! Never stop telling yourself that you deserve to be here.
5) Pester your peers! You and your classmates are struggling with the similar problems: class assignments, dealing with advisors, all the while trying to achieve some semblance of a social life. Lean on your fellow graduate students. Ask them questions. What study strategies do they use? How are they choosing an advisor? How and when are they preparing for milestones like qualification exams and grant applications?
In the beginning of my graduate years I was struggling with an electrophysiological course while other appeared to be acing it. I built up the courage to ask another student for advice. Turns out, I was focusing too much time on the material in the book when I should have been studying the slides, cited articles and attending more office hours. This advice was pivotal for my success in the class. Who knows how long I would have continued to struggle on my own?
6) Values matter as much as experience. I couldn’t rely on my mother for academic guidance—she had never seen a college application or taken the SATs, much less understood the intricacies of research. But her perseverance and grit had a large impact on me. I realized it’s not what you know—no one is born knowing the citric acid cycle or the protocol for in-situ hybridization. It’s about how hungry you are to learn. Your values and attitude will push you to obtain the knowledge and experience you need to succeed. The best advice for any graduate student is to get up and keep trying.
First generation students are naturally disadvantaged. We have fewer resources and less guidance than many of our classmates. It’s going to be hard. We are going to make mistakes. But you have already made it this far, and there is so much more you can accomplish.
Luendreo “Lou” Barboza was the first in his family to attend college, acquiring a bachelors degree in genetics from Rutgers University. He is now a Ph.D. student at New York University’s Neuroscience Institute.