The “Grad School Thing” as a First-Generation Student

Ok, first thing first, this should be blog 8/52, and this is… indeed… 2/52. In my own defence, I have actually been writing just nothing that I deemed “publishable.” This is a learning curve, folks. We’re going to use the opportunity of Open Education Week to catch up, so tune in next week for lots of thoughts on Open Educational Resources. Second thing second… this one is really long. I apologize. 

Anyways, on to not-so-regularly-scheduled programming! 

If I had followed the “traditional” path of education as of today, Feb 28th 2021, I should be in the last few weeks of a two-year masters degree. That, obviously, is not the case. So let’s talk about some of the reasons why. 

As a first-generation student, I spent a lot of time trying to navigate university’s academic realm — office hours, majors, minors, whatever on earth subsidiaries are. In the first and second year of my chemistry degree, I had friends who could comfortably articulate that they wanted to do research, where they wanted to do it, and what awards they wanted to do it with. To me, that was all a foreign language. Cut to the end of third year, I start as VP Academic of the StFX Students’ Union, a full-time summer job (and definitely not research). At this point, I was beginning to think about what to do next, and grad school was the obvious next step, so off to look for grad schools I went. I visited Carleton University during that summer and met with their MSc admissions team. They told me that without research, an honours thesis based on that research, and a few higher marks, I wouldn’t be accepted into their program, and I would be hard-pressed to find “someone” that would take me. 

Well. Sh$t. 

So, my sad heart and I went back to StFX, worked through the academic year, did not apply to any graduate schools, graduated with a BSc major in chemistry and re-applied to StFX to do what we needed to do: a little research and a little thesis writing. 

At that point, I was comfortable with the honours streams and how they worked. I wasn’t super sure about research, but hey, we made it work! Science occurred! There was data! It was collected! The “grad school thing,” however, was another story. I was doing what was said needed to be done, but that didn’t make me feel any more prepared than where I was the year before. I read university admissions pages which often contradicted the spoken advice of “find a supervisor first, then you apply.” I had no idea what a “statement of purpose” or “research proposal” was, and I had no idea what StFX’s research office was actually telling me when they kept saying, “Tiffany, the NSERC GC-MS deadline is soon!!” Thus, the second time when I should have been applying to grad school came and passed. 

Let’s take stock. At this point in the story, it’s May 2020, I now have 1 BSc with a major in chemistry, 1 BSc with first-class honours in chemistry, 1 summer worth of research, 1 thesis (admittedly some hesitation about wanting to do more chemistry), and still 0 idea about what to do about grad school so I began working. That brings us to this grad school application cycle. 

I applied to four (and a half technically) schools, in three completely different disciplines, in two different countries. So let’s walk through how those went: 

School 1: MSc in Chemistry 

I spent a lot of time looking for a supervisor who met the things I was told to look for: had interesting research, could take on more grad students, who I could get along with. I found one. So, we set up a zoom call that went fine until the supervisor said, “Okay, I assume you have many questions about the program, so what are they?” and I did not. What do you ask about grad school when you do not know the first thing about grad school? What do you ask about funding packages or teaching assistantships or research assistantships when you don’t know what those things are? Anyways, I felt discouraged from the grad school thing yet again. Simultaneously, going through that process, I was already pulling my hair out about grad-level quantum chemistry. I decided it was time to break up with chemistry and pass along a memo that I wasn’t interested in pursuing that option further. 

Now, we’re applying to other disciplines, which provided a whole new set of challenges because all of the grad school advice we received up to this point has only been about MScs in chemistry!!!!!!!! 

School 2: Masters of Education — In the US 

Spending a couple of months doing educational research as a job and overall finding my interests/hobbies/almost every waking thought all being surrounded in the post-secondary sector, I decided that an MEd would be a good fit. So after consulting with a friend (Hi Heather), I started applying to a school in the states. Heather helped me write a great statement of purpose letter, and as an alumna, she was my reference (only one required). Then, I embarked on this incredibly expensive and rather stressful journey of having my transcript “certified” (which basically just means someone says, “ah yes, this is a BSc in America too). I was accepted! Officially, we had the first taste of success at the grad school thing. Unfortunately, the timing of this acceptance to a school in a different country during a pandemic combined with a HUGE knowledge gap of things like student visas didn’t exactly work out, so I declined the offer, and we were back at square one. 

School 2.5: Masters of Education — Also in the US

While applying for school 2, I also applied to school 2.5, which I will tell you all was Elon University in North Carolina. They are offering a great program with incredibly kind and supportive staff. Unfortunately, the program I was applying for didn’t have international accreditation yet, so I couldn’t enroll, but I want to say that if you’re looking in the states, check them out. They were supportive and accommodating, even knowing I wasn’t an eligible student—an enjoyable interaction. 

School 3 and School 4: Masters of Public Policy and Administration 

MPPA? Curveball, right? I didn’t (and don’t, can’t lie here) know much about what public policy is or what an MPPA program would entail, so I had never considered one. Then, one day as I was recounting my lack of success with grad school thus far, Jessica (Hi Jessica) asked me why I wasn’t applying to these types of programs, one’s that take research and turn it into policy or suggestions. So, off we went, applying to this program. Because this program is course-based, you don’t need to find a research supervisor. You simply fill out the application: 1 statement of purpose, CV, transcripts, 2 references. I re-worked my previously successful school 2 statement into two letters discussing how I became interested in higher education/what I would hope to learn in an MPPA/each school required things to talk about, and sent it along with my other documents. I probably checked the “grad app portal” 900 times waiting for any change. Ultimately, I was accepted to both. 

So this brings me to ask a question I wish someone asked and acted on a long time ago: what are undergraduate universities’ responsibilities in supporting first-generation students transitioning out of university? 

From my experience and observation, I could make a strong argument that first-generation students aren’t adequately supported coming into the university. Yet somehow, they’re supported even less when leaving the institution. This needs to change. 

Some quick thoughts: 

  • Hire first-generation student advisors, especially if you’re at institutions targeting more rural regions to come to your school.
  • Host grad school information sessions that talk about the difference between things like thesis-based or course-based, statements of purpose, funding packages. 
  • Have your research offices host parallel sessions about external funding BUT ALSO work to ensure if these are happening that they’re accessible. NSERC GC-MS probably means nothing to a student who has no idea what they’re doing. 
  • Have sessions about all of the other things you can do that are not grad school and fall outside of the business school. Yes, it’s great that the third accounting firm of the week is doing a hiring fair on campus, but it only affects one small group of students. 
  • Do your best to remove barriers—any barrier. A student can’t afford a transcript? Don’t charge them. A student needs a reference letter? Write it. A student needs institutional support? Write it. A student needs someone to read their statement of purpose? Read it and provide feedback that is helpful and not harmful. 
  • Do all of these things early because if any student was in the same boat as me, they wouldn’t know what is required to go to grad school until it’s too late. 
  • Do all of these things with kindness, compassion, and pride in your students’ success. 

These are straightforward things that will make a positive impact on your students. If these had happened for me, maybe I would be finishing grad school instead of just starting. 

That brings me to a personal announcement. I am so excited that I have just accepted my seat and an incredible scholarship package for the Masters of Public Policy and Administration program at Carleton University for Fall 2021. While a part of me has those first-gen student jitters of navigating a foreign land all over again, I can not wait to see what lies ahead now that we have figured out the “grad school thing.”

3 thoughts on “The “Grad School Thing” as a First-Generation Student

  1. Congratulations, Tiffany! As a current first- gen undergrad student myself, I can absolutely relate. I think others will, too.


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