This is a cross-post from our fellow APA blog, gradPSYCH blog, and is targeted toward graduate students from low-income backgrounds who may struggle with a sense of belonging at their institutions. Please share this post with the graduate students in your life.
By Kala J. Melchiori, PhD (Asst. Professor of Psychology, James Madison University)
Dear low-income graduate students,
If you come from a less privileged background, graduate school can present unique social and cultural challenges. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for low-income grad students after financial worry is belonging. Students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds report lower feelings of belonging during graduate school and beyond[i]. Students who feel they do not belong are more likely to drop out of their programs and steer away from high-prestige academic positions (like R1 or R2 tenure-track jobs) after they graduate. Below I offer some advice I wish I had heard before starting graduate school.
Tackle your uncertainty about belonging head-on
You can help cement the knowledge that you belong by making friends with your lab mates and cohort members. Your family and non-grad-school friends may not fully grasp the pressure you will be under, so your grad school friends are the key to navigating your first few years of grad school. Build friendships both in your cohort and with more senior graduate students to help you learn the unspoken rules and expectations of graduate school and academia. Ask questions, listen to others’ experiences, and consult others outside of your department to learn unspoken expectations.
Learning unspoken rules and expectations can be unbalancing. The sense that others know the ropes of grad school while you are struggling may lead you to question whether you belong. However, no one has their academic life completely together. We are all figuring it out as we go along, but you may only see your own struggle. Remind yourself that you have worked to get here and you deserve to be here. Help your new grad school friends overcome feelings of inadequacy by affirming them when they made a good argument in class or gave an impressive presentation. You’re not an imposter, you’re an apprentice and it takes time to gain confidence and expertise.
Seek out mentors
Uncertainty about belonging is related to privilege and cultural capital. Having role models who share your socioeconomic background can increase retention and academic performance[ii]. Connect with senior grad students or faculty who share some of your social identities for mentorship. If you are looking for a mentor who has a similar background to your own, find and email the diversity committee of a professional organization and ask about their mentorship initiatives.
Read the rest of the post here.