Helen Pho, a first-generation grad student herself, offers six key pieces of advice.
Finding your career path after graduate school can be daunting when you come from a family in which your parents did not graduate from college and are not in professional roles. As a child of refugees who was among the first in my family to attend college and also the first to pursue a Ph.D., I often felt that understanding the job-search process and professionalism in the workplace did not come naturally to me.
Fortunately, working in career services as an undergrad, in executive search after my Ph.D. and now advising graduate students and postdocs at the University of Pennsylvania on their careers has given me a stronger appreciation for how first-generation graduate students can level the playing field and achieve career success. I will offer some concrete advice on how first-gen graduate students can prepare for their future careers based on my personal and professional experience. Some advice might seem obvious, but I hope the reasoning behind why each action is important can empower students who may not have career support from their families to feel confident in forging their own paths.
Network to find out how others prepare for careers. I recently met with a first-year Ph.D. student who came to career services before classes even began. She confided, “When I went to college, I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t realize that you had to start preparing for medical school right away. I just don’t want to make the same mistake in graduate school.”
As her story demonstrates, sometimes you may not know what you don’t know. Start talking to students ahead of you to learn what they’re doing to prepare for their careers, and ask your faculty members and department administrators to see what kind of jobs graduates of your program have gone into. Don’t wait until you’re about to graduate to figure this out. Attend events in your department and school and at your university, and approach networking as simply talking with other people to learn from them.
The term “networking” can make graduate students feel uncomfortable, but it’s just talking. This is how people increase their social capital, the knowledge and resources people gain from social relationships and networks. Gaining access to such information early on will help you as you explore careers, identify possible career goals and start working strategically toward those goals.
Cultivate strong professional relationships. Looking back at my first job out of college, I had no idea then, as I do now, how important doing good-quality work and developing a meaningful relationship with my boss would be to my future career. I was fortunate to have an amazing leader in my organization, who not only helped me get into a Ph.D. program by reviewing my application materials, even though it meant my leaving the office, but would later help me land three additional jobs by either introducing me to people in a position to hire or providing glowing references on my behalf.
As you progress in your graduate program, keep an eye out for a person who could serve as a mentor, usually an experienced professional who informally guides you through your career development. It can be someone senior to you or in a supervisory role who is willing and interested in helping you grow professionally by talking with you and offering career advice.
The mentor-mentee dynamic is relationship driven, and in order to build a relationship, you’ll need to earn that person’s respect by exhibiting professionalism, delivering on good work and going above and beyond when you can. Additionally, cultivating a mentoring relationship as a mentee also means you should draw on the advice and experience of your mentor by asking questions that demonstrate your interest in that person’s career and seeking their guidance on professional decisions. Be courageous in sharing your first-gen story and background as well. Often, showing you can be vulnerable can strengthen their impression of and relationship with you, especially in light of everything else that you’ve achieved thus far.
Bet on yourself and say yes. Impostor syndrome, the feeling of not belonging in the world of academe, is common among many graduate students, including those who are first gen. You might feel that you won’t have a shot at an opportunity because you’re not as impressive as someone else who has accomplished more, but don’t reject yourself. In many cases, you simply won’t know exactly which candidate the search committee or hiring manager is looking for.
So apply to opportunities you’re excited about even if you don’t hit every single criteria. Of course, there is a trade-off; applying can be time-consuming, but don’t let self-doubt be the reason why you don’t do so. Bet on yourself, given your track record of academic and professional success. Asking mentors for their advice on whether you should go for something can also help you make these decisions while strengthening your relationship.
Do something outside your research to gain professional experience. For those of you considering jobs beyond academe, know that most hiring managers and search committees value seeing that you’ve done something else besides just being a Ph.D. student. Whether it’s joining a graduate student group, doing an internship or externship, or volunteering with a local organization, you’ll want to pursue at least one opportunity during your graduate program in the career field you’re most interested in. This will allow you to discuss how you’ve put relevant skills to use and contributed to making an impact through your job documents and interviews. If you volunteered with a nonprofit organization to help coordinate a large community event with civic and corporate sponsors, for example, you’ll be able to share your experience collaborating with different stakeholders and managing a large-scale project when you write your bullet points on your résumé and share stories in your interview. By participating in an activity outside your research, you may also be able to grow your professional network and develop relationships with people who can advocate for you in your job search. They can give you an enthusiastic referral if you’re applying to a role in their organization or provide a ringing endorsement during reference checks when an employer is considering offering you a position.
Take advantage of career services. Many colleges and universities are increasingly providing career services for their graduate students in the form of workshops, one-on-one career advising and digital career resources. See if your institution has these services and seek out them out. Graduate career advisers are professionals with experience working with graduate students like you and understand the career concerns distinct to being a graduate student.
If you don’t have a clue what to do with your life or don’t know which career questions you should be asking, your career adviser will help. They can’t make career decisions for you, but they will guide you by brainstorming ideas, sharing knowledge and resources about the career planning process, and offering advice from an objective point of view. When you’re ready to apply for jobs, they can also ensure you present the best version of yourself, so make sure to have your job documents reviewed. Haven’t interviewed in a long time? See if you can do a mock interview or, at the very least, discuss how you might answer potential interview questions.
Develop your network of peer mentors. My closest friends and colleagues in graduate school also happened to be first-gen college graduates, and it was incredibly helpful to have a supportive peer network that I could count on to commiserate and celebrate with me. Although it’s important to cultivate relationships with people who can one day advocate for your professional advancement, don’t forget to develop your own community of friends and colleagues who can support you through the good and the bad. You shouldn’t complain or lament about your career struggles with mentors or advisers, but you can with your friends, so find your community in graduate school.
It’s not easy sometimes to be a first-gen student in a graduate program trying to navigate the career exploration and planning process, but there are people who are happy to help you. And, most important, don’t forget all of the strengths you bring to the table, including your initiative, courage, resiliency and humility. Those qualities are valued assets to employers and provide a strong foundation for career success, and I hope you will be proud of your first-gen background, as I am.