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Peer Advice: Adapting to Graduate Studies as a First-Gen Student

Image of a closed laptop with a stethoscope, JAAPA journal and graduation cords on top

Graduate school and professional academia may seem overwhelming at first, especially for those not used to this community's norms and customs.

In my experience, there are comparably fewer resources on what it's like being a first-generation graduate student (FGGS) than there are for first-generation college students. Thus, I found it very important to create a post where I can share a few things that I have picked up along the way and have helped me adapt to my Physician Assistant (PA) studies as a FGGS:

#1 - Fighting imposter syndrome

I think you all have heard of or experienced “imposter syndrome” at one point in your life. I know I have experienced it countless times throughout my academic journey, including stepping into graduate school. Having peers that come from stable socioeconomic backgrounds, have extensive experience in medicine, or score high on exams, can make it very easy to feel like you don’t live up to the “standards” set by your cohort. It is incredible how fast you can lose the feeling of accomplishment that comes with an admissions letter when you start comparing yourself to everyone else. Here’s the funny thing – We ALL struggle with these feelings occasionally. Instead of internalizing these emotions, learn to share these feelings with a classmate or faculty member. You might find that the person you confide in may be experiencing or has experienced those same feelings and can provide some words of encouragement. Additionally, don’t forget to toot your own horn! The next time you use any quality, skill, or unique talent that you possess, celebrate it! Remember that at the end of the day, you were hand selected and offered a seat in this program out of 2,000+ applicants.

#2 - Get comfortable with failure

While I can’t speak for other disciplines, anyone in PA school knows that most of us are type A personality driven. We strive for the highest grades, are ambitious, chase “perfection” and can often be highly competitive. However, anyone coming into a graduate program needs to have a good understanding of just how much you will “fail”. The reality is you may not get an A on every exam. Some modules will be more difficult than others, and you will not know every disease or medication thrown at you. Always remember that these “failures” are NORMAL and do not mean you are incompetent or not deserving of being here. It is merely part of the learning process. Be comfortable learning from your failures and persevering rather than trying to produce perfection. Ultimately, don’t forget you are gaining the tools to save a person’s life.

#3 - Step outside your comfort zone

While it might initially seem overwhelming, continue finding ways to get out of your comfort zone. I strongly believe in making the most of your graduate school experience! You have the choice to make your PA school experience memorable or miserable. Prior to starting, I promised myself that I would get involved in campus activities, join student clubs, run for a board position, attend social events, and meet as many people as possible. I ran for president of the MBKU Pre-PA Mentorship Club and social chair of our cohort, applied to be a peer advisor, volunteered as a student ambassador for open-house days, and participated in community service events. I even got the opportunity to host two salsa dance classes on campus! I know that when I graduate and look back to my time in school, I will have many memories to smile and laugh about, and I highly encourage you all to do the same!

Group of SPAS students  Group of SPAS students  SPAS students