By Oresta Muckute |


The issue of widening participation at universities is a well explored one: steps still need to be taken towards ensuring that people from under-represented backgrounds get a fair chance to start—and do well at—university. This equally applies to postgraduate students, and our Sarah Thomson has offered some partial solutions to this problem. 

But the problems first-generation postgraduate students face rarely end at being accepted onto their chosen course or at finding the desperately needed funding. The experience of being the only graduate student (or simply the first graduate) in your family or friendship circle can leave marks on your relationships. 

By being the first people to go to university, we might have been the first to do other things—we might have been the first to move out of a certain area, or the first to have a real chance at a well-paid job accessible only via acquiring degrees. When it comes to applying for postgraduate studies, our friends and family might become skeptical or nervous for these exact reasons. Studying for longer and potentially acquiring more debt is not an unreasonable worry expressed by your non-academic loved ones.  

Your family may have absolutely no idea about the process of acquiring a fully funded PhD position or a place on a Master’s course, beyond knowing that you had an interview here and a deadline there. Your friends may not understand your excitement, and may not be able to share it. Reading books for a living, to them, may not be instantly recognisable as work, or as a possible career route. These experiences might become what alienates you from your loved ones, and your loved ones from you: your excitement might evolve into feelings of guilt or shame, and your loved ones might find it too difficult to understand your choices. Do they want to hear about the chapter you wrote, and do you have the patience to explain why it’s so important? At a most basic level, you may just drift apart and look for role models and support elsewhere.  

It is important to emphasise that it is not all doom and gloom, and it does not have to be hard to maintain relationships with non-academic friends and family. In many cases (and, I hope, most) it is not, even if certain times are rougher than others. However, it is equally OK if you find it very difficult and realise that you have to make some tough and important decisions in return. It is OK to be scared of it all, and just as OK to begin to question what exactly you want from your relationships.

With this post, I wish to offer encouragement and show understanding to fellow students going through some difficult times, and to give some hope to those who might be too scared to even get to this point at all. It is true: being the first at anything is hard. It is also true that eventually everything falls into place and the world keeps turning.  


Oresta is a first year Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD student in history and is also one of the social media editors for Pubs and Publications. She can be found either on her personal Twitter, or the Pubs and Pubs Twitter account.


Image Flickr, by Alan Levine