Data & Infographics, Research-In-Brief

Insights into First-Generation Doctoral Students

By Radomir Ray Mitic


First-generation doctoral students, defined as those who are the first of their generation to both complete a Bachelor’s degree and pursue a doctoral degree, are an under-examined part of the student population. While about one third of doctoral students are first-generation (Hoffer et al., 2003, National Science Foundation, 2015), only about three percent of first-generation undergraduates pursue doctoral studies (Redford et al., 2017). As a result, much of the research and discussion of first-generation students has focused on undergraduates, but first-generation graduate students who have persisted in postsecondary education also bring with them unique strengths and resilience. Graduate schools and programs need to identify and consider the needs of this diverse student population at a time when a doctoral degree has become key to positions in academia as well as business, non-profits, and government. To aid and transform campus conversations, using data from the Council of Graduate Schools’ Understanding Career Pathways for Program Improvement project, this brief provides insights into the career concerns of first-generation doctoral students.

Download the Complete Research Brief


Key Findings


  • Students of color more likely to be first-generation. Career Pathways data largely confirms prior studies by observing that 27% of doctoral students identify as first-generation. While there were no significant differences between first-generation students by gender, Hispanic or Latinx (52%), American Indian/Alaskan Native (51%), Black or African American (41%) identified as first-generation doctoral students (Figure 1). By field of study, 35% of education PhD students were first- generation, confirming prior work by Hoffer et al. (2003) and Nettles and Millett (2006). 32% of health sciences PhDs identified as first-generation, contrasted with 19% in business (Figure 2).
  • Post-graduation career aspirations. When examining differences between first-generation and continuing- generation doctoral students, several differences in career aspirations emerged. Of 12 factors, first-generation students rated job security, salary, and benefits as more important than their continuing-generation peers. There were no large or statistically significant differences for the other nine factors, including prestige, job location, or intellectual challenge (Figure 3).
  • Finances are a primary concern. A greater proportion of first-generation doctoral students hold undergraduate student loans (47%) than continuing-generation students (31%). For those students holding undergraduate loans, the average unpaid loan was 65% higher for first-generation students ($34,243 versus $20,699). At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, first-generation students (M = 2.39 out of 5, SD = 1.40) were more worried that they would run out of money in the next three months than their continuing-generation colleagues (M = 1.89 out of 5, SD = 1.13). These concerns may explain the higher importance placed on job security, salary, and benefits among first-generation doctoral students.
  • Greater attraction to positions outside the research university. First-generation doctoral students appear more attracted to positions at master’s/regional universities, community colleges, and US state/local government than their continuing-generation peers. They are less attracted, however, to post-graduation employment in for-profit business/industry. There are no significant differences in other sectors such as research universities, liberal arts colleges, or non-profits (Figure 4).
  • Lower perceived program support for desired career. There were no statistical differences between first-generation and continuing-generation students in terms of their sense of direction and preparation for their career. However, first-generation doctoral students held lower perceptions of PhD program support in terms of their desired post-graduation career (M=3.50 out of 5, SD=1.06 versus M=3.69 out of 5, SD=1.02), perhaps due to their more diverse career aspirations beyond the research university (Figure 5).

Takeaway Points


  • First-generation doctoral students represent a diverse group in terms of race/ethnicity and field of study. A majority or large plurality of students of color bring their experiences to doctoral education as both first-generation and racially/ethnically minoritized students, which include strengths to meet the challenges of earning a PhD.
  • Pre- and post-graduation financial concerns may be shaping career priorities and desired job destinations for first-generation doctoral students. With more undergraduate debt and greater short-term financial fears, these students may be more eager to pursue options that secure a better post-PhD financial situation.
  • First-generation doctoral students may have more diverse career interests, particularly within the academy. The greater attraction to master’s/regional universities and community colleges may indicate interest in working and teaching at institutions that serve more first-generation students and students of color.
  • First-generation students are open to more diverse post-PhD career options. Perhaps for this reason they feel less supported by their program. These perceptions exist despite the feeling that they have a solid sense of direction and preparation for their desired career.

Learn More About the Career Pathways Project