4 Strategies for Success for the Low-Income Grad Student

piggy-bank-phd-mhtBy 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[1] tenure-track jobs) after they graduate. Below I offer some advice I wish I had heard before starting graduate school.

  1. 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[2] 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.

  1. 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.

Here are a few of the unspoken things I learned from my mentors during my time as a graduate student:

  • Khakis are not considered academic dress clothes.
  • Sign up with the office administrator during the summer if you want conference travel reimbursement from the department.
  • Application “open” dates are actually deadlines.

3. Lean in

Push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Managing discomfort prepares you for a range of future professional situations. Here are some uncomfortable situations you should pursue:

  • Go to conferences and talk to the people who wrote the papers you cite, even if it is just to say “I’m Kala, and I am inspired by your work on X. It’s nice to meet you.” If they have time and are nice, they may ask you about yourself. Have a few canned sentences about your research. After a few sentences, it may start to feel awkward, but you can save it by saying “I have to run to another session, it was nice to meet you” and walk away.
  • Pursue a variety of opportunities.
    • Volunteer for university grad student organizations
    • Run for a grad student seat on a professional organization’s governing council
    • Sign up to review abstracts for a poster award
    • Apply for research grants and awards
    • Email a journal editor and ask to be put on a list of reviewers. These are scary things to do, but doing them gives you the opportunity to meet people and gain new skills.
  • Attend research talks and academic social events. Note how speakers structure their talks, how faculty ask questions of the speaker, and how speakers respond. There are a few key phrases you will see pop up and you should use in your own responses to questions about your research: “That’s an interesting question…” or “If we look at the data…” Go to grad student or mentoring events to practice engaging in these discussions under low-stakes circumstances.

4. Pay it forward

As you move through the program, talk to junior grad students. Pass the peer mentoring you have received on. Share outlines of your thesis and candidacy exams[3], teach them the program requirements, tell them how you found your internship or recovered from burnout, speak the unspoken rules. If you have the financial resources, buy junior grad students a drink at a conference or coffee before class. Small gestures can do a lot to signal to other students that they belong in academia.

Grad school is about learning how to make academia work for you or deciding that it doesn’t. You need both feet in it for a while to figure it out – jump in.  

You got this!


Additional Resources:

Let’s hear from you!  Tell us in the comments:

  • What advice do you have for low-income students who are applying, just entering, or currently in graduate school?
  • Are you a low-income graduate student? What do you struggle with? How have you made grad school work for you?


Kala J. Melchiori, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at James Madison University. She completed her BA at Marshall University and her PhD in Social Psychology at Loyola University Chicago. Dr. Melchiori and the students in her research lab conduct social-justice oriented research, including projects that explore how people respond to prejudice, stereotyping, and discriminatory backlash. She is also interested in using psychological principals to promote eco-friendly behavior.


[1] Learning the academic lingo is one way to overcome the barrier to belonging. “R1” stands for “Research 1.” Colleges and Universities are ranked per their scholarly research output. R1s are extremely research heavy, followed by R2s.
[2] “Cohort” refers to the group of students who begin the graduate program at the same time as you.
[3] Written or oral exams you must take before you can propose a dissertation.
[i] Ostrove, J. M., Stewart, A. J., & Curtain, N. L. (2011). Social class and belonging: Implications for graduate students’ career aspirations. The Journal of Higher Education, 82, 748-774.
[ii] Stephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G., & Destin, M. (2014). Closing the social class achievement gap: A diversity education intervention improves first-generation students’ academic performance and all students’ college transition. Psychological Science, 25, 943-953.


5 thoughts on “4 Strategies for Success for the Low-Income Grad Student

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  4. Andrea Bradford, Ph.D.

    I found a couple of books very helpful in navigating my identity as a working class academic during and after graduate school:

    This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class (Dews & Law, eds.)
    Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker (Kadi)

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