I recently had the privilege of having lunch with a student who had completed his undergraduate degree with very high honors. His parents were also at this luncheon. Given his excellent academic record he was offered graduate research assistantships to pursue his graduate degree towards the completion of a Ph.D. He had selected a top tier University that was at least 1000 miles away from home. Judging by the conversations around the table it was easy to assume that this may be the very first child that was going off to graduate school and that too far away. When I mentioned that I had written a book on how students should navigate graduate school the parents seemed excited and the father turned around and said – “I wish there was a book for parents. It is so difficult to understand all of this”.
Often times when a student chooses to go to graduate school we assume that the student, parents and everyone involved understands the nature of graduate school. Often times it turns out to be the wrong assumption. First generation graduates may not have parents or guardians who understand the time it takes to complete a graduate degree, what a graduate degree means, etc.
Look, in my own case my parents were very uneasy about me spending all that time after I completed a undergraduate degree and Master’s degree to finish a Ph.D. They were not sure as to why that was necessary or important. They wanted to know if I would get a better job, a better paying job. They also asked piercing questions about the length of time it takes a Ph.D. and if it would simply delay other parts of my life. THey had no clue what a degree in Atmospheric Science, let alone research about Satellite Remote Sensing of Clouds.
I believe that it is important for the student to begin preparing the parent (s) about the decision to go to graduate school. While the student may be excited about the prospect of research and discovery the parent may be clueless about the details about a graduate degree.
With that in mind here is some advice for the student:
- As you are beginning to get excited about research and exploring the prospect of graduate school, keep your parents in the loop. It is your responsibility to educate them.
- Let them know that the length of time it takes to complete a Master’s degree and that is your first step.
- Be fair when discussing your interest about a Ph.D. Let them know the typical time it takes to complete a Ph.D. It may be 4 to 5 years.
- Letting them know of your end goals – the job that you will pursue after you graduate is important.
- Provide some rough numbers for what your salary will be after you graduate. May be your goal is to become a Professor. Therefore educating your parents on a graduate degree is critical.
- If you have opportunities to invite your parents to research presentations and other research venues when you are pursuing your UG degree, then this could get your parents acclimated to your work. Keeping them in the dark about your degree, your education, your research and aspiration is unfair.
- Let them know how finances will work. Your assistantship (hopefully you will get one) and how it works will put them at ease. If they know that your tuition is paid and you get a stipend to cover your expenses most parents will be at (some) peace.
Here is some advice for the parent (s)/guardian (s):
- Stay engaged throughout the undergraduate degree process. Try your best to educate yourself your child’s aspirations.
- You may not be aware of the details about research but asking questions constructively is important. Never deflate your child’s aspirations
- Ask questions about how the finances will work out.
- Ask your child to explain his research in layman’s terms.
- Most departments welcome a visit from a parent. A department chair/adviser or Dean should be available for a conversation. Utilize this opportunity.
- Do not be tempted to compare your neighbor’s child who got a job after an UG degree to your own. Every child’s aspiration is different and the opportunity to go to graduate school is exciting.
- Your role as a parent to support your child in this venture is extremely important. You alone can do that.
- Remember that as a parent it is important to not instill fear in this adventure that your child is about to begin. Remain positive.
- If possible ask to go with your child to the new place to help search for an apartment. Get to know the town, meet department personnel if possible, This will put your mind at ease knowing where your child is and the environment that they will be in for the next several years.
There you have it, my attempt at least providing a framework for students/parents to have a conversation.
Good luck to you both – the parent and the student – your adventure is about to begin.