Where Do We Fit? : Challenges Faced By First-Generation Graduate Students in Professional Psychology

Date of Award


Degree Name



Graduate School of Professional Psychology

First Advisor

Jennifer Erickson Cornish

First Committee Member

Lavita Nadkarni

Second Committee Member

Kenli Urruty


First-generation graduate students (FGGS), doctoral student, professional psychology programs


Considerable literature exists on the importance of supporting first-generation college students (those first in their families to attend college). Yet, there is scant research related to first-generation graduate students, particularly those in health service psychology programs. The American Psychological Association has called for increased recruitment and retention of diverse doctoral students in order to serve increasingly diverse patient populations (APA, 2002). Since first-generation graduate students (FGGS) in health service psychology are likely to come from diverse backgrounds (Davis, 2012; National Science Foundation, 2015), it is crucial to identify best practices for doctoral programs to follow in nurturing their success. Because the professional psychology (Psy.D.) degree in psychology is increasingly prevalent and may be more accessible to graduate students (Kohout & Wicherski, 2010; Kohout & Wicherski, 2009), six FGGS students enrolled in an accredited Psy.D. program were interviewed in a semi-structured format to answer the following questions: 1) how do first-generation graduate students navigate college into a professional psychology doctoral program, 2) what are their experiences within the doctoral training program, and 3) what recommendations do these students have for programs to better support first-generation students. The interviews were transcribed and analyzed for themes based on the qualitative data analysis method, Grounded Theory Method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Three conceptual themes emerged from interviews: 1) Different Worlds, 2) Figuring it Out, and 3) Finding Support. The Cultural Mismatch Theory (Stephens, Fryberg, Markus, Johnson, & Covarrubias, 2012), which proposes that individual performance is contingent on the match or mismatch between a student’s cultural norms and that of the academic institution, was applied to graduate students. Recommendations for professional psychology programs to improve support and retention practices are discussed.


Copyright is held by the author. Permanently suppressed.


30 pages

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