Disadvantaged socioeconomic background

Students come to graduate school from a variety of socioeconomic trajectories, determined by their parents’ educational and occupational circumstances or their own occupational histories. Many students delay higher education to save money, gain professional experience or support their families. Socioeconomic background is a largely “invisible,” but important factor that influences students’ mentoring needs.

Economic concerns

Students do not always have family members they can turn to for monetary support throughout graduate school. What’s more, some students support their parents, siblings or other relatives while obtaining the degree. These students often have jobs outside of their departments, even if they have graduate appointments or fellowships.

Access to professional networks

Graduate students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds can experience greater difficulties accessing or creating professional networks in academe. They might not have had as many opportunities to develop these relationships as their peers from more advantaged backgrounds, especially those peers who grew up in academic families. This disparity surfaces most pointedly when students struggle with the costs of traveling to research conferences and the need, each year, to finance travel to professional conferences or to secure summer employment.

Summer professional opportunities

Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds often face disrupting their academic training during the summer. Because of financial constraints, many need to seek better-paying jobs off-campus instead of taking no- or low-pay (but academically relevant) internships. Outside employment temporarily distances students from their studies, and fears of falling behind can set in. Professors who are unaware of their students’ financial situations can inadvertently misconstrue interest in outside employment as a lack of commitment to academic study.

Difference in background experiences

Some students can find it intimidating to hear about the spring break or summer travels of fellow students. Those in the arts, humanities and social sciences can feel especially vulnerable knowing that some of their peers have traveled to or lived in the foreign countries they are studying.

Disconnection from family and friends

Graduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds, like many graduate students, probably have had to move away from their families. Once students become socialized into their disciplines, talking with family members or old friends about academic work can sometimes be difficult. This communication gap can cause students to feel isolated or disconnected because they feel less comfortable in their old worlds, but not yet settled into their new worlds.


  • Be aware that not all students have had the same opportunities to learn how to create networks to support their academic and career goals. Make an extra effort to introduce your students to people you know can help them expand their networks.
  • Be alert to funding opportunities for your students, especially for the summer, and alert them to opportunities.
  • Put books or course packets on reserve so that students do not always have to buy their own copies.
  • Enrich the discussions students have with you and with each other by having them share perspectives from a variety of experiences — travel, study, work, international friends and family stories.