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Being Successful as a First-Generation Doctoral Student

Learn the Terms Used in Doctoral Programs

As you enter your doctoral program, take the time to understand some of the key terms used by your student success advisors, faculty, and peers. You’ll notice that there are terms commonly used by those you connect with that you may not have heard before. Explore some common doctoral program terms used at Walden:


Capstone or Dissertation:
This is the final step of a doctoral program. The project requirements differ depending on the academic program, but it typically requires original research that will add to the field of study and contribute to social change.

The dissertation or capstone committee members work as a team to guide students through the proposal, data collection and analysis, and the final oral defense. Check out the Doctoral Committee Member Roles and Functions section of the student handbook for additional details.

Doctoral Degree Coach:
The Doctoral Degree Coach is a virtual planning tool here at Walden University that can help you to prepare and stay on track in your program. It can point you to targeted resources and services to help you throughout each stage of your doctoral journey.

Institutional Review Board (IRB):
The IRB is a committee at the university that reviews proposed research projects to ensure participants in the study are protected.

The practicum is the opportunity for students to engage in a supervised experience in their professional field of study.

The prospectus is a brief document that provides preliminary information about your dissertation or capstone research project.

Depending on your specific academic program, the proposal will consist of the first 2 sections or the first 3 chapters of your dissertation or capstone study.

Residencies are learning experiences that align with your coursework to enhance your skills, scholarship, and professional practice. Residencies also give students an opportunity to network with Walden students, staff, and faculty members. Every program has different requirements, but you can check the residency timing requirements for your academic program and the upcoming residency schedule.

Download Glossary (PDF)

Learn More:

There are additional frequently used terms resources across Walden on various topics, including this list of Common Writing Terms as well as this Glossary of Frequently Used Financial Aid Terms.

Own Your Doctoral Identity

When researchers talk about identity, they often push us to ask the all-important question, who am I? The reality is, most of us hold many different identities in our lives (i.e., mother, father, cousin, sister, brother, teacher, manager, etc.).

We also experience identities related to our role as a student. The fact is, you’ve already gone through identify changes when you completed previous degrees. However, “the process of becoming a researcher and adopting a professional and scholarly identity is a process of transformation and identity development beyond that of an undergraduate or masters level student” (Coffman et al., 2016, p. 30). That is, pursuing a doctoral degree comes with additional identity challenges that require us to embrace our new place in academia and own the identity of scholar and researcher.


Coffman, K., Putman, P., Adkisson, A., Kriner, B., & Monaghan, C. (2016). Waiting for the expert to arrive: Using a community of practice to develop the scholarly identity of doctoral students. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 28(1), 30-37.

Take some time to reflect on this new identity so it doesn’t feel so scary or overwhelming. For some specific strategies, check out the Who am I? The Importance of Doctoral Identity and Tips to Develop One blog post.

As first-generation doctoral students, we may find it particularly challenging to step into this new identity – it can feel like we’re somehow abandoning our established identities or that we’re leaving behind our family in some way. If you have that feeling, remember that we can hold many different identities – the new doctoral identity you’re developing can coexist with those you’ve already developed. Don’t view your doctoral identity as replacing an established identity in your life – think of it as a new and exciting addition!

Build Connections

As a first-generation doctoral student, it is vital that you form connections with peers, staff, and faculty. Building your network with others who understand the journey you are on and who can provide encouragement, advice, and ongoing support can make a significant difference in your progress.

Strategies you can use to build connections at Walden include:

Have Crucial Conversations

A common experience for first-generation doctoral students is that your family may not understand the time commitment and work involved in a doctoral program. To help, have crucial conversations with those around you. Explain to them what you are going through – and make them a part of your journey! By having open communication, you can set boundaries and share your needs with those around you.

Use the flip cards to explore some examples!

Share a Schedule

I have a final project due on Sunday, so I will be busy finalizing my paper Saturday between 1:00 and 3:00 and then again on Sunday between 3:00 and 6:00.

Ask for No Interruptions

During these hours, please do not interrupt me by coming into my workspace.

Set Expectations

My phone will be on silent during these hours. I will check my phone when I am done to catch-up on any text messages or calls.

Delegate or Make Requests

Please make a plan for dinner on Sunday. I do not want to cook after finishing my assignment.

Remember You Belong

As a first-generation doctoral student, you may experience imposter syndrome, which can increase anxiety and make you feel like you do not belong in your academic program. It can keep us from enjoying our successes and reaching our full potential. As “imposters” we tend to get stuck in a cycle of fear of failure, self-doubt, over-preparation, and perfectionism. We tend to believe our successes are somehow due to luck or some error, without giving ourselves credit for our own abilities.

If you have those doubts, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you DO belong here. You are not alone — if you need some encouragement or advice along the way, reach out and Ask OASIS!

Learn More: Imposter Syndrome

For some additional information about the imposter syndrome and some strategies to overcome it, check out the blog post, Feeling Like You Don’t Belong? You’re Not Alone!

Remember to celebrate every success and milestone and most importantly, just keep moving forward!