Six Tips from Women of Color Navigating Doctoral Programs

February 24, 2017

Studies show that women of color have made significant progress in completing college at higher rates and obtaining advanced degrees than in the past, but retention and completion at the doctoral level remain issues to be addressed. In the 2014–15 academic year, only 10.3 percent of doctoral degrees were awarded to African American women and 7.3 to Hispanic women compared to 66 percent for white women. From sexism to gender oppression and racism, serious obstacles make the dissertation process overwhelming for many women of color.

In October 2016, I had the opportunity to host an AAUW webinar on navigating doctoral programs for women of color. The discussion featured perspectives from three women of color in academia: Kimberly S. Adams, Ph.D., a professor of political science at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania and AAUW fellowships selection panelist; doctoral student Emerson Zora Hamsa, who studies at Rice University’s Department of Religion; and AAUW American Fellow and doctoral and medical student Mariam El-Ashmawy from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Kimberly S. Adams  Emerson Zora Hamsa  Mariam El-Ashmawy

From left to right: Kimberly S. Adams, Emerson Zora Hamsa, and Mariam El-Ashmawy

The panelists freely shared their ideas, challenges, strategies, and inspiration on how to successfully navigate a doctoral program amidst the sometimes daunting world of academe. It was a thought-provoking and rich discussion. Here are some key takeaways from the webinar:

1. Find the Right Institutional Fit

The climate of a university is a telling indication of how long you might stay, Adams notes. As you choose a graduate program, consider your fit for the institution and the intended department. Make a site visit if you are still in the application process. She also encourages applicants to consider the faculty members they would like to receive mentorship from and ensure that they will understand and support your work.

For those in the dissertation stage who are having difficulty finding a committee chair who understands your work, Adams recommends asking to go outside the department. “Pick people who can understand what you are doing, even if they are at another university,” she says. “You do not want people … who are undermining your work, who don’t understand what you are doing; that is one of the biggest ways for you to lose focus and want to leave the program.”

Adams also notes that ensuring a good institutional fit is just as important after the doctorate stage. Studies show that women of color are not provided with research and teaching opportunities in the same numbers as their white counterparts. During faculty job interviews, Adams recommends asking directly about the campus climate in relation to race. She also suggests inquiring into the number of minority faculty on campus and asking whether their research is being supported. In her experience, being an African American woman in academia has at times been tough, but “having a president and vice president that have wanted me on my campus has been helpful to me.”

2. A Good Support System Is Priceless

Garnering support from faculty and finding quality mentoring are impediments for many doctoral students. This challenge can be particularly daunting for women of color who may already be battling underrepresentation in their department. Lack of support and substantive mentorship can lead to feelings of rejection for women of color, who are likely to be isolated in doctoral programs. To address this, Mariam El-Ashmawy recommends creating your own support network if one does not already exist. As the only woman of color in her cohort El-Ashmawy proactively sought friends outside of her program and made sure to attend networking events. She also added that it is unlikely you will get all the help and advice you need from your mentor, even if he or she is a faculty advisor. She strongly encourages students to branch out and look to others for support as needed.

Emerson Zora Hamsa advised seeking strong family support, which she feels can be as important as academic support to your success. Hamsa found that when she educated her personal networks about why pursuing her doctorate was so important they were able to provide another layer of support that she needed throughout her program. That encouragement is especially important considering that many women of color are the first in their families to pursue a doctorate.

3. Exceed Your Own Expectations

In Adams’ opinion, it is important for women of color, particularly those who plan to pursue a career in academia, to focus their energies on three things: teaching, service, and scholarship. These criteria, she notes, are often used in academia to examine and ultimately promote (or deny tenure to) faculty. She adds that women of color should not be satisfied with meeting the basic requirements. “If everyone else is getting promoted with a minimum of four articles, then you need six or seven,” she says. “Nothing should get in the way” of those three things, which can determine your tenure, promotion, and longevity and happiness on a campus and in academia. By following her own advice, Adams has managed to maintain a full teaching course load and a strong publication record. She also fulfills the service aspect of her rule as an AAUW selection panelist.

4. Complete Your Dissertation!

While this might seem like obvious advice, approximately 50 percent of doctoral students leave graduate school without receiving a doctorate. One of the main reasons? An incomplete dissertation. Writing a dissertation is a major undertaking and can be overwhelming. It becomes even more challenging when self-inflicted or external pressures make you expect a masterpiece with respect to the first draft. Adams cautions against becoming too focused on producing a flawless project; instead, she recommends maintaining perspective. Her words of wisdom: “The dissertation that is complete is the best dissertation. You have the rest of your career to refine it and make it great.” El-Ashmawy also indicated that as an AAUW fellow she appreciates AAUW’s generous funding because financial stability is an important part of the dissertation completion process.

5. Remain Actively Engaged in Academia

For Adams, being an engaged student or faculty member is a must. She encourages early-career faculty and students to present their research and attend as many conferences as possible — national and international. She has found that this engagement often opens doors to other opportunities. For faculty, she also recommends opening up the classroom to guest lecturers and even giving university-wide lectures to highlight your own expertise. She encourages faculty to join local, state, national, and international boards and serve as reviewers and editors for academic journals. These actions, she says, will set you apart and build your academic reputation as an expert in your field, both within and outside the United States.

6. Be Proud of the Unique Perspective You Bring

As with all professional pursuits, it is important to find your voice and be confident in the unique perspective you lend to a discussion. For women of color existing in the predominately white male sphere of academia, Hamsa notes that we have the opportunity to “disrupt some of the long-held ideas” because the lenses we bring to the discourse probably weren’t there before. All of Hamsa’s identities guide and shape her experience: “My racialized self, my racialized black self, my queer self, my woman self, all inform the ways in which I ask questions, the ways in which I critique the text that we are assigned, how I read, and … it ultimately informs the work I will produce and contribute to my discipline.”

Hamsa is conscious every moment of how her unique identity influences how she sees the world and what she intends to contribute to it.

Adams, Hamsa, and El-Ashmawy motivated and encouraged the discussion participants, many of whom were considering or pursuing their own doctoral journeys. The conversation has been enthusiastically received, and future sessions are planned to explore the topic in more depth.



Doctorate degree, mortarboard, and tassle

Webinar: A Guide to Navigating Doctoral Programs for Women of Color

Want to hear more tips? Listen to the archived version of our webinar featuring a panel of women of color discussing doctoral studies.

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By:   |   February 24, 2017