Thursday, October 05, 2006

Making it from Doctoral Student to PhD

A while ago, C.N. Le had a nice post on helping minority doctoral students to succeed. It seems universities are doing better jobs of attracting us, but a not so good one at keeping us. I wanted to post about my own experiences in a general sense--my goal is not to offend anyone, but to make some light bulbs click on! I also know, as I always try to acknowledge, that all these issues are not related solely to my race, but to the fact that I'm a woman coming from an immediate family in which there was little familiarity with college experiences--and none with graduate studies.

Le quoted the following:
Data revealed that these minority doctoral students encounter a variety of potential barriers, including family and first generational issues, inadequate educational preparation, unclear institutional policies and procedures and “chilly” departmental climates. Overwhelmingly, issues associated with race/ethnicity permeated every cultural and institutional barrier identified in this study. . . .
This study suggests that college leaders have failed to build bridges between under-represented students’ sociological and cultural factors and their doctoral programs.
Let's see: family and first generational issues, check, inadequate educational preparation, check, chilly departmental climate, sorta check--I'll explain in a moment.

Family and first generational issues--No one in my family knew what the hell I was getting myself into. While they are largely supportive, there are the jokes about my career student status. I don't laugh those off. In fact, they make me feel sort of ashamed, as if I'm somehow not yet a contributing member to society. So there's always been this pressure to hurry up in order to avoid the questions, raised eyebrows, and disapproving murmurs. To this group of working people, I am strange--over 30 and still in school. And while my immediate family is usually much more supportive, my mom asked me about the dissertation, "How long can that take to write? Can't you just sit down and do it?" And there is my dad's opinion that the only valid doctor is an MD. With my brain, I could've done something "bigger" in his opinion, been a "real" doctor or a lawyer. Underscoring my mom and dad's observations is a theory that I am lacking organization and drive--if I put my mind to it, I can hammer out this dissertation or I could've overcome my aversion to science.

I don't think people in the department here understand my familial obligations either. Last year, Advisor was horrified that I was going to be my son's room parent. "You can't," she said, "You need to be spending big chunks of time in front of the computer."

But I have a kid. That is my simplistic, and in my opinion, wholly explanatory response. I have a kid-one who demands lots and lots of time. I have to clean house, I have to think about dinner. Just as validly, I want to accompany him on field trips, I want to visit his classroom, I want to be an active part of the PTO. She is a mother, but her experience is different--I was 23 and in the middle of an MA when I had my kid; she was late 30s or so and already in possession of the PhD. So, her priorities, while she was working on the PhD were, understandably, different. She could put the degree before all else. I cannot. Truthfully, I will not. I mean, it's my kid, and I'm not getting this time back.

Advisor also hates the fact that I work in the summer (to tell you the truth, I didn't even let on that I worked this past one). It takes time away from my writing she argues and she is 100% correct. But again, I don't think she focuses on the fact that I'm a single mother with BILLS! I cannot live without income from July to October. It's just not feasible. Under her watchful eye, I have refrained from teaching outside classes during the school year, but things get excruciatingly tight sometimes and I can't do all the things I'd like to do for the kid.

I think there is also an idea that you can turn off obligations, forget all norms of reciprocity because you're doing such great, important work. Recently, I asked a colleague a question for a friend of mine who's researching this area. He's been here forever, so I figured he might have insight. He took my e-mail as a chance to scold me:
You don't have time to focus on helping anyone else. You need to be researching your own stuff. Anyone who loves you will understand your need to isolate yourself and focus solely on your work.
Um, no they won't. Where I come from, culturally and socioeconomically, that's called selfishness. And while it's tolerable in small doses, no one's going to tolerate long periods of such behavior from me. Yes, I give a lot, but missing in his summation is the fact that I get a lot. For me, this dissertation is not a solo project. My sister types and proofreads, my friends read for clarity, my mom and brother refer potential interviewees, my best friend points out people she thinks will be helpful for my survey and gets me information on the local school district, my dad has basically opened his wallet and turned his head (poor man). I cannot turn my back on all that.

Inadequate educational preparation: Wholly my own fault, but a factor nonetheless. I switched from thesis option to terminal degree after I had my son. Thus, much of what probably seems apathy or lack of... something, is genuinely a lack of knowlege of how to do this, namely, how to write a dissertation. I'm lucky enough to make the grade on writing, but the research--it's usually after I finish a chapter that I realize I need to go here or there or find this or include more about that, etc. They need to offer a seminar, a class, something!! on how to do this. I am still in the dark on a number of issues. Hopefully, I manage to stumble my way out of the halls of academia.

“Chilly” departmental climates: Brrrrr. When I got here, my initial advisor was off campus for the year. So, they dropped Elle, the woefully unprepared, into this huge department to fend for herself. I picked my own classes. I ruminated on my topic. I didn't socialize with the cool kids (like Quinn. In fact--Quinn was ultra-intimidating b/c she was my age, but light years ahead of me in historical knowledge! I hated her :-). And I wandered way off. In fact, had the graduate advising assistant not liked me from the beginning, I would've been back in Louisiana with a quickness.

But, Advisor, thank God, had already taken a slight interest in me, so she helped me. And, over the next two years, it became clear we could work together. Actually another professor from whom I took some independent studies, told me "She's interested in being your advisor but she doesn't want to step on any toes," and told Advisor, "She's interested in being your advisee but doesn't know if you want the extra work. Advisor also worried that I would feel the need to remain loyal to the initial advisor b/c she was black, too. Honestly, I had wanted to work with a black woman, but it just didn't work out. Plus, Advisor is brilliant and unafraid to crack the whip--two things I definitely need. Initial advisor remains on my committee and is friendly.

There was also an issue, early in my PhD program career that I won't disclose much about here, that involved the questioning of my ability--not because I performed poorly, but because I performed so well. And while I'd like to think that my work is just that unbelievable, part of me wonders, had I not been black, would the questions have been asked?

But speaking of chilly, my advisor is a Northerner. I am a Southerner. Not to speak in stereotypes, but there have been times when her abrupt tone has made me vow to never ask her anything again! But then she says things like, "You know, we think you hung the moon and stars," and I get all agreeable again. Seriously, learning not to take everything personally, to not fear that a chapter is going to be so poorly written that she's going to regret ever having taken me on, is hard.

Finally, when I started, I don't know who else was in the writing phase and thus not on campus, but I was the only visible black PhD student in the program (the numbers have "swelled" to around 4 or so). If you've never had an acute sense of being way different--despite very sincere attempts to make me feel part of the department and the grad student cliques--try that.

Given all that, you may be saying, well, Elle, what keeps you there? For that, there are a number of factors, too.

Pride (Quit now? Please!), My Dissertator Group (can someone say sanity via e-mail?), Advisor (because, you know, she thinks I hung the moon or something), I Like my Topic (I just wish someone else would write it), Graduate Advising Assistant (she's been with me since application days!), and I really, really, really love history.

No smart addendums for that one.


Courtney said...

Re: regional stereotypes... I was born a Northerner (well, I guess. Westerner, really) and the Northeastern abruptness still rankles me, too.

Nicole McLean said...

Thanks for keeping this blog. I keep dreaming -- and dreaming and dreaming -- of pursuing a ph.d. in political science. But honestly, I am scared to death. Your comments made me see that obviously my fear isn't going to change what I go through. But I just had to say thank you for sharing this with the world.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...