In This Issue:
- Evening the Odds: Issues Facing Women, International Students, and Minority Graduate Students
- Email of the Month
Take a moment to consider what it might be like to function day after day in an environment in which you are “the only one” or, at minimum, one of only a few who represent your particular race, nationality, age group, ethnicity, or gender. In many graduate departments across the U.S. minorities, foreigners and even women often find themselves isolated within an intensely competitive academic environment that provides no cultural understanding or support to assist them in finishing their degree.
Further exacerbating this situation is a shortage of minority faculty role models who can provide a mentoring and support system for like graduate students. A lack of diverse faculty in a department can create a signal of an unwelcoming environment for women and minorities. This may curtail the number of minority students who actually apply to graduate school, and may also contribute to the small percentage who actually complete their degree once they have enrolled.
In his book, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D., Robert Peters does a good job of advising women, foreigners, and minorities what to expect in graduate school. I have summarized some of his suggestions, and have also added a few of my own. The following tips are designed to help you even up the odds and give you tools to deal with culture shock, adjust to graduate life, maintain focus, and persevere to finish a graduate degree … either with or without a support network.
Select a Graduate Program that Provides Strong Support
During an orientation for admitted students visiting a department at Wisconsin, a black student quipped, “Whew; I’m sure glad there are other white people here. I wasn’t sure when I applied!” Everyone laughed, but his comment proves worthy of mention. Given the current demographics in higher education, there is no guarantee that you will meet other students or faculty of color in the graduate department you choose.
The demographics of specific departments can vary greatly. Some may feature far fewer minority students to provide a sense of community of cultural, social, emotional and professional support. If this type of support is critical for your emotional well-being, be sure that to select a department with a critical mass of minority students. For example, if a department admits two minority students each year, and the average time spent in graduate school is six years, there may possibly be 10-12 minority students in the department at any given time with whom you can interact.
A campus visit can actually be quite helpful in reducing the stress about the unknown elements of graduate school. For example, some departments have a collegial working environment, while others are more competitive. Some allow collaboration across; other disciplines others do not. During your visit to the campus, it is not out of line to ask about the number of women and minority students in the department or what level and type of funding is available for minority students. If these types of issues are important to you, it is critical that you complete appropriate due diligence prior to applying.
Build a Network of Professional Colleagues
Sometimes being “the only” woman, black woman, man, Native American, Asian, or other minority in your class, lab, or department can bring attention — positive or negative — to your race, gender, or ethnicity. For example, your professor might not know your name, but he or she will know when you are absent, late or what type of contribution you make in the class. Sometimes it might feel like you are attending class under a microscope! Use the microscope to your advantage by taking care to excel in your work.
Do the same if you are receiving “too little” attention. Peters writes, “Faculty and other students may overlook you because they’re not sure how to treat you socially.” Don’t let this deter you! Always keep in mind that you came to graduate school to earn a degree … and your active and positive interaction with the majority is a critical component of completing your degree. Peters suggests that, “If you make an extra effort to be outgoing, competent and professional, most likely you will get positive feedback from your professors and fellow students, enabling you to continue doing well.”
As a member of a minority group, you may have to work harder than the average student to establish yourself with your professors and classmates. Prepare yourself for the fact that some teachers may expect less from minority students. In addition, you may have to combat the idea that you were accepted into graduate school because of “Affirmative Action,” rather than the quality of your undergraduate institution, grades, or GRE scores. It isn’t right; it isn’t fair; it just is. Again, don’t be deterred! Stay focused and persevere by excelling in your work and taking a proactive role in class. Take every opportunity to show your stuff!
It would be quite easy to isolate yourself in graduate school, and many students do. You can’t afford to do so! While it may be true that you didn’t come to graduate school to make friends, you did come to build a solid reputation. In the near future, the professors and fellow students in your department will be experts in your chosen field; they will serve as your co-authors, colleagues, reviewers, experts, references, and more. They will be your inside connection to jobs at other universities, potential co-authors for journal articles, organizers for conference proceedings, and potential sources of free expert professional advice. As such, it is your job to get to know them … and also to let them get to know you. Building a network of professional colleagues will help you succeed in graduate school and thereafter.
To do so, you may need to step beyond your comfort zone and work hard to fit in socially. Use graduate school as a place to practice socializing and networking outside your racial and ethnic group. Start by aggressively asserting yourself in the classroom and attending your department’s social events. When you get to know people on a personal level, you may find that you have more in common that you realize! Take a proactive role in class. Organize a study group for the midterm or final. (And do it on the first day of class, rather than right before the exam!)
Also keep in mind that, even within an established minority group, there are sometimes issues of conflict based on gender, nationality, class and ethnicity. For example, the fact that I am a black woman doesn’t mean I get along with all black people or all women. As a black West Indian from Barbados, I do share with other blacks a similar racial and ethnic experience when interacting with the majority. However, I do not share the same nationality and cultural background of other black ethnic groups such as African-Americans, Trinidadians, Haitians, Nigerians, or other Africans. Even within each racial and ethnic group, there is a rich diversity to be discovered by others.
Take Positive Action in the Face of Negativity
I would be remiss not to touch on the issues of harassment and discrimination, as these issues do crop up in campus life, just as they do in every aspect of life. Coupled with the stressful nature of graduate school itself, these types of issues can truly sap your energy and enthusiasm. One way to combat this is to find some relief and understanding from others, possibly outside your department. At many universities, women, international students, and minorities organize support groups or develop peer-mentoring relationships to combat feelings of isolation and culture shock, and to garner ongoing emotional support from other members of the group.
A word of caution: Don’t be hyper vigilant in looking for discrimination at every turn. Peters warns minority students not to “confuse the everyday difficulties of graduate school with discrimination.” He suggests that although “you may feel ignored … remember that most graduate students feel ignored. It comes with the territory!”
However, don’t be afraid to take positive action to help combat negativity. For example, I know of a student whose advisor and committee members told her that her writing skills were not up to par, and that she didn’t have the skills to write a publishable piece of scholarly work. Although she revised and revised her work, she still was not able to get her committee’s approval; she believed they wanted her to drop out. Instead, she sent the paper to an academic journal to get an objective review, and the journal ended up publishing the paper. The positive action she took, and the positive benefits that resulted, forced her committee to re-evaluate their stance on her writing skills. This supports Peters’ contention that, “Worrying about discrimination just takes energy you need to get your work done, and produces stress you don’t need”. He suggests that “if you’re being ignored in the classroom, don’t get mad; just be more aggressive about contributing.”
Understand that as a member of an underrepresented minority you will burdened with the added responsibility of having to speak up when issues such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or international perspectives are being overlooked, undervalued, or just simply ignored in the research or classroom. Students in the social sciences and humanities should use such situations as an opportunity to challenge professors and peers. Since your lack of participation might be interpreted as a lack of knowledge or intelligence, speak up and assert your opinions into the classroom discussions.
Find a Suitable Advisor
Many women and minority graduate students are determined to find an advisor who is their same race and/or gender. My advice is to not waste your time trying! Due to the current lack of diversity among academic faculty, the chances of finding one are slim.
Because there are so few of them in academia, female and minority advisors tend to be overwhelmed and overburdened by the extra mentoring responsibilities they are asked to perform … and this is particularly true of minority women! Their workloads can become even more extreme because of additional campus committee duties they may be asked to fulfill because of their race, ethnicity, or gender. For example, the chair of the department may ask them to help diversify a variety of committees on campus. And, while some female and minority faculty might feel a sense of responsibility to mentor minority graduate students, others simply do not. They should still, however, be viewed as key allies; regard these faculty members as reserve mentors rather than as advisors.
Furthermore, keep in mind that race, ethnicity, and gender are simply not the best criterion for selecting an advisor. I previously outlined criteria for finding a good advisor in the May issue of TADA Finish Line; if you haven’t already read that issue, be sure to check it out! I chose my advisor because he had a reputation of being culturally sensitive to foreign students and, more importantly, for helping his students complete the program quickly.
Success in graduate school often depends on a successful mentoring relationship between you and your advisor. As such, finding a faculty member with similar research interest is critical to finishing your degree, and far more important than finding a faculty member who matches your gender and/or race.
I made it to my June 10th deadline and sent the paper via email. Unfortunately, she claims she did not receive it. So I am back to the beginning. Have to seek another extension. I am really depressed and my side has begun hurting since she told me that. I feel like it is too late for me to get this thing completed, but have some hope and am praying that God will provide another opportunity.
Congratulations on making the June deadline. You worked hard. And so it’s not like it is ” back to the beginning” because at the beginning you did not have your paper done. You can get another extension, all you have to do is ask, fill out the paper work, send the paper, and move on. Asking for the extension and filing the necessary papers should be like clockwork….you have mentioned that you have done it before… File the paper work and the paper at the same time so that your committee will be convinced that the circumstances of this extension is completely different.
You can send another copy via email with the message requesting a confirmation of receipt. Perhaps you should cc other committee members and yourself. Also send a hard copy registered mail and or drop another copy off with the department secretary and ask him/her politely to sign for and date stamp it. .
Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D.
About the Author: As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters’ degrees and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool on CD—TADA! Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. To learn more and sign up for her FREE tips and teleclasses, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Privacy is our policy. TADA™ Finishline does not give out or sell our subscribers’ names or e-mail addresses.