Tips for Ph.D. Students of Color



Things I Learned As a Grad Student of Color:
 
1. What a Ph.D. Is
 

A Ph.D. certifies expertise and scholarship through two interrelated things:

  • A comprehensive exam that certifies that someone is deeply knowledgeable in a certain area ("Comps").
  • A deep research project on something new, demonstrating that this person is a productive scholar (the Dissertation).
(Therefore, coursework is the least important part of graduate school, relatively. It's certainly the shortest.)

1b. The Workload & Your Colleagues
There may need to be an adjustment in the expectations students have when beginning Ph.D. programs. In terms of the difficulty of the material and the amount of information I was supposed to learn, I equated one class meeting at the grad school level with one semester's worth of work at undergrad. And as for your peers, like you, they were the top students from their undergrad schools as well--in grad school, what seemed exception in undergrad is just the baseline.

2. There are significant and compelling reasons to not go to grad school.  
Students from non-traditional backgrounds (working class students, ethnic minorities, etc) often believe that education is the key to advancement, that getting a degree is a way to attain financial security. This is not the case with the Ph.D. There is an ever-growing body of literature that shows how a Ph.D. is more frequently than not the path to financial instability. The numbers are dire and often departments are reluctant to say just how bad the job market is and will continue to be.

3. To whom much is given, more will be given. And to the one who has little, even that will be taken away.
The students who are funded and those who are seen as doing well will get more attention, resources, feedback. Those who are lagging and just need some help or guidance will not even get that. There are exceptions to this pattern, of course, but it can be unsettling how often this maxim is correct.

4. Education debt is not good debt when it's for a Ph.D.


5. Deadline management is key to making it through. 
No one will tell you what the internal or external deadlines are. You need a Five Year Plan. (I know they went out of style with the collapse of the USSR, but they're necessary.)

6. Money follows money.

The more grants you get, the more you'll get in the future. But no one will tell you where to find the funding you need to do your research and write it up. It takes time and effort to find potential sources--compiling a list of all possible grants a full 12 months before you plan to apply is key in being able to prepare the components. (Note: I've compiled lists for social science research and may post these at another time. And I think Dr. Karen Kelsky's Foolproof Grant Template (from www.theprofessorisin.com) is brilliant and describes what my winning proposals eventually looked like.)

7. The school's bureaucracy often has incorrect information.
Don't trust them to file or process what you need them to.

8. There are distractions and pitfalls all around that sabotage progress.

Often they look like progress.
"Progress"-costumed pitfalls: a chapter in an edited volume; more than 3 book reviews; putting together an edited volume from a panel you organized; tons of student organization meetings that eat up time.

9. Write. There are multiple genres of writing to master and you will be judged primarily by your writing.

Often what's needed is a combination of unlearning bad habits (this means even learning to identify what _are_ bad habits) and learning good new writing techniques. And no one will take the effort to help you make the deep improvements needed. Instead, it makes sense to proactively take advantage of numerous writing resources.
  •  Campus writing centers.
  •  Writing courses for grad students.
  •  Reading the papers of peers, especially those that are doing well, to see how they are tackling the same work you are.
  •  Research workshops where you read and comment on work that's in progress.
  •  Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. This is not a book of grammar. It's a mistake to think, "Oh, I know how to conjugate verbs and use semi-colons, I don't need to read this book." This is a book about how to write well. The authors set about trying to isolate the components of good writing and it speaks volumes that the book is still in print after nearly a century. They will rewrite a sentence in various ways to illustrate why the format they suggest is the best. This helps us understand how we should be thinking about and rewriting on a sentence level. Check out the section entitled "Elementary Principles of Composition." 
  •  Regularly read the top journals of your discipline. This is the style of writing that is expected of you.

And, yes, you're expected to have peer-reviewed publications from graduate school in order to be successful on the job market. (Note: I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to help graduate students be stronger, published writers even at the grad stage and may post more of this at another time.)

10. Reading strategies for how to approach texts.

Annotate everything you read and save it in a file (digital, not hardcopy). Instead of asking, "How is this author's work incomplete/dated/oblivious of a very obvious fact?" Ask, "How is this text useful? What does it contribute to the debates it addresses?" This means that reading will take a lot longer than just skimming through a text.

11. Getting "Incompletes" and being an absolute perfectionist such that one doesn't finish assignments are self-sabotage.

12. Giving your all to adjuncting is self-sabotage.
Adjuncts are never converted to tenure track positions. Ever. You might as well plan on winning the lottery as your retirement plan.

13. Standards Creep (Being a Competitive Candidate). 
As the market gets more competitive, the baseline qualifications for positions gets higher and higher. That means that the minimum qualifications for an entry-level job (Assistant Professor) are higher now than they were 10 years ago. The same is true for tenure. What this practically means is that publications are expected, even for recent grads. The way to find out what these expectations are is to take a look at the CVs of people who were hired last year as Assistant Professors in your discipline across the US.

8 Responses to Tips for Ph.D. Students of Color

theblacktongue said...

I found this to be useful, but more as a grad student rather than a graduate student of color. Did I miss something?

Christine Folch said...

@theblacktongue:
Thanks for the feedback and your comment and... your remark is exactly the point, in at least two ways:
On the one hand, I think the "rules" for doing graduate school as a student of color are simply to do graduate school well--so, there's a homology between the advice given to one and the advice given to others. On the other hand, I also think that students from non-traditional backgrounds (including class) are less exposed to what those "rules" are. Yet those expectations are what govern and determine a successful grad school experience. And so, whereas some of these expectations are just second nature to students from more privileged, traditional backgrounds, they may be eye-opening news for students of color. This is the hidden curriculum on which you're tested.

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M Shakeel Rehmat Ali said...

Thanks for informative blog post.

M Shakeel Rehmat Ali said...

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Starc Brandam said...

PHD students always looked busy in searching about specific topic and asking questions about from their seniors or professionals. This is because they are going to present their own theory about specific topic. Your tips are providing perfect guidelines to the PHD students about researching and then writing the information. Those students who feel they are very poor in researching upon an topic can visit myessaywriting.net website and hire online writer who will not only make thorough research but also write information as it will look professional.

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