Of the 184,074 people who received a doctoral degree in the United States in 2018, only 17 percent were women of color.
With 57,766 graduates, there were almost twice as many white women who were awarded a doctorate than the 31,465 women of color graduates that included women who identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, and multiracial.
Although I’ve not been able to find data of graduates’ sexual identifications, dis/ability, socioeconomic background, and age, it’s reasonable to assume that sexuality, dis/ability, class, and age would intersect with gender and race to multiply the barriers that marginalized students face when doing a PhD.
I’d like to acknowledge upfront that the barriers preventing marginalized students from starting and completing a doctoral degree are structural and systemic. They’re ingrained in the social, cultural, economic, and political disadvantages borne by marginalized folx.
When I was an undergraduate business student looking to enter Australian academia, the entire process seemed completely mystified. Not only was I a woman of color in an all-white department, but as a first-generation Chinese migrant, I repeatedly came up against unspoken norms and rules.
I eventually made it into academia because of the generous support and guidance I received along the way. I wrote this post in hopes of saving another woman of color some of the confusion and pain as you find your own path through the white masculinist academe.
Finding A Supervisor
Many diligent students I’ve seen invest all their time and energy into crafting the research proposal for their application. I’ve met people who spent close to a year agonizing over the 8-page plan, writing and rewriting the ‘perfect’ proposal.
I would recommend that you start by finding a supervisor.
Find someone whose work intellectually, emotionally, and politically aligns with your aspirations. There are phenomenal allies in academia, but if you can find a supervisor who shares some of your marginalizations, the more likely they’ll be able to empathize with the barriers you’ll inevitably face, and guide you in overcoming them.
For example, I don’t have children, so when I supervise a candidate who is balancing their studies with childcare, I would try to find a co-supervisor who is a parent so they could check me and ensure I don’t set unreasonable expectations and deadlines.
For your doctoral program, don’t just think about the university where you completed your undergraduate degree. Look far and wide for a supervisor at any university you’re willing to travel and apply to.
Your supervisor will become somebody you work closely with and depend on for academic development and mentorship over the next 3–4 years if you’re completing your PhD full-time, and twice that if you’re completing it part-time.
It’s vital to take your time and find someone whose expertise you’ll truly value and someone who’ll care about your growth as an emerging scholar.
To find your supervisor, I would suggest conducting a preliminary literature review on the topics you’d like to research for your PhD. Pay particular attention to the articles and books that have been published in recent years. Make a note of the ones you love and reach out to the authors, letting them know what you admire in their work and what you would potentially like to research under their supervision.
Taking the time to do this step will likely make a profound impression on the academic.
If the academic is willing to take you on as a doctoral candidate, try to meet them for a coffee or at least for a chat on the phone. Talk to them about your research interests and scholarly aspirations but also try to gauge if you think you’d enjoy working with them one-on-one.
Do they seem genuinely interested in you and your development? Or do they seem distracted and disengaged?
Does it seem like they’re constantly trying to lead you away from your interests and imposing other ideas for what you should research?
Or does it seem like they’re feeding your ego, lavishing over-the-top praise on you even though you’ve only just met?
Trust your intuition. If it doesn’t feel right, then it’ll likely not work.
It’d be particularly judicious to seek out the academics’ current or recently graduated candidates. Many institutions’ websites list all the students under the academic’s supervision and I would suggest sending them a short email saying you’re thinking about applying for a doctoral degree at their university with their supervisor and ask if they have any advice for you.
Do take heed if other candidates’ responses resemble the scene from the film, Get Out.
But even with all signs looking positive, the other candidates may offer invaluable insights into the university’s housing situation, funding opportunities, research training, travel allowances, campus culture, etc.
If you do eventually choose to apply to the program and your application is successful, you’d have already formed connections with your peers.
Keep meeting with and speaking to academics in your area of interest. When you find someone who you mutually agree would be a good fit, the research proposal will fall into place.
Many universities encourage you to develop your doctoral research proposal with the academic who has agreed to supervise you. This is really where the supervisory relationship begins. A good supervisor will help suggest readings to review and devise ideas for your research design. For a successful PhD, it’s just as important for your supervisor to love your project as much as you do.
The typical doctorate program coordinator simply wouldn’t have the time or expertise as an individual to review and evaluate each research proposal in-depth. The coordinator will often take their cue about which student applications to accept from the nominated supervisor. As long as your supervisor vouches for you and commits to working with you, your application will stand a good chance for acceptance.
Lack of financial support is a major barrier for many doctoral candidates, but especially women of color who face discrimination in the awards process.
Study the funding application guidelines of your chosen university carefully, but also don’t be afraid to ask around informally. Your prospective supervisor may be an excellent source of insider knowledge. They may be able to point you in the direction of little-known grants, bursaries, and scholarships that may not be openly or clearly advertised on institution websites.
Meet with the doctoral program coordinator and also ask them about all the available scholarships you could apply for. Don’t be phased by any funding that looks ‘too competitive’. You need to learn to get shameless about throwing your hat in the ring. The sooner you practice being resourceful and your own best advocate, the better you’ll be set up to survive your doctoral program.
Again, if you’ve taken the time to build a rapport with your nominated supervisor, they may be available to help look over your funding application and provide a reference letter.
If finances are a concern for you, don’t be afraid to let your supervisor know in a frank conversation.
If they’re aware of your constraints, they can keep you top of mind when they hire teaching and research assistants, when their colleagues ask around about available assistants, and when they hear about bursaries and awards.
Conversely, supervisors who’ve not experienced financial hardship may jump to the assumption that you taking on additional work means you’re not committed to your studies. Having a brief, honest conversation about your financial situation can help correct any misunderstandings.
How I Made Finances Work
I was incredibly privileged that in Australia, I was able to do my PhD for free. My tuition fees were covered by the government via the Research Training Program. My university, the University of Sydney, had a streamlined system where they sent me a paper application in the mail that had all the forms I needed to enroll, including a single application for a tax-free $25,000pa scholarship.
The scholarship application covered three funding schemes at once. The top level was government-level funding, the second level was university-level funding, and the final level was Faculty-level funding. The application process automatically started at the top and if a candidate wasn’t eligible or successful for one, they would be put in the pool for the next one.
At that time, I wasn’t eligible for the government scholarship but was pleased to receive a letter informing me that the university would supply the $25,000pa scholarship.
Earlier that month, I had just bought an apartment with my partner. $25,000 went a long way but it wasn’t quite enough to cover my mortgage repayments. In my eagerness, I took on 9 classes in my first semester across three subjects and quickly realized that the workload wouldn’t be sustainable.
My supervisor shared how she made ends meet as a student and stayed sane by taking on tutoring. She suggested I stick with ONE core subject that had consistently high student enrolments and pick up as many classes as I could and batch teaching on a single day.
So in the next semester, I dropped everything but the one core subject. I was offered 7 classes that I opted to take on Fridays from 9 am – 5 pm. That meant I could focus on my PhD all week and earn the additional income I needed on Friday. I would end up keeping that class schedule for the remainder of my degree and became so expert at that subject I could teach every class in my sleep.
I developed standard operating procedures for my main teaching tasks. For instance, I built up a comprehensive comments bank to speed up my grading process. I had a set formula for grading where I would start with noting something positive about the paper, then I would list at most three areas for improvement. My comments bank enabled me to copy and paste the most common issues with student papers with detailed guidance such as specific URLs to resources for further development and support.
With the help of your supervisor, seek out the core subjects in your department, introduce yourself to the professor, and let them know you’d be interested in picking up some classes in their subject.
Refine your workflow, habits, and standard operating procedures every semester to keep your teaching load efficient and manageable.
Continue to exercise your resourcefulness and self-advocacy throughout your degree.
The rules of academic funding are notoriously secretive. In the second year of my PhD, I had an opportunity to seek some funding to present at an international conference in Amsterdam. I followed the instructions in the application and provided an extremely frugal budget that ended up coming in well under the $3,000 allowance.
When I was notified that I was successful, the good news was tempered by the fact that they had a very high number of applicants and not enough funds to distribute in full, so everybody had their requests reduced. I was crushed because I asked for the minimum of what I needed to cover my travel and the reduction across the board meant I could no longer afford to go.
When I shared my disappointment with a white student, she rolled her eyes at me and said, “Everybody knows you should always ask for more than what you need.”
Well, I certainly didn’t, and I thought I was doing the right thing by being honest and conservative with my anticipated expenses in the application.
Check your assumptions regularly with your support network, especially around things that impact your finances, livelihood, and wellbeing.
Seeking Support, Cultivating Community
The PhD can be a lonely experience.
Campus cultures that don’t value or foster diversity (let alone intersectional justice) can be inhospitable places for women of color and other marginalized folx.
Create your own support networks among the candidates.
Be as active as you can in the coursework and other orientation events in your program to seek out friends. For me, I had about 5–6 people in the program I was friendly with who would organize regular writing sessions and group dinners to offer companionship along the PhD journey.
It can be particularly valuable to make friends with people in different departments or Faculties. They are close enough to understand the university system but distant enough to forgive those days when you need to vent about your supervisor.
Facebook Groups and social media in general can also be great ways to foster international networks with others who empathize with your experiences.
I recommend the group I Should Be Writing, which invites “womxn and non-binary people” from all academic levels to lend each other support in research and writing. The group is connected to the Academic Womxn Amplified podcast, which has a wealth of advice and resources for writing too.
You may be the first person in your family to be completing a doctorate or even the first to go to university at all. Some of my family members found it difficult to understand what it was that I did. Some still think I’m a ‘teacher’ and call me in the middle of a workday to ask how my “school holidays” are going 😂.
Others might think because you may be working from home some days that you’re just hanging around ‘doing nothing’.
Bring your non-academic family and friends along as much as you can. They’ll need to understand that you may not be as available even though it may seem like you’re ‘just’ reading and writing at home every day. Communicate to them what support you might need, for example, helping with your kids or delivering some food in the last six months as you madly write up your dissertation.
Surround yourself with as many people as you can who’ve survived the doctoral journey, especially other women of color. Seek their advice and support to help you navigate the tricky terrain inside the Ivory Tower.
Building the support networks you need doesn’t necessarily look like a popularity contest.
When I completed my PhD, I couldn’t help but notice the candidates in my cohort who seemed so good at self-branding and self-promotion. They always seemed to be on campus and appeared to spend most of their time making friends with students and faculty.
I compared myself to them, wondering if I wasn’t doing enough to build relationships and get myself ‘out there’. It was much harder for my classmates with caring responsibilities, who couldn’t spend hours every day just hanging out around campus.
Admittedly, some advantages can be accrued by self-branding and self-promotion. Many of these students would secure spontaneous opportunities for paid work or invitations to join department committees. However, these students were also eventually the ones who struggled to complete their theses on time.
A solid support system may just comprise one good mentor and friend. Don’t allow networking to derail your research project.
Breaking Into the Ivory Tower
I ask no favors for my sex. … All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks.Sarah Grimké
Even though student bodies in universities have significantly diversified in recent years, women of color academics are still a rare sighting around universities in the West.
In colleges across the United States, Black, Latinx, and Asian women comprise only 20.6 percent of tenured and tenure-track positions. Women of color tend to be clustered in the lower ranks and face discrimination and bullying that often hold them back from promotion. In the United Kingdom, Black women make up a disgraceful 0.1 percent of all active professors.
Further intersectional oppressions such as being LGBTQIA+, disabled, and working-class compound the barriers faced by graduates who try to secure tenure-track positions.
Universities, like many organizations in general, can be resistant to implementing the structural and systemic changes needed to become a more hospitable place for marginalized people.
Testimonies from women academics of color report anything from indifference to contempt from their institutions when they attempt to raise concerns about discrimination and injustice on campuses. A diversity officer working at a university once bitterly remarked to me that they’ve seen more targets of discrimination punished for speaking out than having their grievances properly investigated.
In this lecture below, Derald Wing Sue, one of the leading scholars of microaggressions, speaks about the microaggressions you will likely face in academia.
The Labor of Survival
Academia is a test of survival.
You’ll need to figure out your strategy for self-preservation and hone it.
You’ll need to seek out, create, and fight for the systems you need that allow you to thrive.
Your survival benefits us all.
If people like you have historically been marginalized from academia, then we need your voice.
We need your perspective to reshape knowledge that has been by and large created to serve the needs of imperialism, white supremacy, cis-heteronormativity, patriarchy, and neoliberal capitalism.
We need you to help break the path for future scholars and create more generative spaces in the Ivory Tower.
Women of color have faced and continue to face innumerable barriers to their entry into academia.
When their identities are crosscut by other oppressions including sexuality, dis/ability, class, and age, the challenges to their survival multiply.
To help demystify the process, this post has offered practical guidance for women of color in finding a supervisor, securing funding, cultivating a support network, and carving out a career in academia.
I hope it helps you as you find your way.
Know that you’re not alone, and while our numbers are few, for now, they are growing. Together, we can raise our collective power and work to transform universities, research, and knowledge.
Did I miss anything?
If you have other questions or confusions and would like me to offer any other guidance about entering academia, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and let me know.
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Aisha S. Ahmad (2020, July 6). A survival guide for Black, Indigenous, and other women of color in academe. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-survival-guide-for-black-indigenous-and-other-women-of-color-in-academe
Jason Arday and Heidi Safia Mirza (2018) Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy
Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González and Angela P. Harris (2012) Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia
Noelle Chaddock and Beth Hinderliter (2020) Antagonizing White Feminism: Intersectionality’s Critique of Women’s Studies and the Academy
Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate (2017) Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia
Deborah Gabriel (2020) Transforming the Ivory Tower: Models for Gender Equality and Social Justice
Meghana Mysore (2018, October 5). Imagining ourselves: Women of color in academia. Yale Daily News. https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2018/10/05/imagining-ourselves-women-of-color-in-academia/
Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Eve Tuck, and K. Wayne Yang (2019) Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View
Brett C. Stockdill and Mary Yu Danico (2012) Transforming the Ivory Tower: Challenging Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia in the Academy
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Featured image by Andrea Piacquadio