All in the Name of Research
It takes a village to raise an African American doctoral recipient. If you don’t agree, ask any newly minted Ph.D. about the harsh reality of completing the degree. Ask them how many friends, family members, fellow graduate students, faculty mentors, university administrators, co-workers did they have to lean on at some point during their journey? How many times did they have to humble themselves to borrow money, crash at someone’s house, call off work or ask someone to cover for them while they pulled an all-nighter plus some to finish an assignment?
Ask them whose shoulder did they dampen with tears of exhaustion? Whose words of encouragement did they depend on to quell the inevitable self-doubt that accompanies any intellectual endeavor? Who was there to remind them that they were good enough, that they did, indeed, have what it takes to not only finish what they started, but to make a mark in their respective field?
While some might imagine the life of a graduate student as one with certain luxuries, that of sleeping late, hanging out in coffee shops, traveling around the world to conferences and seminars, cashing in on grant money — all in the name of research, the actual image is far from ideal. And those who have stood by a Ph.D. student know the truth — coffee is addictive, the library or lab is often the travel destination, and the grant dollars are difficult to come by.
Yet, despite the odds, last year in our Top 100 graduate degree edition (Black Issues, July 3, 2003) we reported that 1,714 African Americans received doctoral degrees in 2002, constituting 5.1 percent of all the doctorates earned that year. But even though these new doctoral-degree earners may be the only one in their close circle of friendship with Dr. in front of their names, they by no means earned it by themselves.
As associate editor of Black Issues and as a Ph.D. student, the annual Top 100 graduate edition has been a favorite of mine over the past three and a half years that I have worked with the magazine. I’ve felt encouraged by and a sense of camaraderie with the graduates we have featured. Remember Drs. Tasha Innis, Sherry Scott Joseph and Kimberly Weems, who in December 2000 became the first African American women to earn doctorates in mathematics at the University of Maryland? I clearly saw myself in each of them.
Each year, in that special edition, we also have reported on a number of villages that have raised African American Ph.D.s., singling them out for their unique commitment to expanding the ranks of minority professors — villages such as the Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Leadership Alliance and the PhD Project. Those stories have empowered me, just knowing that there were entire organizations out there dedicated to folks like me.
What has been most empowering, still, has been the village I found at Black Issues. The support I received day to day from the top down has made all the difference in my ability to continue along my journey. The flexibility to take mid-day courses, the understanding when I needed weeks off to study for my comprehensive exams, and the subtle confirmation when one of my co-workers would pass me in the hall and say with a smile “So, when can we call you Dr.?” Black Issues is a place that lives out its mission.
Deciding to leave this village has been a tough decision, but one that has been met with applause around here. When I advanced to candidacy last semester, it was not just a chance to celebrate the progression to ABD (all but dissertation), but a chance to face a new challenge and resist the obstacles that keep many from moving beyond this stage.
My co-workers have told me that there are good things to come my way. I’ll remember that as I labor to finish my degree. Perhaps, one day, I will return to the village, and it will be me you see featured in that annual Top 100 graduate edition.
— Robin V. Smiles is working on her doctorate in English literature at the University of Maryland.
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