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I’m a Doctor – Now What? Lessons from a First-Generation Scholar

Half asleep, I hit the alarm clock, which jolted me out of my sleep at 5:25 a.m. It was earlier than the time that I usually wake up, so I sunk back into my bed. Staring out the window in a contemplative daze, I realized today was the BIG day, my big day, which I dubbed JaeDay, May 24th, 2017.

For most people, this was just another day or quite possibly the beginning of a holiday weekend but for me, it was the beginning of my life as Dr. Janelle L. Williams. Will people call me Dr. Williams or something cool like Dr. Jae? Should I order new business cards immediately or wait until my old ones that I never used ran out? My mind continued to race and I thought about the elephant in the room. The number one question I was asked in the days leading to my dissertation defense was, “what are you going to do now?” My initial response was to relax. After all, I just completed 12 years of post-secondary education. I was already set to receive a promotion in my career and was simply waiting on my credentials to be conferred; I was content on where I was. My final answer was to explore life without being a student and to say goodbye to research forever.

To start my new path and new identity and to confirm to myself I did everything I was supposed to do, I decided to close out my last semester as a student by attending a conference for freshly minted doctoral students of color. I was interested in hearing the plans of my peers, those outside of my program and across the academia. One student, sharing his experience mentioned issues he had as a “first-generation doctor,” this was the first time I heard the term. Up and until that point, I never thought of myself as a first-generation college student, as both my mother (Temple University) and father (Central State University) attended college, but no one in my immediate family ventured past the bachelor’s degree. During a networking break, in a conversation with a seasoned faculty member about my next steps, he urged me to find a mentor, publish from my dissertation, and apply for a post-doctoral fellowship to build my research agenda within the next three years. I smiled and nodded politely, but inside, I crumbled because I had not given any thought to these next steps and felt immediately behind.

During the next few months, I reflected on the conversation and began to critically analyze how to make the suggestions work into my perfectly laid out plans of spending most of my time relaxing. I was also frustrated that no one in my program – faculty or students – mentioned these things before. I felt like I had to start all over, and accept that research found its way back into my life. In hindsight, attending the conference was the best decision I made as a young scholar.  In the year following the conference, I was able to identify a mentor who was instrumental in helping me publish multiple pieces from my dissertation, build my research agenda, and identify a post-doctoral fellowship. My mentor, a full professor, one of the leading scholars on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs – my research area) and author of 25 books, was key to my understanding of the lay of the academy and the expectations within it. Though my parents are college educated, they were not able to give me the real time advice or career advancement support I needed to thrive in the academy. Most of their advice was two generations old, and times have drastically changed since they last stepped foot on a college campus.

As I continue to navigate post-doctoral life, my advice for anyone who felt blindsided by expectations to continue excelling is to find a mentor in your field who believes in your potential, will take the time to support you, and push you to flourish through your next phase. Don’t limit your mentor search to your university or program and consider those who are not racially and ethnically similar to how you identify. Simply because you worked closely with your dissertation chair does not mean they are your mentor; they can be, but do not assume they will be. It also helps to approach your potential mentor with a plan of tasks you are seeking to accomplish. This helps the mentor determine if they have the capacity to assist you and whether or not they can identify resources in areas that fall outside of their purview.  Further, having more than one mentor can be beneficial as well. Similar to your dissertation committee, each mentor will have a different strength; tap into these strengths. Lastly, if you seek out a relationship with a mentor, follow up and never miss an appointment. Remember the plan you create, is your plan to execute, your mentor(s) can only assist, you must be willing to do the hard work.

As I enter into my second year of life as Dr. Williams, I feel more secure in the direction I’m heading, with the goals that I’ve laid out to achieve. To celebrate this milestone, I took my nephew to lunch. There, he asked me, “Are you really a doctor?” I chuckled and replied, “Yes.” He told me, “That’s cool – I’m going to be a doctor too.” At this point I realized, my children – when I have them – won’t be first-generation college students, or first-generation doctors – if that is the path they chose – but will be able to successfully navigate the path less traveled – the road to academia.

Dr. Janelle L. Williams is a visiting scholar at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow her on Twitter @SincerelyDrJae

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