Making mentorship count: surviving Ph.D. programs requires someone who is willing to show the way

By his own admission, Dr. Damian Rouson’s initial adjustment from
Howard University to the graduate engineering program at Stanford
University was difficult.

“I think very few people don’t doubt their competence when they
come here,” Rouson says. “It is a big jump, no matter where you’re from
or who you are.”

Engineering School Dean John Hennessy agrees, describing the
Stanford experience as a “culture shock” for most students,
irrespective of race or gender.

“We try to catch students before they feel they have to drop out,” he says.

While Rouson’s situation never became that grave, the recent
doctoral graduate credits his advisor, Dr. John Eaton, with helping him
to recover from a disillusioning start.

“My first quarter, I had all these lofty notions of these great
classes I was going to take,” Rouson says. “There was all kinds of
material that I was interested in, but which I had no previous exposure

Eaton recognized his student’s ability and ambition early on, but
knew that in order for Rouson to succeed, he would have to crawl before
he ran.

“In the second quarter, (Eaton] brought me down to earth and said,
`Okay, you’re going to take this, this, and this,'” Rouson recounts.
“So I said, `Well what if I don’t want to take that?’… [Eaton] said,
`You will.'”

Eaton’s campus office is brimming with books, papers, family
photos, technical notes, and pictures of each of the Ph.D. students he
has mentored over the years.

“I’m proud of being a professor,” says the scholar. “Mentoring is a
big part of what I do. I’m a good advisor and people know it.”

In recent years, motivated primarily by a nationalistic
sensibility, Eaton, who is White, has deliberately sought to advise
graduate students of color. His personal mission is to help diversify
and expand the ranks of U.S.-born professors.

“I prefer to teach Americans,” he says without contrition.
“Mechanical engineering is dominated by foreigners…. I believe we
should be the best in the world. If we are going to do that, we have
got to [educate] everyone. If it takes affirmative action to do that,
so be it. I think private universities should thumb their noses [at
critics] and continue affirmative action, and say, `Sue us if you want

Conquering Feelings of Isolation

While such strong attitudes may not be the norm at Stanford, the
university has produced a relatively large number of African American
doctoral engineers for a tier-one institution — twenty-five since
1973. The mechanical engineering department, where Rouson studied, has
from 400 to 450 graduate students each year, roughly twenty of whom are
Black. Rouson was one of two African Americans to complete his Ph.D. in
engineering here last spring.

“Sometimes you can feel like You I re the only Black student even if you’re not,” he says.

“When I first got here, I wasn’t really reaching out to people. I
kind of had a chip on my shoulder,” Rouson explains. “Coming from a
historically Black college, I thought I had something to prove. I
thought I had to do it on my own. I was pretty fortunate that some key
people reached out to me.”

Rouson says the support he got from Eaton made a big difference.

Another relationship that assuaged his anxieties is one he cultivated with a fellow graduate student.

“This guy would call me every Sunday night to check answers on
homework assignments we had that were due every Monday,” Rouson says.
“Eventually it dawned on me that, hey, this is one of the brightest
guys in the class, and if he can call me to check answers, surely I can
call him to do the same.”

Immediately becoming involved in research also helped Rouson break through the initial isolation he felt.

“[Eaton] got me involved in research early on,” he says. “When you
get involved in research, you get a lab, you get an office, and you
have an immediate network because you have office mates. Sometimes my
office mates would call me to work on problems, or we’d just happen to
be there together working on problems.”

Eaton is visibly proud of having helped Rouson reach his goal. He
says he expects no less of his Black students than he does of all of
his doctoral students. But he also recognizes that they are under a
different kind of pressure.

“Good minority students are expected to tutor and they’re expected to recruit others,” Eaton explains.

Black On Black Mentoring

Where they exist at research institutions, Black science and
engineering professors often feel a strong obligation to encourage
Black students to pursue doctoral degrees in these fields. While a
worthwhile goal, this objective can create a variety of frustrating

Some professors complain that too few Black students enter their
programs to make such mentoring even possible. Professors who do
encounter Black graduate students sometimes find themselves in the
unenviable position of having to decline advisory requests from
students who make their choices on the basis of race, rather than on
the basis of whose academic field of study most closely matches their
research interest. Having the wrong mentor can not only imperil one’s
research, but it can make for an unnecessarily arduous graduate school

Lone Black faculty also find them selves coaching Black students,
in and outside of their departments, who feel race is affecting their
relationship with their non-Black primary advisors.

“Students shouldn’t have to choose me [as an advisor] just because
I’m Black,” says Dr. Gary S. May, an electrical engineering professor
at Georgia Tech.

Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, May did his undergraduate work
at Georgia Tech and attended the University of California-Berkeley for
graduate school. Since 1991, he has produced five Ph.D. s, one of whom
is African American.

“Black people don’t have a historical presence in the sciences,” he
says. “Many students don’t know Black engineers until they know me.”

May hadn’t originally intended to return to Georgia Tech after
graduating from Berkeley, but he is pleased that the opportunity
presented itself because it has given him an opportunity to pursue
research and teaching while simultaneously mentoring Black and other

“Berkeley is pathetic with respect to Blacks and Latinos,” he says.
“Here [at Georgia Tech], we have from forty to fifty Black students in
electrical engineering alone.”

May is one of twelve Black faculty in his department. In 1995,
Georgia Tech produced five African American doctoral engineers. Such
diversity has served to neutralize the pressures that exist on other
campuses, he says.

For May, mentorship is integral to professorship. In addition to
his teaching and research responsibilities, he is the director of GT
Supreme (Georgia Tech Summer Undergraduate Program of Research in
Electrical Engineering for Minorities), an eight-week program designed
to excite college juniors and seniors about research. Run on a $50,000
per year budget that is funded in part by the National Science
Foundation, the program has already served seventy-six students since
it began in 1991.

More Black Women Needed

One of the three Black graduate students May is currently advising
is Frances Williams. She came to Georgia Tech from North Carolina
Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T), a historically
Black institution. She selected May as her advisor after being
recommended to him by one of her A&T professors.

“Finding Dr. May made coming to Georgia Tech a plus for me,”
Williams says. “I got positive feedback about him and Georgia Tech from
other students, and felt this was the right match.”

For Williams, the sizable Black population at Georgia Tech made the
transition from a historically Black undergraduate school less jarring.

While Williams and May appreciate the luxury of being able to have
a mentor/mentee relationship with someone of the same race, neither
feels it has much direct impact on their working relationship or their

However, like many people in the Georgia Tech community, this
professor and graduate student imply that the critical mass of
diversity at their school has made race less of a factor in the
institute’s intellectual and social environment.

“All of my students [irrespective of race] work hard and are dependable and reliable,” May says.

Conducting her graduate work on a campus that is free from strong
racial tension hasn’t blinded Williams to the racial or gender
realities of her profession. She looks forward to completing her
doctorate and working for a while in industry. But, eventually, she
intends to return to an academic environment to teach — in part
because she thinks students need to be taught by Black women engineers.

“There aren’t many Black females teaching [in engineering],” she
says. “The engineering field is still male dominated. In my classes and
during my internships, I am usually the only Black female…. I’d like
to return to an [HBCU] to teach.”

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