What does Race and Class have to do with Getting a PhD?
By Candace S. King
In the Fall of 2016, Larry Traylor arrived at Rutgers University, New Brunswick as an incoming Political Science and Africana Studies double major. Driven and eager to take on the ambitious course load ahead of him, the aspiring policy analyst had even bigger post-baccalaureate goals in mind.
“As a first-generation student, I want to be a doctor, I want Ph.D. behind my name, I want Esq. behind my name,” Traylor shared. “But oftentimes you don't know how to go about getting it.”
Although Traylor envisioned attending graduate school after receiving his Bachelor’s degree, he had several reservations about the graduate school admissions process including the types of advanced degree programs and funding available. Without access to information about these concerns, he decided to take a year off after graduating this May.
There are several leaks in the higher education pipeline which impact the road to success for students of color. According to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, doctoral degree recipients 25 years and older make up nearly 2 percent of the American population. Among that population, the percentage of degree holders who identified as Black or Hispanic were even lower. In 2017, there were a dozen academic fields where not a single Black student earned a Ph.D.; demystifying the degree and helping students identify their path to obtaining a degree is critically important.
To address this need, Rutgers University–New Brunswick is building a bridge that will help students to explore a Ph.D. as a post-baccalaureate path. Sponsored by the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund and the Division of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement, the Bridge to Doctorate Graduate EOF Summer Institute introduces juniors and seniors enrolled in any Rutgers University EOF program (New Brunswick, Camden, Newark, and RBHS) to the process of applying to and succeeding in graduate school.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the summer institute will be conducted virtually from August 17-20. Melissa Wooten, Ph.D., Senior Director of Educational Equity, who oversees this new program says, “we did not want the pandemic to prevent us from exposing students to the vast possibilities that getting a Ph.D. creates and giving them supports to get there.” Workshops will address concerns regarding graduate school admission, personal and professional development while in graduate school, and career paths. Students will also receive one-on-one graduate school coaching and a stipend to cover the costs of educational materials.
There are barriers to pursuing the Ph.D. and obstacles to success in graduate school for all students, but it can be particularly acute for students who come from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In “Pathways to the Professoriate: Exploring Black Doctoral Student Socialization and the Pipeline to the Academic Profession,” Reginald Blockett, Pamela Felder, Walter Parrish III, and Joan Collier find, “Due to the high expectations of graduate education, from faculty and peers, graduate students are less likely to admit that they do not understand the expectations presented to them or that expectations are impractical. Subsequently, when students observe or even assume that their peers are successful, they internalize feelings of inadequacy and do not ascribe failure to their environment.”
For Traylor, the lack of information about graduate school coupled with his experiences in unwelcoming learning environments proved to be persistent roadblocks. “Being at Rutgers, I felt like I was fighting against the odds,” Traylor said. “Oftentimes, you feel like you’re not wanted there and you’re fighting to be there, in a way that you ask yourself, do you all really want me here? People always say that ‘that’s life, that you have to fight for everything you get,’ but that can also be very demoralizing.” Traylor’s experiences reflect larger trends within the academy at large, which leads demoralized students to opt out of advanced study.
The Institute's goal is to help students envision themselves in graduate school and build the academic and interpersonal skills necessary to complete it. Mitigating issues like “imposter syndrome,” which can lead students to feel that they don’t belong in academic spaces. Joan Collier, Ph.D., Director of Diversity Education and Outreach said, “We don’t want graduate school to be something that students stumble upon and through. If we can show them some paths forward, what to anticipate, share success strategies to cultivate community while helping them to articulate why they want to attend graduate school and their end goals, that sets them up to get to the doctorate.”