Advice for Marginalized Students on Choosing a Ph.D. Program

Eric Anthony Grollman suggests key questions to ask and what to look out for.

September 14, 2018
 
 

In 2013, I completed my doctorate in sociology at a top-15-ranked program in sociology. This year, I started my sixth and final year as a tenure-track professor at a top-25-ranked liberal arts college. During graduate school, I experienced and witnessed sexual harassment, shaming, "beatings," and gender-policing masked as professional socialization. Thus, my career is just as much a success story as it is a tale of resilience.

The aforementioned forms of violence tend to occur against those who violate dominant norms within a group, institution or society. So, was I a bad graduate student, or was that a bad program? Simultaneously because of and despite my graduate training, I am a productive, well-connected academic, though I continue to work through the trauma I suffered as a grad student. Perhaps a more fitting question is whether the grad program and I simply were not a good fit for one another.

The purpose of this essay is to draw from my experiences to impart advice to future Ph.D.s -- especially those who are of color, trans and/or queer -- on selecting the right (or at least less wrong) graduate program.

Which Discipline Is Right for You?

The first step of the application process is to decide which area of study aligns with your career goals. As a college senior, I asked my professors for advice as I decided among sociology, gender studies, sexuality studies and student affairs. I ultimately chose sociology, as I figured that the long-standing prestige of the discipline would open more doors across the profession. The cost, however, was forgoing potentially more radical and affirming training that aligned with my activist values.

That is an unfair decision to make. But higher education devalues (symbolically and financially) interdisciplinarity and programs that center on the lives of people of color, LGBTQ people and women. A decision, for example, to pursue a Ph.D. in gender studies would have given me life, but also would have come at the expense of better job prospects and professional resources. Even a joint Ph.D. in a traditional discipline like sociology with an interdisciplinary field (e.g., Latinx studies) will not assuage some academics' skepticism about interdisciplinarity.

How you navigate these constraints should depend on your career goals. If faculty life appeals to you, then I encourage you to find out what kinds of jobs are available for the training you'd like to pursue.

Which Program Is Right for You?

Your next step is the time-consuming yet fun process of deciding where to apply. There is no question in my mind whether a particular department or university is racist, cissexist, sexist, heterosexist, fatphobic, ableist and classist -- especially the more prestigious ones. How much oppression, and which manifestations and types of oppression, are you willing to endure? Is the prestige of a department more or less important than your mental, physical, sexual, spiritual, financial and political well-being?

Some programs allow you to select your mentors once you've started graduate school rather than as a condition of your admission. You may be drawn to a program because of a particular scholar whose work you really like. But I caution you against selecting a program for one "superstar." It is common for faculty members to leave for other, better jobs, move into administration, semi- or fully retire, go on research leave or temporarily, or indefinitely stop taking on new students for various reasons.

Instead, look for programs where multiple experts in your areas of interest are on the faculty and (ideally) currently taking on new students. I ended up selecting my program because there were two faculty who studied what I dreamed of studying. One of them left after my second year; several people cautioned me against working with the other professor. I also recommend selecting a program that is strong in other substantive or methodological areas, in case you find yourself interested in something else as well/instead.

With each potential mentor, I recommend going beyond what they list on their professional websites and curriculum vitae in your search to learn more about them. Some of the most prolific scholars turn out to be accused of intellectual fraud, sexual violence, and/or abuse and gaslighting. Indeed, good research does not necessarily translate into good teaching and mentorship. You can find out about the mentoring style of particular professors by simply asking them, either by phone or email or in a meeting during a campus visit. Ask whether the department supports your research interests and career goals.

Triangulate the Data

The most important data to inform your decision on the best-fitting program comes from graduate students currently in that program. Reach out to students who are from similar backgrounds as you (in terms of, for example, race, religion, nationality and immigrant status, sexual and gender identity, ethnicity, class, disability status, family status) as well as those different from you. Email or call students who study what you plan to study (substantive area, methodological and theoretical traditions) and those who do not. If activism or public scholarship is important to you, ask those doing that kind of work about their experiences and whether they are supported in the program. Do they have to keep that aspect of their lives separate or even secret?

If a department lists its alumni, reach out to some of them, as well -- those who pursued the career path you want and those who didn't. If such people are not listed, ask current students and faculty members for the names and contact information of alumni with whom they would recommend you speak.

It might even be worth asking for the names of those who left the program, especially since half of graduate students drop out of grad programs. Are those who left the program disproportionately from marginalized backgrounds and/or on career paths that reflect your own goals? The experiences of those who made the difficult decision to leave can be just as telling as those who successfully completed the Ph.D. And, like me, completing the Ph.D. can also mean one had an awful or traumatic experience during their training.

Selecting More Than a Mentor or Program

Since you will likely have to live near your new graduate program, you should assess what is most important for your well-being during your training. Are culturally competent therapists nearby? Is there a thriving community of your people (however you define them)? What is the political climate in the city, state and region? Do current grad students and/or faculty assure you, "Oh, but [city] is only an hour away" because they know the small town in which they live and work is a turn-off to many prospective marginalized grad students?

Zandria F. Robinson noted in Take It From Me: Get Your (Grad Application) Life!: "You are a person of color or otherwise a scholar on the margins. You are not built to survive in Whiteheterolandia … Do not believe that lie that graduate school is only X number of years and you can survive in White Mayo Bumfuckery Township for that bit of time."

Graduate school is already hard enough. Consider whether the prestige of an institution located in an oppressive town is worth the cost to your well-being. And make sure you have resources necessary for your success, safety and well-being.

Remember that there is life after graduate school. Prioritize what you need to do well now; avoid throwing present-day you under the bus for what you hope to secure for future you. There are multiple ways to be a successful academic, so pick the one that allows you to be your best self.

Bio

Eric Anthony Grollman is a black queer non-binary scholar-activist. They are an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond. Grollman created Conditionally Accepted in 2013, serving as its founding editor until last December.

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