A Supportive Nudge for Minority Graduate Students on the Path to a Ph.D.

October 31, 2010

For graduate students on the road to getting a doctoral degree, it's important to receive helpful advice from seasoned scholars on how to stay the course. Also critical are messages of encouragement and the opportunity to connect with other graduate students and future employers.

The Compact for Faculty Diversity's annual Institute on Teaching and Mentoring—a gathering of more than 1,000 Ph.D. students, their mentors, and junior faculty members—offered all of that and more at a four-day event held here that ended Sunday. The institute's goal is to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who earn doctoral degrees and become faculty members.

"We've got plenty of work to do," said Ansley Abraham, director of the Southern Regional Education Board's State Doctoral Scholars Program, the lead host of the conference, to attendees at the opening plenary session. "We want you in the classroom doing what you do best."

The conference, in its 17th year, has become the largest gathering of minority Ph.D. students in the country. Besides the Southern Regional Education Board, the compact includes the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Sessions at the conference were designed to help graduate students at various stages of their doctoral programs and to give them a preview of life as a faculty member. Panels covered topics such as how to remain focused when writing a dissertation, how to get published, and how to negotiate a first job offer. There were also sessions on designing a syllabus, creating engaging learning environments, and mentoring students of color.

Jesus Escobar, a Ph.D. student in physics at the University of Florida, has been to the institute twice and says it's a one-stop shop for information that has been key to his success as a graduate student. "It would take me months to get all the information on my own that I get here," says Mr. Escobar, who plans to graduate with a Ph.D. in the summer of 2011. "In a 1½-hour session, I learned everything I needed to know about the postdoc process."

A highlight of the event was an award ceremony for about 80 or so scholars who had received their doctoral degrees in the prior academic year. (Faculty mentors were honored in a ceremony, too.) From some of the newly minted Ph.D.'s came stories of perseverance that began in childhood and continued through graduate school. One scholar told of a mother who went to school only through eighth grade, yet who emphasized the importance of education to her children. Another remembered barely being able to speak English when she arrived in the United States from Haiti as a child. Still another talked of juggling her role as a mother of two with the demands of pursuing a doctorate.

Yet their message to those still in the pipeline—particularly those who have completed their class work and are now in the throes of dissertation writing—was a consistent one. "Just keep on pushing," said Gregory Ellis-Griffith, now an assistant professor of public health at Western Kentucky University.

Broadening the Search

But even as conference attendees remain committed to their goal of earning a Ph.D., they are mindful that the academic job market isn't what it once was. To be sure, a session on identifying skills learned in graduate school that are transferable to careers outside of academe was standing-room only.

"The job market requires that we start looking at all kinds of positions," Melanie Sinche, a consultant and career counselor for the National Institutes of Health, told her audience. "There's nothing wrong with exploring all your options." Indeed, Orlando L. Taylor, president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology's East Coast campus, urged Ph.D. students to think globally about their job search and consider applying for faculty jobs at higher-education institutions in other countries.

Mr. Abraham, of the scholars program, said he's been very blunt about the academic job market, even as he tells those searching for faculty positions not to get discouraged.

"I have said, You're coming out in an awful time," said Mr. Abraham. "However, there's always a need for good, minority faculty members, and the people who are serious about hiring minority faculty, they're going to hire them no matter what."

About 30 former institute attendees who have already landed tenure-track jobs participated in the institute's first-ever junior-faculty professional-development conference. The event was designed to give minority junior professors a "safe environment" to discuss issues they have been struggling with so far in their careers, Mr. Abraham says, and to give them information to help them navigate the path to tenure and beyond.

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, executive director of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, talked frankly with the junior professors about the trials and tribulations of academe: Murky tenure requirements, racial and gender discrimination, and struggles to balance work and family life are not uncommon. Dealing with such issues can have a negative impact on productivity, among other things, said Ms. Rockquemore, who stressed the importance of scholars' carving out time to write—preferably at the beginning of each day.

Junior professors like Natasha Brewley said they appreciated the concrete strategies offered up by Ms. Rockquemore, who is also an associate professor of African-American studies and sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"Whenever I go to conferences where they do this type of session, it's usually so broad," said Ms. Brewley, who is in her third year as an assistant professor of mathematics at Georgia Gwinnett College. "But she gave us a specific action plan that showed how she fit writing into her day everyday. No one has ever done that before."

M. Nidanie Henderson, an assistant professor of biology at Carleton College, said speakers at the meeting of new faculty members gave "new perspectives on issues relevant to junior faculty." She particularly liked Ms. Rockquemore's recommendation that junior professors prepare tenure packets that would withstand the scrutiny of any institution.

"When I heard that, it just made so much sense," said Ms. Henderson, whose ties to the institute date back to 2000 when she first attended as a graduate student at Rockefeller University. "Your work needs to be good enough for you to get tenure anywhere."

But even angst about the tenure process, the academic job market, or an unfinished dissertation couldn't pierce the can-do attitude that seemed to permeate the conference. Both doctoral students and junior faculty members said being immersed in such a supportive environment buoyed their spirits.

"It's exciting and inspiring to see so many people of color rising up the ranks," Ms. Brewley says. "It just lets me see that what they've done is attainable. I just have to put a plan of action in place."