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How Minority Women Can Find the Best Programs, Support, & Success
Women of color are continually underrepresented in doctoral programs, despite higher numbers of enrollment and graduation in recent years. The following guide looks at the current educational landscape for women of color in doctoral programs, why their experience can be challenging and how colleges and universities can do to support them through women scholarships and financial aid. Readers can also gain insight from three women of color who have successfully completed Ph.D. programs and continue to support minority women in their professional lives.
Reviewed by: Dr. Felecia Commodore, Assistant Professor of Higher Education
The Current Landscape: Women of Color in Doctoral Programs
Of the 178,547 doctoral students who completed a degree in the 2014-2015 academic year, only 21% were women of color. Source
Approximately half of all Ph.D. candidates never finish their degree program, and women of color are certainly not immune to these statistics. A report by the Council of Graduate Schools found that 45 percent of women of all races and ethnicities earned their degrees, but numbers for students of color were lower. For instance, only 40 percent of African American students who started a Ph.D. program completed it. The reasons for these high levels of attrition are multifaceted, but there is much that can be done to address pressing issues.
Issues Faced by Women of Color
Lack of support
While many women in general feel a lack of support on college campuses, women of color face additional issues when searching for mentors within their college community. Many doctoral candidates feel they lack adequate support from faculty and institutions, but this is especially true for women of color.
A study in College Student Affairs Leadership found that female African American faculty make up only four percent of all professionals in these roles, and percentages are similar for other non-white races. Academic role models who identify as women of color are hard to find, making it a struggle to feel a sense of support on campus. Finding a dissertation supervisor who they can see themselves in is never a given, and the same is often true of finding mentors to cheer them on.
Availability of resources is scarce
Completing a Ph.D. is not a solitary endeavor; students who report the best experiences often have a variety of support systems and resources in place to help them succeed. Yet for women of color, finding those resources can prove difficult.
In addition to the mountain of pressure associated with a Ph.D. program, a study by psychologists found that 50 percent of doctoral students have psychological distress and one-third are at risk for a psychiatric disorder. Mental health services are important to the well-being of Ph.D. students, but women of color rarely have access to counselors and other mental health professionals of their race and/or gender.
Another common source of stress with no easy answer is a lack of financial backing. Many women of color work full-time while completing their degrees, and some also care for children and families. In addition to providing more funding overall, colleges and universities should consider creating scholarships, studentships and fellowships available exclusively to underrepresented populations – including women of color.
Campus climate doesn't contribute to success
According to a study by researchers at the University of Denver, there are many subtle parts of a campus climate that contribute to higher attrition rates amongst women of color working towards a Ph.D. For starters, women in general often struggle to feel a sense of belonging on campus as gender discrimination is alive and well. In addition to many classrooms still being majority male, coursework can also be geared toward male readings and discussions. Men are also much more eager to speak in class, leaving women to feel silenced.
Race also plays a significant role, as researchers found that black students are 20 percent more likely to leave a Ph.D. program due to a poor campus climate than their white counterparts. In addition to issues of racism, discrimination or prejudice, women of color often lack a critical mass of peers and professors who share their experiences.
Lack of opportunities while in school
A study in Life Sciences Education found that, although women attain 53 percent of all biology Ph.Ds., they are 15 percent less likely to publish a paper about their research within the first year of studies when compared to their male counterparts. A separate study found that Ph.D. students who are part of an underrepresented minority are half as likely to seek out an opportunity to publish when compared to white male peers in the same programs.
It's important to remember that just because doctoral women of color get into a great school and are surrounded by exceptionally talented colleagues, it doesn't mean they have access to the same opportunities. When students arrive at a campus to find that students and faculty are largely white and more frequently male, they are less likely to feel comfortable reaching out for research assignments or other opportunities to get involved.
Set up for Success: Advice from Women of Color in Doctoral Programs
The best advice usually comes from those who have experienced something firsthand. These successful women have all completed doctoral programs and have gone on to vibrant, interesting careers. Here is their advice for successfully completing a doctoral program as a woman of color.
While completing your doctoral program, what challenges did you encounter and how did you overcome any barriers?
What advice do you have for other women of color considering a doctoral program?
How did you find the entire process of deciding to complete a doctoral program?
How can schools best support women of color as they work to achieve an advanced degree?
What are some aspects of completing a Ph.D. as a woman of color that prospective students may not be aware of?
What Schools Can Do to Support Women of Color
Though more women of color are enrolling in and graduating from Ph.D. programs than ever before, they still lag behind their white female peers. In addition to shifting societal understandings of the importance of bringing more women of color into doctoral programs, there are many steps colleges and universities can take to attract more students and create a welcoming and supportive environment for them. Here are a few suggestions:
Create Sister Circles
Indiana University made the news in 2016 when eight African American graduated with doctorates in education at a time when usually only one to two people of color received Ph.D.s per year. Much credit has been given to the “Sister Circle” the women started – a regular gathering to help women of color feel less isolated, talk about their lives, encourage each other and create a safe space. While these are often informal in nature, schools can encourage collaboration and community among women of color to help them thrive.
Provide meaningful support systems
Many schools tout award-winning faculty, state-of-the-art research facilities and new counseling centers, but the reality is that none of these things benefit women of color if they feel they don't belong. Creating quality mentoring programs is critical for empowering these students, as are qualified advisors. Another option is to pair newly enrolled women of color with those who are further into their programs.
Looking around campus and not seeing anyone who looks like you is an isolating experience for women of color, but campuses can do something to help. Encouraging more women of color to apply not only as students but also as faculty members and administrators can help create a greater sense of equality and diversity throughout the institution.
Move away from Eurocentric teaching
According to UC Irvine history professor Dr. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, asymmetrical dynamics of power exist when groups of people are described by their ethnicity or gender rather than it being taken for granted. This is especially seen in college curriculums where European topics are seen as the norm and other parts of the world are seen as “different.” Colleges looking to bring parity to the power dynamic should provide inclusive curriculums that present history and experiences equally.
Financial Aid for Women of Color in Doctoral Programs
|American Dissertation Fellowship||The American Association of University Women provides dissertation fellowships of between $6,000 to $30,000 to help women of color complete the final year of their Ph.D. programs.|
|Faculty for the Future Scholarship||The Schlumberger Foundation provides up to $50,000 each year to women of color from developing/emerging economies who are pursuing Ph.D. studies in STEM or STEM-related topics.|
|The Laurels Fund Scholarship||The Educational Foundation for Women in Accounting provides scholarships of up to $5,000 for women of color who are currently pursuing doctoral studies in accounting. Applicants must provide a resume, copies of abstracts and citations of any published articles, two letters of reference, and a statement of goals and objectives.|
|Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship||The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration partnered with the National Marine Sanctuaries to offer this Ph.D. scholarship for female minority students pursuing studies in marine biology, maritime archaeology, oceanography and related topics.|
|NABJ Scholarship||The National Association of Black Journalists provides this annual scholarship of $3,000 to an African American woman in her final year of a Ph.D. program related to communications, journalism or a similar discipline.|
|Pre-doctoral Fellowship in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services||The American Psychological Association provides full funding for up to three years of a Ph.D. program in addition to funds used for training, dissertation support and network connections. African American, Alaskan Native, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic and Pacific Islander women are given preference.|
|Women of Color Scholars Program||The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry at the United Methodist Church provides this award to women of color pursuing doctoral studies in any discipline. To be considered, students need to have been an official member of the Methodist church for at least one year at the time of their application.|
A variety of resources are available specifically to women of color who either plan to or are currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree. While some focus on mentorship opportunities, others provide valuable research on the state of the education landscape as it pertains to their success.
- Association of Black Women Physicians
Since 1982, ABWP has provided a platform for black women physicians to give back to their communities. The organization offers sister-to-sister mentoring, scholarships and advocacy.
- Black PhD Network
This national organization works to encourage more women of color to undertake Ph.D.s by providing support, networking and collaboration. The organization also advocates for more diversity within academia.
- Four Tips for Women of Color Navigating the Dissertation
Dr. Jennifer Bacon offers up concrete insight and practical advice for women of color who are nearing the dissertation phase of their programs.
- Mentorship and Women of Color in Higher Education
University of San Francisco professor Victoria Duran provides a fascinating paper, titled “The Stronger Our Voice, the Greater Impact We Might Force” for students who want to learn more about the benefits of mentorship.
- Optimizing Mentoring Programs for Women of Color
This in-depth guide provides assessment tools for measuring the effectiveness of mentoring programs for women of color and offers guidance on how to build a successful program.
- PLEN — Preparing Women to Lead
Based in Washington D.C., the purpose of the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN) is to involve women in leadership roles and encourage them to enact policy changes. A large number of the members hold Ph.D.s and 45 percent identify as women of color. A number of advocacy and mentorship programs are available.
This national nonprofit works to pair successful women of color with other women of color who are pursuing degrees at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels to provide mentorship and support during the process.
- Six Tips for Women of Color Navigating Doctoral Programs
The American Association of University Women provides this helpful list of tips and strategies for women of color looking to find a suitable university setting and thrive once enrolled.
- Susan La Flesche, The First Native American to Earn a Medical Degree
This fascinating article by Smithsonian Magazine is an empowering read for any women of color who have had to overcome barriers to pursue their educations.
- Women of Color Leadership Network
Established in 1993 as part of the Center for Women & Community at UMass Amherst, this program serves as an excellent example of one of the many ways colleges and universities can specifically support women of color on campus.
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