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Doctoral Programs for Women of Color 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 what colleges and universities can do to support them. 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.

Meet the Experts

Dr. Froswa’​ Booker-Drew Director of Community Affairs, State Fair of Texas
Dr. Twyla Cummings Dean of Graduate Education, Rochester Institute of Technology
Dr. Jennifer Johnson College Access Expert

Written By:

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?

Dr. Johnson:

The major challenges I faced during my doctoral program were financial in nature. The funding structure at the University of Maryland, College Park required all doctoral students to work in an assistantship on campus. My award of a research fellowship prohibited me from accepting a full assistantship yet did not make up for the loss in funding.

So for me, my major challenge was meeting and exceeding the academic expectations placed upon me as a new doctoral student while juggling additional side-jobs to make ends meet. Eventually I figured out better strategies for time management, but the barrier continued until I completed my coursework and was able to secure a full-time job off-campus. 

Dr. Booker-Drew:

I was very fortunate because I attended a university that was focused on diversity and ensuring students had the support they needed to graduate. Initially, I struggled with the imposter syndrome. I really felt as if they were going to inform me that a mistake was made and I was not officially enrolled. When I discovered others felt that way, it gave me hope! 

I struggled with balancing a full-time job, a child who was in elementary school, my husband and studying. I was very involved in the community through my job and I had to cut back on my community service work – especially serving on boards. I didn’t have the time to commit and most of my free time went to my family and to finishing the requirements for the degree.

Dr. Cummings:

I was fortunate enough to have my doctoral degree funded by Eastman Kodak during a time when more companies provided educational reimbursement. I earned my doctorate from the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, OH.

It was a major challenge to pursue this degree while working full-time in a very demanding job. I finished the degree in 3.5 year, which essentially meant I had no life during that time. This was a goal that I had set for myself and the program at Union Institute and University provided an opportunity for me to achieve this goal. So, I was determined to succeed. 

Dr. Johnson:

I understand that few doctoral programs have faculty members of color who work with doctoral students. I have been fortunate in that I was able to work directly with an African American woman as my dissertation advisor. Working with her allowed me to see the good/bad/ugly of doctoral studies and ultimately how rewarding a career as an academic (specifically a professor) could be.

I encourage women of color to seek out other women of color and engage with them about their experiences – good/bad/ugly – before they decide that doctoral study is “not for them”.

Dr. Booker-Drew:

Make sure you have a personal and a professional network. I had friends who were aware that I might not be as available, and they were supportive. I was grateful that they served as my sounding board and cheerleaders throughout the process. My family also needed to be aware of what was expected of me in the program. Cooking multiple times a week was no longer an option. They had to be okay with a house that could be in disarray for longer than usual and they had to step up to the plate even more.

I also surrounded myself with others who had obtained a doctoral degree so that they could offer advice and support. They helped me plan and know what to expect.

Dr. Cummings:

First, ask yourself why? Why this direction? What will it allow me to accomplish? Am I willing to make the sacrifice? The leap from a baccalaureate or master’s to a doctorate is huge.

Secondly, look for support systems starting with your family and friends. Help them understand what this journey will require and that your time for them will be limited. With their support, you will be able to finish the degree within a reasonable time period.

Third, can you afford it? While you are exploring program options, look for funding resources. Depending on the discipline, there could be untapped resources for women of color pursuing a doctorate degree. 

Dr. Johnson:

My process for deciding to complete a doctoral program began with my experiences as a master’s student and the mentorship I received from my professors at the time. I knew what I was interested in professionally, and they encouraged my burgeoning interests in moving forward with a doctorate over continuing a career in higher education administration after completing my masters’ degree.

I simply applied to programs in the top 15 (based on advice from a faculty member) and made a decision about where to accept based on funding, but largely based on the opportunity to work with certain faculty members. I also factored in the “vibe” I got from other current students and alumni of the programs I was accepted to in order to build the community of support that I knew I needed. It was a leap of faith, but overall, I have no regrets in the decision.

Dr. Booker-Drew:

It’s interesting but I had mentors that encouraged and pushed me to start a doctoral program. It took some time because I wanted a program that was supportive and not a form of hazing to get the degree. I also wanted a program that had a social justice focus to some degree. For me, obtaining the degree was not about a title. I wanted to be in a program that emphasized helping others and serving as a change agent but finding that type of program was difficult. 

Once I found Antioch, completed the application and interviewed with the faculty, I knew I had made the best decision for me. I also was captivated by the cohort model which offered a level of support and family that, even today, I miss. My cohort members became an extension of my family and we helped one another along the way. I am still in touch with them five years later!

I also was fortunate to have made friends with the faculty. They made me feel as if I could obtain the degree and deal with the intensity and rigor of the program. I knew others in different programs that quit because of faculty treating them as if they were incompetent. 

Dr. Cummings:

My degree was funded (by way of reimbursement) by my employer at that time. But I have to admit, there were many times that I wanted to quit because I was overwhelmed. The most challenging portion was writing the dissertation. I now understand why so many people are ABD (all but the dissertation). It’s the last hill to climb, but it is a steep one. You have to be prepared for the challenges, criticisms, rewrites, additional research and more.

I have to credit my support network that got me through it. There were many people who were so proud of me even before I got the degree that I couldn’t disappoint them and I didn’t want to disappoint myself.

Dr. Johnson:

I think schools first can attract faculty members with diverse interests and a history of collaboration with graduate students, as these are the primary point of contact, and ultimately the gatekeeper for doctoral students. These individuals should be rewarded (through the tenure/promotion/merit structures) for efforts to mentor doctoral students.

I also believe that women of color should be encouraged to build their own networks of support – ones that they can draw upon for those non-academic matters as well as those that are academic in nature. Institutions can support these efforts by providing at least minimal funding (for guest speakers, books, computer materials, etc.) or spaces to convene on a regular basis.

Dr. Booker-Drew:

Schools should make sure they not only have a diverse student body that can serve as mentors throughout the process but also a diverse faculty that can assist and serve as role models. In addition, guest lecturers and a roster of individuals that can serve as mentors or even committee members from various backgrounds would be helpful. Creating affinity groups are also important so that students have others that they can connect to.

Dr. Cummings:

They need to first understand the challenges these women may (I say may because we all have a different pathway) have faced to get to this educational juncture. Who are these women? Working professionals? Women right out of undergraduate schools? Women who are returning to school from a career? All doctoral students can benefit from financial support, academic advising, mentoring, access to support services (writing, library research, etc.) and professional development (teaching assistantships, presentation skills, career counseling, etc.).

Dr. Johnson:

Some other considerations include thinking about implications for family – how do you manage long-distance relationships if you accept a position in a different city or state? I would also think about how to make connections with individuals beyond the campus community to find those networks that are important to you. I would recommend reading about the experiences of others and writing about your own experiences.

Dr. Booker-Drew:

Although I had an amazing network of friends and several had Ph.Ds, it is so important to have others that understand what you are going through. You need to have guidance and insight from those who understand. Otherwise, it can become very lonely because you are now in another circle that your friends and family are not a part of.

Pay attention to your own mental health and self-care. It is easy to become so absorbed in trying to juggle work, family and school that you neglect taking care of yourself. Some people go through marital/relationship difficulties in these programs and even gain a lot of weight. You have to be aware of your feelings and the stress you are dealing with so that it does not take a toll on you.

Once again, having a support system is critical. You must create the space for hanging out with friends, date nights and even the personal quiet time of reflection.

Dr. Cummings:

Many are still surprised to see women of color at the table, especially in the STEM disciplines. Women of color face issues of isolation and may struggle to find a community. Preparation for this scenario is key. Universities should offer orientation for this population to help them thrive in any environment.

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:

Financial Aid for Women of Color in Doctoral Programs

Name Description
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.

Resources

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.

  • SisterMentors

    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.