It’s that time of year — admission letters.
My newsfeed has slowly started to fill with folks announcing that they were accepted into graduate school or at the decision making stage about which school to attend. “Can anyone tell me more about xxxx program?” or “Hey! Shout out! Just got into xxxx University’s graduate program! Give me all the advice!”
Most recently, a former professor of mine posted this article here with “10 Tips to Help You Win at Graduate School”. And, honestly, it’s good. It’s solid advice. Helpful information. And, definitely has some good points to consider.
But, as a person of color, that list falls short for me.
In fact, it’s because of lists like these — ones that, on the surface, feel fine but miss aspects of what it means to be a graduate student of color — that I ended up focusing my dissertation on the ways in which graduate programs fall short for supporting students of color. Along with 22 participants, we concluded that graduate programs must consider three key aspects to support an identity-conscious, interactional model of doctoral student socialization: racial identity, doctoral student development, and doctoral student socialization. In addition, we must pay attention to aspects of communities of color such as the impact of family influence; the role of culturally relevant curriculum in their formation; racialized stereotypes; social experiences; and community.
So, here it is. Here is my list of “10 Tips for Graduate Students of Color” as you begin your journey. It is missing nuances for other communities? Of COURSE it is. So, eagerly awaiting for you to contribute yours!
NETWORK WITH OTHER GRADUATE STUDENTS OF COLOR. The journey of graduate school is difficult and challenging for all students. And, plenty of existing and emerging research has shown that students of color experience hurdles that are informed and impacted by race. As a graduate student of color, it is important that you connect to communities that you believe can help support or bolster you on this journey. While not all have the privilege of choosing graduate programs that have many scholars of color or students of color (e.g., limited geographic mobility; funding issues; ability to go part-time; family responsibilities), it is important to identify spaces that can affirm who you are as a graduate student of color. Some of these groups are broad, for example a “Graduate Student of Color Group” and some focus more on ethnic affinity spaces “Asian American Doctoral Students in Education.” Connect with those groups early on.
FIND YOURSELF AND YOUR NARRATIVE IN THE CURRICULUM. In my dissertation, I interviewed 22 Asian American and Pacific Islander graduate students in education/educational leadership doctoral programs across the country. And, regardless of geographic location, the participants reported that they had never read about their community in positive ways in their K-12 curriculum nor in the graduate school curriculum. For many communities of color, we are often described as a) coming from a deficit perspective or b) totally invisible. That approach has been compounded for decades for us, and unfortunately, without real intention, it has the potential to continue through graduate school. Challenge your faculty to make sure that your ethnic and racial identity is discussed more than just from a deficit perspective. Or, also, that your community can no longer be invisible. And, that approach isn’t just good for you, right? All students benefit from a more complicated understanding of an issue or policies or experiences.
UNDERSTAND AND TROUBLE DOCTORAL STUDENT SOCIALIZATION. Socialization is the process by which we, as graduate students, learn the norms, attitudes, and behaviors of our field. Cool, right? Except, what if those norms, attitudes, and behaviors were created by people who don’t look like us, learn like us, behave like us, or are from communities that feel like us? Socialization often means learning very Eurocentric ways of being and knowing in the academy. I’m sure you can imagine that there are doctoral students and programs out there who give advice like, “Now, you don’t want to come off too ethnic” or “This is how we dress at conferences because this is what professional is.” Okay, I get that. AND, damn. Truth moment: What would be different if you, as a student of color, informed or impacted the way your historically White department behaved, looked, and thought? That right there is called bi-directional socialization. Are our programs really still going to stay stuck in the practices of the past 50 years? Or, do our departments and programs need to respond to a more diverse graduate student population? (hint: the latter). So, what kind of challenges do you place on a department that needs to respond to the changing demographics?
INTERROGATING RACIALIZED STEREOTYPES IN GRADUATE SCHOOL. Sure, there are many scholars of color who research and write about communities of color. But, you know that’s not all we can do, right? I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that some doctoral students have been approached with “Oh, so do you study the experiences of Black students? No? Oh, sorry. I mean, I just figured….” #sideye
Yes, there is a very real “not about us without us” moment here. And, scholars of color are multidimensional. Many of us do care deeply about race and other things. Or, yes, even the intersections of race and other things. But, I don’t assume that all white scholars study white people. So, let’s give scholars of color a chance to also study things that aren’t just about race.
We also know that being in graduate school doesn’t somehow erase our chances of microaggressions. So, it’s no surprise that graduate students of color experience their fair share of microaggressions related to race. For example, a number of Asian American doctoral students have been on the receiving end of the whole, “Oh, can you help me with my quantitative class? You’re good at math, right?” Did I mention that, each time, these folks were approached by total strangers?? Or, times when a graduate student of color has shown up late to a study group because of family emergency, apologized to the group, and then was told, “That’s okay. We know you run on P-O-C time.”
SOCIAL CONNECTION. A number of graduate programs have moved to cohort-style models, knowing that moving through coursework together helps to create a common experience, allows for groups to come together to learn/write about similar material, and keeps the social and peer support and pressure to keep moving forward. Cohorts can be powerful retention tools in programs. The social dynamics can also cause stress, frustration and anxiety when it is clear there is exclusion. Sometimes this exclusion is very intentional (e.g., “I mean, the three of us just seem to click better. It’s nothing personal”). Sometimes it is unintentional (e.g., a cohort tradition of going to a bar every Friday which causes undue stress and exclusion for those who do not drink or cannot be in that environment).
THE ROLE OF FAMILY/HOME COMMUNITY Particularly in families or situations in which pursuing a graduate degree distances someone from their home community, it is important to have people in your life who understand this struggle. Without that, graduate students of color can often experience pressure to stop or give up. A Latina scholar once told me, “If it wasn’t for my cohort, I would have quit before the first year ended. I had made the mistake of telling my family that this was so hard. And, their response was, ‘Okay! So, good. Then you can stop. Because, the kids miss you and you are needed at home.’” This scholar-Mama was surrounded by other scholar-Mamas in her cohort who helped her process this guilt, challenge, and feel not so alone in this struggle (note: And, that scholar-Mama persisted, delivered an outstanding dissertation and her whole family attended her graduation last year!). Engage your family, to the extent that it is possible, in your graduate journey and lean on your chosen family to support you through this.
When I started my doctoral student journey, there were three key articles that helped me understand the importance of race and my own racialized experiences. And, in the doctoral course that I currently teach, these are required readings.
Buenavista, T. L., Jayakumar, U. M., & Misa‐Escalante, K. (2009). Contextualizing Asian American education through critical race theory: An example of US Pilipino college student experiences. New directions for institutional research, 2009(142), 69-81.
Gildersleeve, R. E., Croom, N. N., & Vasquez, P. L. (2011). “Am I going crazy?!”: A critical race analysis of doctoral education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 44(1), 93-114.
Espino, M. M., Muñoz, S. M., & Marquez Kiyama, J. (2010). Transitioning from doctoral study to the academy: Theorizing trenzas of identity for Latina sister scholars. Qualitative Inquiry, 16(10), 804-818.
To learn more about the interactional model of identity-conscious socialization, check out my work here: Talusan, L. A. (2016). The Formation of Scholars: Critical Narratives of Asian American and Pacific Islander Doctoral Students in Higher Education.
Peace and love,
PS: Did you notice there weren’t actually 10 tips? Yeah, I got to 7. So, tips “8,9, and 10” are “manage your emotional labor, let others do some work too, and know when it’s okay to stop…” (see what I did there? #selfcare #tip11)