Navigating Academia: Tips for Black Women Who Want to Climb the Ivory Tower

by Anna Gibson

The academic world can be a labyrinthine place, especially when trying to obtain a Ph.D. For people of color, the obstacles become even more difficult to surmount. A study from the National Center for Education Statistics demonstrates that black women only made up 4.4 percent of all doctoral degrees conferred between 2008 to 2009. In comparison, 53 percent of students pursuing doctoral degrees were white. The trend continues in weekly median income for people of color; specifically women. A 2013 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics demonstrated a huge weekly median income gap between women of color and white women. Black women earned a dismal $606 per week to white women’s $722 . White men made the most money at $884 per week.

The incentives of obtaining a Ph.D are many—from staying at the forefront of relevant research in your field, to gaining tenure and reputation as a professor at colleges or universities, to giving back to the community. But how does one navigate the exceedingly complex world of academia? I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Lisa Alexander, a Professor of Africana Studies at Wayne State University, to discuss this.

Dr. Alexander is a 40-year-old professor who obtained her Master’s Degree at UCLA and her Ph.D at Bowling Green State University in their American Culture Studies Program. Dr. Alexander had much to say on the topic—from dominating your field to finding a community of mentors to help you reach your goals.

Creating an Environment of Growth and Cooperation

Ph.D programs are well known as competitive environments. Candidates are often pit against each other, tests may contain questions not covered in the lectures, and candidates could be dropped for a few infractions on their exams. In regards to the academic arena, Dr. Alexander speaks on the importance of avoiding toxic environments and building relationships with both cohort peers and mentors. Doing this will help create a strong, sustainable network that will allow you to move more fluidly within the academic environment. Even then, being one of few people of color in a Ph.D program can be tough.

Dr. Alexander states, “As a Ph.D student, especially when you’re a student of color, it’s important that you find a mentor or a strong relationship with your colleagues. You need one or another. If you’re in a toxic program and have a toxic cohort, it’s time to go. If you can’t find a mentor, as a black woman, you have to be a self-starter… be an advocate for yourself. It can be scary, but you have to do it.”

Dr. Alexander spoke of an experience she encountered while pursuing her doctorate in the Africana Studies program. She says, “I was the only other black student in the cohort… I got my Ph.D at Bowling Green State University’s graduate school, and they tried to pit us against one another. We were not having it. We called ourselves the Legion of Doom after the comic book characters. We got along very well and are still in contact and Facebook friends.”

There will be many instances where we’ll be by ourselves as black women scholars, even if our program is supposedly diverse or focuses on critical issues of race. Still, there are opportunities available to ensure we thrive. We just may need to be more creative than our colleagues when figuring out solutions.

Challenging the Preconceptions of Black Women Scholars

Historically, women have been guided to the humanities and liberal arts, subjects that have often been deemed “acceptable” for women to study. While I won’t dispute the benefits of attaining a Ph.D in subjects like History, Art, English, or any other Liberal Arts area of study, Dr. Alexander makes it very clear the difficulties women face when pursuing a Ph.D in programs traditionally covered by men—such as programs in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Because of this, a woman pursuing a Ph.D in these fields is presumed to be unable to fully comprehend the subject. This especially occurs with women of color, who are often seen as incompetent due to compounding stereotypes about our race and gender.

Dr. Alexander author of the book When Baseball Isn't White, Straight and Male: The Media and Difference in the National Pastime. Although much of her research looks at the intersection of sports and race, she still experiences these micro- and macroaggressions committed against her because she’s a Black woman academic studying a men’s sport. She recounted an experience she had when she attended to a sports conference as a guest speaker. She recalled a man confronting her at the end of her speaking engagement, saying, “I honestly just thought you had no idea what you were talking about.”

In this way, the old adage of Black women needing to be “twice as good” is especially true for us in the world of academia. Even though we have earned our degrees and our places in competitive doctoral programs just like everyone else, we still have to prove that we “deserve” to be there. We have to prove that we’re experts in our field, whether they be humanities or STEM. We always have to be a step ahead of the curve. It would appear that this is the only way we can expect respect from our colleagues who may doubt our intellectual capabilities. We must always have our ears to the ground, up-to-date on the various trends and breakthroughs in our fields inside and out.

While women in general have made many strides in academia, it would appear that women of color have even further to go in the uphill battle of receiving a Ph.D. However, Dr. Alexander and countless other black women have showed us it’s possible to get to the top of the Ivory Tower as scholars and leaders in our fields.

Anna Gibson is a student at Wayne State University and Buddhist who seeks to illuminate the stories of the marginalized. You can find her on Twitter under the handle @TheRealSankofa, or on Facebook, where she's hiding under the name Introspective Inquiries.

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