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Fall 00
Student Experience
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Race, Gender and The Graduate Student Experience: Recent Research
Evelynn M. Ellis, Director, The Office for Graduate Educational Equity, Pennsylvania State University


A recently completed doctoral dissertation measuring the impact of race and gender on graduate study revealed that African American and white men and women report differences in their experiences. These differential experiences had a significant impact on their satisfaction with doctoral study, their socialization levels within their academic units, and their general attitudes about graduate education.

This 1997 study examines the experiences of 67 participants at a large, predominantly White research institution. The participants in the study included 16 African American men, 17 African American women, 16 White men, and 17 White women. Forty-two of the participants had completed their degrees at the time of the study. They were interviewed individually. Twenty-five participants were in the process of completing their degrees at the time of the study and were interviewed in individual interviews or small group interviews of two to five participants.

The review of the data yielded four major areas of concern with regard to key elements of the graduate student experience: (1) mentoring and advising, (2) departmental environments, (3) peer interaction, and (4) research and teaching experiences. The data from this study clearly confirm that a students' gender and racial background influence their experiences in graduate school. Furthermore, race appears to be more salient than gender in influencing whether students had positive or negative experiences.

As a group, African American women appeared to be the most isolated and dissatisfied of the four groups of participants. Previous research by Jacqueline Fleming suggests that African American women are generally found to be the most isolated group of students on predominantly White campuses. The results of this study suggest that this is true even for African American women on the doctoral level.

Mentoring, advising, and departmental environments were the top concerns of all the participants, and these issues were very closely related to each other. The relationships that participants had with their primary advisers or mentors within their academic units appeared to have a significant impact on their satisfaction levels. Students who reported good relationships with advisers generally felt the environments of their departments were good. Those who had poor relationships with their advisers reported negative feelings about their departments. Advisers and mentors were key links to departmental resources, both human and financial. When such links did not exist, students did not make academic and social transitions into their departments as well as did those students who had good relationships with their advisers.

Race appears to be a significant factor in determining successful mentoring and advising experiences. White students were more likely than were African American students to report having good working relationships with their advisers or having faculty members they considered mentors in their academic units. Men were more likely than women to report having mentors or strong advisers in their academic units. White men were more likely than were African American men and women and White women to report having mentors or advisers with whom they worked closely. In addition, African American women were less likely than were White women, African American or White men to have mentors or advisers with whom they reported working closely during their doctoral study.

Despite these reports of problems with departmental mentoring and environments, African American students in this study did find alternative support systems to help ensure their progress toward degree completion. While many of the participants, regardless of race or gender, were not pleased with the amount of time needed to complete the doctoral degree, students of color in this study did not appear to take any longer than did their White peers. In general, all students found that it took longer than they anticipated to complete their studies. The African American students, however, often found outsiders to help them form dissertation committees, find research articles related to their topics, work on their writing skills, and find presentation opportunities and funding. For the African American students, outsiders filled the gaps that are traditionally filled by faculty members within the students' academic units. White students, on the other hand, tended to find someone within their academic units to help resolve problems relating to doctoral study. Some of the African American students completed coursework and the dissertation at rates faster than the national average and faster than most other students in their units. When asked why they were rushing through their programs, two of the Black women suggested that the negative experiences they had within their academic units drove them to expedite their studies in any way possible and get out of environments they did not find emotionally and physically healthy.

Why were African American women experiencing such difficulties in their graduate studies? As a cohort, these women were doing well academically--achieving good grades, passing their qualifying exams, and working on dissertation proposals and dissertations. Socially, however, they were more isolated than were the other students. Research does suggest that social integration, however, is not as important as is academic integration. What made it more difficult for these women to blend into the social cultures of their academic units even when they were successful with the work assigned to them? As one student put it, "To be honest, I think it was the sheer cultural differences. I was from a southern, African-American culture and that whole scene. I came to a northern culture that consisted of, primarily, at least in my department, of [mid] westerners who were White. And, I think that neither of us was very comfortable interacting with each other."

Whether this woman's statement represents the view of just one or many of the African American women at the institution is an important question. Her double minority status, being both female and African American, may have led to complexities that other students who were not African American women did not encounter. If these experiences of isolation in one's department are leading to dissatisfaction with graduate programs and social and academic isolation, it is crucial that educators find some ways to address these concerns. These findings suggest that graduate programs may need to achieve a critical mass of students of color in order to remove the disadvantages of being the "only one."

The results of this study suggest that students of color continue to face challenges in higher education that their White counterparts do not. Furthermore, the responses from the participants suggest that different groups of students of color might have different experiences, making it ineffective to lump all students of color into one category when discussing graduate school experiences. Given the complexities of race and gender in American higher education, the complexity of doctoral study at any institution, and the sacrifices students make to obtain doctoral degrees, those administering graduate programs should make themselves aware of studies such as this one and attempt to collect information about the experiences of students in their own programs.

In order for higher education to begin to redress the lack of faculty of color, clearly we need to begin to develop effective strategies to improve the experiences of all graduate students of color so that they can successfully complete their degrees and feel positively about this crucial beginning to their academic careers.

Sources: Fleming, J. (1984) Blacks in college (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1984); Nerad, M. & Miller, D. S., "Increasing student retention in graduate and professional programs," New Directions in Institutional Research 92 (Winter 1996); Nettles, M. "Success in doctoral programs: Experiences of minority and white students," American Journal of Education 98 (1990) 494–522; Turner, C. S. V. & Thompson, J. R. "Socializing women doctoral students: Minority and majority experiences," The Review of Higher Education 16 (1993) 355–370; Willie, C. V., Grady, M. K., & Hope, R. O. African-Americans and the doctoral experience (New York: Teachers College Press, 1991).


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Evelynn M. Ellis
Evelynn M. Ellis

White students were more likely than were African American students to report having good working relationships with their advisers or having faculty members they considered mentors in their academic units.

Communication tips
Be aware that this kind of study may become public, even if that is not the intention of the researcher. Even a small study that finds that students of color and female students are isolated and dissatisfied may become an expose in the media.

If you want to force the Administration to take steps to address the problems cited by the study subjects, consider releasing the results to the press but take care to approach journalists who share your views. A sympathetic columnist at a mainstream newspaper or a like-minded talk show host may provide favorable coverage, as may a reporter at an African American, Hispanic, or women's publication.

If you are part of an administration at a college or university that is the focus of a study that finds African American women students report serious difficulties in their graduate studies, consider being proactive. Speak with the researcher(s) and the subjects of the study, and proactively take steps to address the issues they raise.

Then, if appropriate, release your response to the media to emphasize that you take the problems seriously and are offering solutions.