Monthly Archives: October 2017

Thoughts Halfway Through The Semester (#PhDLife)


I’m in an interdisciplinary social-justice oriented doctoral degree. I’m currently taking the first two of my core classes. Within the first few weeks of the semester, one of my classmates stated that he’s not comfortable talking about race in “divisive” ways. Last week, another one of my classmates complained mentioned the previous cohort (who was majority African American, btw) and how she felt like they brought personal experience into the classroom too much, as opposed to just sticking to talking about theory. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what they said or what she meant. But when foundational theory includes excerpts like this gem, how do you not bring yourself into the classroom dialogue?


Kroeber, A. L. (2001). What anthropology is about? In P. A. Erickson, and L. D. Murphy (Eds.), Readings for a history of anthropological theory (pp. 141-154). Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

It seems to me that if in the course of learning the theories, one has to be faced with demeaning references to self and others from marginalized communities, yeah, people are probably going to engage critically with the theory in a way that reaffirms their humanity. I get it, we’re supposed to be dry and academic and intellectual. But that’s not realistic. It’s a critical perspectives degree program, people. Like it or not, the influences of those theorists are still present in the discipline, as I noted while listening to a (White) anthropologist talking about her experiences studying village people in Sri Lanka. Too, the point of getting a doctorate, as my professors keep reminding us, is to build the theories and knowledge practices of the future. To shape new knowledge structures, we have to confront the old ones. I discussed this to some extent in my weekly reflection paper:

From its beginning, there seemed to be a heavy focus on the societies anthropologists deemed “primitive” and “savage.” Levi-Strauss (2001) speaks of social anthropology as serving to capture history past in the living incarnation of history present, via the so-called primitive societies. This discipline mission was echoed in Edward B. Tylor’s work, in which he maintained that anthropologists help to connect with the past through “survival” societies, as demonstrated in classical cultural evolutionism thought (Erickson & Murphy, 2001). Kroeber (2001) explained this obsession with non-Western societies as “a desire to understand better all civilizations, irrespective of time and place…or as generalized principles as possible” (p. 144). He goes on to say that sociologists tend to linger on their own societies, as the focus of study, while psychologists have a tendency towards centering their own culture as the norm (Kroebel, 2001). The implication is that anthropologists are broader in their coverage and more inclusive of topic, however the manner in which Kroebel speaks of non-Western cultures, including African American culture, reveals a paternalistic nod towards Eurocentric values and White supremacy…I’m also curious what role anthropology and other social sciences may have played in supporting or subverting colonization and the “civilizing” and assimilation of non-Western societies. What inherent power dynamics are built into the discipline, which might affect how truth is perceived?

Of course, my classmates would likely say they didn’t meant it like that. Sometimes, though, intent is less important than impact. My question is: if you can’t bring personal experience, as a black person, into dialogue with theories in a social justice oriented degree program, when can you?? Also, given that some of the theorists we’ve read have been straight up racist and/or white supremacist in their orientation…is the expectation that we should not engage with that in the classroom? How would one ideally critique racist theorists and theories without bringing up race in uncomfortable and “divisive” ways? I genuinely want to know. I’m trying to wrap my mind around this dynamic of discomfort. Is it that there is fear around Black emotions? Is that what this is? Inquiring minds would like to know.




African American Doctorates in Education Disciplines


“Even after twenty years of affirmative action, African Americans constitute only 4.5 percent of the professoriate (Hacker, 1992). In 1991 there were 24,721 doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. citizens and noncitizens who intended to remain in the United States, and only 933 or 3.8 percent of these doctorates went to African American men and women. If every one of those newly minted doctorates went into the academy, it would have a negligible effect on the proportion of African Americans in the professoriate. The majority of the African Americans who earn Ph.D.’s earn them in the field of education and of that group, most of the degrees are in educational administration where the recipients continue as school practitioners” (Ladson-Bilings, 1999*).

That last line caught my eye. In the midst of a discussion about social benefits African Americans receive from civil rights legislation, as compared to Whites, seeing as that the primary recipients of affirmative action are White women, I was intrigued by this question of why many African Americans choose to pursue doctorates. Since the book chapter I was reading is from 1999, I decided to see if I could find more up to date data regarding representation in doctoral degree conferral. I wanted to know if the statistics remain the same almost twenty years later.

The National Science Foundation conducts annual surveys to measure the demographics of candidates who earn research doctorates, their fields of study, and their post-degree plans, among other data points.  In 2015, there were 2,281 research doctorate degrees awarded to African Americans, out of 55,006 PhDs earned nationally, of which 1,468 recipients were African American women. This was compared to 1,121 African American men who received research doctorates. According to the 2015 survey, roughly 15% of education doctorates were earned by African Americans, compared to a 6.5% representation in doctorate conferral overall. The other field listed in which African Americans have a relatively high representation was psychology and social sciences (8%).

Of the 761 African Americans (discipline non-specific) who already had firm employment commitments post-graduation, 53.6% of them were headed into academia. 11.2% had government jobs. 12.9% had jobs in industry-related fields. 8% were bound for the non-profit sector.

So then I decided to find out what African American PhD recipients (from 2015) were studying within education. Was there a singular focus on education administration still? There was not. In 2015, there were 635 doctorates conferred to African Americans in the field of education. But while there were 198 degree recipients in fields related to education administration, there were 308 degree recipients in fields related to education research. The three subfields in education research with the greatest representation of African Americans were higher education evaluation and research (80), curriculum and instruction (56), and counseling education/counseling and guidance (54).

African Americans in education doctorate programs were more likely to finance their own degree (58.8%), as opposed to holding fellowships and grants (16.3%), research assistantships (11.2%), teaching assistantships (5.3%), or having employer financed degrees (8.1%). This is compared to African American doctoral graduates, across all fields, who financed their own degrees (41.1%), relied on fellowships and grants (28.8%),  had research assistantships (13.7%), had teaching assistantships (11.6%), or had employer financed degrees (4.6%). It comes as no surprise, then, that African Americans lead in accumulated debt from graduate degrees overall, with an average debt of $43,337. The highest percentage of those who had accrued debt (21%) measured at $90,001+. Y’all, that hurts my soul.

The number of African Americans studying education doesn’t surprise me. Historically, African Americans were prevented from equal access to education under “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws. Post-Civil Rights era, issues relating to education equity for African Americans remain a concern. Within education, sociology, and family studies research, there has been an increasing research focus on how race, gender, socioeconomic status, and family wealth interact with availability of quality learning experiences and how this affects quality of life and life choice. It’s just kind of jarring that the majority of these doctoral graduates were paying for these degrees out of pocket or via loans. That’s some dedication…but it also leads back into talking about accumulated wealth. My theory is that African Americans are drawn to studying education because of a desire to make a difference. We all know education, academia or not, doesn’t pay that well. This means the majority of African Americans are breaking their backs (financially), to try to change systemic issues. Again, that hurts my soul. While doctoral degrees confer some sort of social capital (in which we use the system to beat the system, only to be beat again by the system), is it really worth it in the end?

One other interesting thing to note is that, while there has been discussion about the role HBCUs play in graduating doctorate recipients, the NSF also did a study in 2006 to measure whether there was any relationship between HBCU undergraduate programs and later pursuit of doctoral degrees. Measuring 1997-2006, they found that the top eight, as well as twenty out of the top fifty undergraduate institutions that produced future African American doctorates were HBCUs. I found this particularly interesting, given the ongoing stigma associated with HBCUs graduates as subpar in comparison to predominantly White institutions (PWIs). The top five schools to produce African American undergraduates who would later achieve doctorates were: Howard University, Spelman College, Hampton University, Florida A&M University, and Morehouse College. I’m curious how these numbers might be different or the same ten years later.

Things that I would love to know more about:

  • What motivates African American doctoral students to study education?
  • How is salary, socioeconomic status, and accumulation of wealth affected by the number of African Americans who self-finance their education?
  • How many African American graduates remain in education-related jobs post-doctorate?
  • What role do HBCUs play currently in producing African American doctorates?
  • The rates for other race/ethnicity groups who fund their own education doctorates is also very high. Where’s the funding for education students?

I guess I’ll go finish my readings now…




*Ladson-Billings, G. (1999). Just what is critical race theory, and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?. In L. Parker, D. Deyhle & S. Villenas (Eds.), Race is…Race isn’t: Critical race theory & qualitative studies in education (pp. 7-30).  New York, NY: Perseus Books, LLC.