4 Tips for Women of Color Navigating the Dissertation

Did you know that enrollment of Black/African American and Latina/o doctoral students comprised approximately 11.5% and 6.1% correspondingly of enrollments in 2007?

Yet, despite that, …

Only 6% of Black/African American students and 3% of Latina/o students were awarded doctoral degrees in that same year (Gildersleeve, Croom & Vasquez, as cited in Bacon, 2014, p.7)?

Why should this matter to women of color?

One of the most unique experiences for women of color in the United States is that we navigate not only race and ethnicity, but gender issues as well. And, if we have entered into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, or even the discipline of education, in terms of race and ethnicity (particularly in the field of special education) in the United States we are often the “Only” or the “Other.” This is not a case of talent, skill, intelligence or ambition. As a matter of fact, research indicates there is greater perseverance by African American girls than Caucasian girls in science education. African American girls, however, are often forced to navigate obstacles (such as perceptions of ability based upon gender, race and ethnicity) within the field without support. The lack of support in science education can result in a student being deterred permanently from the field, or of feeling isolated (Bacon, 2014).

Graduate education is often influenced by:

  1. Your individual program within your institution.
  2. Influences outside of the institution, such as society, community, and family.
  3. The socialization process of where and how you learn the values, traditions, beliefs and customs of your discipline.
  4. Mentoring, advising, research, teaching and service experiences (or lack thereof).

This is why I was asked to write my book, Sisters in the Dissertation House: A Dissertation Narrative, on the experiences of women of color completing their doctoral degrees. The book contains statistics of completion, entry into doctoral programs and the professoriate by women and people of color, as well as information on STEM and special education programs, among many other topics. One thing that is so glaring in the research is the difference or disparity in percentages between, not only men and women, but within the category of women based on women’s race and ethnicity. In my book, I wanted to be sure to do justice to the stories of women of color and provide practical strategies for completion of the Ph.D. The stories (primarily through blogs) contained goals, dreams, challenges and triumphs of real women. Ultimately this book is about success, crossing the finish line as Ph.D.s and creating community and sisterhood while doing so.

If you are working toward your master’s or doctorate while feeling as if you are expected to be a token or spokesperson for your entire community — or contending with exclusion, isolation and/or vastly different expectations, acknowledgement or support by your professors, administrators and even peers — you are not alone. BUT, believe it or not, you can still build sisterhood and community with others who inspire you, hold you to high standards, relate to your struggles and are invested in your success (even if this community is primarily online).

HigherEd updates

4 Tips for Building Sisterhood

  1. Check out a variety of on-campus programs. When I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, I participated in a retention program for graduate students of color called PROMISE, a graduate retention program for students of color representing the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the University of Maryland College Park, and the University of Maryland Baltimore college campuses. You might:
    • Research graduate associations such as the Black Graduate Students Association, Latino Graduate Student Association, Asian and Pacific Islander Graduate Student Association, etc.
    • Join a dissertation group (at my university, BGSA sponsored a dissertation group for which I became a co-moderator).
  2. Check out off-campus dissertation groups for women of color. SisterMentors is an off-campus group for women doctoral candidates of color that I joined in Washington, D.C. (find out what might be in your area).
  3. Create your own group. When I was looking for a poetry group for African American women (which was related to my dissertation study) and was unable to find one, I created one by advertising on the BGSA listserve. Remember to utilize your campus listserves to adverstise!
  4. Start a blog.  Research indicates that mentoring is one of the most successful tools for women. (Tweet this quote.) This combined with blogging might really maximize your success and speed up your completion. As a matter of fact, PROMISE discovered that blogging could be a useful outlet for all graduate participants. However, blogging was especially useful to African American women who were the largest group of PROMISE bloggers at 37% (Bacon, 2014).

Sisters in the Dissertation House


Jennifer Nicole Bacon is an independent educational consultant, author and founder of the writing group Black Women Writing. As a special educator further trained in yoga and the use of poetry therapy, Dr. Bacon incorporates an holistic approach to instruction and consultation. Committed to addressing issues of overrepresentation in special education, gender equity and writing for social change, she volunteers, presents and publishes for numerous organizations in the United States, Africa, Latin America, and Europe.

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