A young man I know who was recently admitted to a PhD program in Urban Systems with a Concentration in Urban Education Policy. I am extremely happy for him in part because I helped him understand the application process, reviewed his statement of purpose, and told him which questions they might ask during his interview. I wanted him to make it in, and now that he is officially a PhD student I feel it only proper that I offer him, and perhaps other first year doctoral students, some words of advice.
A PhD program is physically demanding – You are about to embark on a journey that is unlike anything you have ever experienced before; your moxie, your determination, the very fiber of your being will be tested. Your eating habits may change drastically, and if you are not careful you may put on our lose weight. The late nights, the early morning readings, the eating on the run, these things will all affect your health. Even making it to campus may be a challenge. If you drive you may find yourself in stressful 5 o’clock traffic, taking the train may seem like a better alternative, however, once you arrive at the school you may have to walk a distance to get to class. Obviously, you will want to dress for the weather, but even if you bundle up sometimes you will be out there in subzero weather carrying a laptop, books and other materials. My point is that it is important that you physically take care of yourself. If you get sick or get run down you will miss class or have a hard time completing your coursework.
A PhD program is emotionally stressful – While most universities offer free counseling and psychological support for their students, they may be particularly concerned about doctoral students because they are under the most pressure. College officials apparently understand that a person can become depressed or neurotic when they are under constant pressure to academically perform. The worry, the constant struggle to turn assignments in on time, these things will mentally wear you down. And then there is the self-doubt which can creep in from time to time. You might begin to ask yourself questions like: What if I fail out, how will I tell my friends, family members and colleagues that I got booted from the program? Do I really belong here? What if I can’t keep up?
I first learned of how stressful a doctoral level class can be in the Spring of 2013. I fell behind on a major assignment and figured I could catch up and finish the paper if I sequestered myself. For roughly three days straight I sat in front of a computer screen trying to get things done. On the third day I began to see large three inch bugs crawl across my desk. They looked like large cockroaches. The only problem was nothing was there; I was hallucinating because in the midst of writing and looking at data I failed to eat and rest properly. I decided to take a break, but when sat on the couch and closed my eyes it seemed like the room was spinning. That was the final straw. I turned off the computer, relaxed and turned in the assignment a little late. The whole ordeal helped me understand how my mental health can be affected if I didn’t take care of myself.
I had a slightly different experience when I was taking Stats in the Fall of 2014. Once again I fell behind and found myself struggling to complete my final assignment, and once again I took off from work and tried to catch up. The outcome was a little different this time. After trudging through the material for about 12 hours everything suddenly began to make sense. Even the words on the page seemed larger and clearer. It was strange, very strange. I think I may have experienced some form of mental “runner’s high”. For some reason my mind and body seemed to handle the stress differently this time. Perhaps it was because I made sure to rest and eat properly before I started my marathon reading and writing session.
Be Prepared to Get Your Feelings Hurt – In the fall of 2013, I took a class called Epistemology. Broadly speaking, the class was based in the theory of learning or “how we know what we know”. There were all kinds of terms being tossed around like positivism, post-positivism, interpretivism and critical theory. Well, for my first paper I submitted something that I knew was well below my standards. Admittedly, my work was shabby because I didn’t really have time to delve into the material due to work, church and personal obligations. When I checked blackboard I learned that I failed the paper miserably. I was hoping the professor would afford me some grace. She didn’t. She essentially said that not only did I fail to understand the material; my writing was not reflective of a doctoral student. It was terrible blow.
A chance meeting with another professor in a stairwell proved beneficial. In a brief 5 minute conversation he told me what to do, how to approach the paper, what things to include etc. It was a brief but meaningful encounter, which gave me hope, energy and the desire to press on. After several revisions, I finally received the “A” I so desperately wanted. The whole ordeal was a critical point in my life as a student. I realized that I was going to fail sometimes, and I should not take the professors comments to heart. Yet more importantly, I quickly realized that I was not going to make it through my program if I maintained all my social and religious obligations. I quickly stepped down from a number of key positions so I could devote more time to my studies.
Stay Humble – Research suggests that only one percent of society earns a PhD. What’s more, if the data presented here is accurate, only 517 African Americans earned a PhD in Education in 2013. Only small fraction of that number were black men. What I am saying is that you are a rare find – A black man who is pursuing a terminal degree in an education. However, I would admonish you to not let your new found status go to your head. Your future is bright, however as Dr. Bruce Watkins points out, there is nothing worse than a lofty, arrogant PhD who is only interested in job security in academia.
The fact that you don’t have your degree in hand is of no consequence. People will still treat you differently just because you are a doctoral student. They will call you doctor, slap you on the back, and try to connect with you on Linkedin.com. They will put you on a pedestal, and if you are not careful you will think you will belong there. Below I describe an encounter I had with a school administrator who seemed to look down on me until I mentioned that I was working on my degree:
She already had her doctorate in education, and in some ways she came off as being holier than thou. I got the feeling that she wasn’t too interested in anything I had to say – until I told her that I was working on my PhD at Temple University. Suddenly her tenor changed, I was worthy of her attention, and we began to talk about the rigors of doctoral programs and academia in general. After the conversation I remember thinking “Marc don’t you ever behave like that, treat people with respect and decency regardless of their academic credentials or lack thereof.”
As a doctoral student and future PhD you may be tempted to think “I am somebody.” But you must remember that there are some, particularly those in the black community, who hate black academics. They will cut you down to size and put you in your place if you are not humble.
Stay Angry – This is perhaps my most controversial piece of advice for a couple of reasons. First, it presupposes that you are already angry and this might not be the case. Second, some scholars, pundits and theorists believe that a researcher shouldn’t be angry because he can’t be objective when he is upset all the time. However, I would argue that a person studying urban systems or urban education should be at little angry. Let me elaborate.
Surely you are well aware of how historical injustices, institutional racism, unfair spending formulas and other factors have affected urban education. You should be upset about these inequities and should seek to overturn them. I am not saying that you should go screaming from every mountain top (although that might be a good thing). But I am suggesting that during your time as a student you should seek to do more than just learn about educational injustices, you should seek to address them and make things better for urban students.
My finial story. Temple’s Education program is interdisciplinary which means that students from different fields (i.e. educational psychology, special education etc.) all take classes together. In one class in particular the professor showed the clip below to highlight how language can affect how we see things.
After someone turned the lights back on, traditional classroom etiquette and politeness faded as students began to disagree on the context of the video. Some students felt that the term superpredator alluded to black males, while others felt that race was never discussed in the clip. A number of Urban Ed folks spoke up passionately and later I learned that some people in the room wondered why we were so angry all the time. One of my peers summed up our philosophy perfectly when she noted, based on what is happening in urban education, “somebody ought to be angry!”
I have spent a good deal of time on this blog entry because I know the challenges you are about to face. I can certainly give more advice, but I think this is enough for now! Hopefully you will enjoy your program. I look forward to one day calling your “Doctor”.