The More We Know about Doctoral Student Socialization

by drfelder

As research on doctoral education continues to evolve to focus on the student experience, raising awareness about the processes associated with navigating barriers to completion is essential to increasing degree completion of historically marginalization students.   Beyond statistical trends, research on doctoral student socialization provides context for understanding what shapes this experience, it highlights aspects of experience complicated by disparities, and emphasizes how differences in student experience can strengthen our intellectual communities.  Doctoral student socialization is generally defined as processes experienced to gain knowledge, skills, and values for entry and participation into fields requiring an advance level of knowledge.  This generalized definition is guidance for interpreting these processes from various perspectives.  Lending a racial and/or cultural lens is helpful for understanding the experiences of Black or African American doctoral students.  Considering Imani Perry’s work, The More Beautiful and More Terrible:  The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States provides important and meaningful insight about what Black or African American students may experience during the doctoral process.

In conducting research on the historically marginalized doctoral experience a common observation made by some faculty members and administrators is that the experience is the same for all students.  Race scholars might deem this as a type of abstract liberalism based on the idea that all doctoral students have equal opportunity.  That is, doctoral students engage similar processes – there’s an admission process, advisement, classes, dissertation, etc.  For instance, some faculty might say they don’t see a difference in student experience between historically marginalized doctoral students and majority students and the need for programmatic efforts to support underrepresented students are unnecessary.   Such observations might be corroborated by reported increases in degree attainment.  The Survey of Earned Doctorates reports that in 1994 4.1% of the doctorates were awarded to blacks or African Americans and this number has increased to 6.4% in 2014.  And, overall participation in doctoral education by underrepresented minority groups who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents is increasing, as evidenced by a 70% increase in the number of doctorates awarded to blacks or African Americans over the past 20 years.


Yet, when comparing this growth of historically marginalized students among all doctoral students, disparities in degree completion illustrate continued underrepresentation by black or African American students and other students of color.  Implications associated with these disparities involve the role of faculty in addressing how students of color navigate barriers to doctoral degree completion especially when considering the transition of emerging scholars into the professoriate.  Statistical trends in the representation of historically marginalized faculty are alarming.  The National Center of Education Statistics  reports that in the fall 2013, there were 1.5 million faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions: 51 percent were full-time and 49 percent were part-time. Faculty categories include professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, assisting professors, adjunct professors, and interim professors.  In fall 2013, of all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, 79 percent were White (43 percent were White males and 35 percent were White females), 6 percent were Black.  Among full-time professors, 84 percent were White (58 percent were White males and 26 percent were White females), while 4 percent were Black.

Perry’s work, rooted in cultural analysis and social science research, lays out several considerations about the daily practices and politics of race influencing the experiences of Black or African American doctoral students.  This work illustrates distinctive characteristics that enhance our understanding of how to support students and to increase awareness about their valuable contributions to the academy.  Of particular note is Perry’s concept of exceptionalism that is addressed within two frames.  One frame lauds Blacks or African Americans for their achievements and as bearing identities as role models.  Within the other, Black or African Americans are seen as inauthentic, illegitimate, and threatening.  She goes on to describe how exceptionalism is categorized by a set of public and symbolic representations of race, one being education:

Elite education and professional status are other ways that groups of people of color or individuals of color are distinguished from others of his or her group.  However, critical masses of people of color in academic institutions or professional groups, whether the numbers are a result of a commitment to affirmative action, residential patterns, or high achievement among the group, are often seen as threatening and even illegitimate.  Proportions matters.  And, as the literature on stereotype threat suggests, racial narratives about performance and academic legitimacy have an impact on actual performance.

Black or African American students who successfully enroll into doctoral programs (despite the disparities associated along the educational pathway toward the doctorate) carry these representations with them whether they are personally embraced or imposed on them by their academic communities. While doctoral students from other racial/cultural backgrounds may also carry representations, they’re also distinctive with different racially/culturally-based nuances.   These representations might be complicated by a variety of issues including students’ own self-perceptions within their academic environments.  Perry’s work suggests these representations are constant, multi-layered, and complex; complicating student involvement and integration. For example, after Trayvon Martin’s death, the symbolic representation ascribed to a hoodie being worn in academic settings may have had multiple implications for Black and African American doctoral students compared to students in other racial groups. Black and African American students may:  have had personal security concerns related to wearing a hoodie (should it be worn or not); have contemplated the solidarity represented by the hoodie (should/can I publicly represent my solidarity); have been emotionally burdened because of what the hoodie represents (overwhelmed by the disproportionate violence against Blacks or African Americans). This may have occurred while simultaneously being in the position to racially symbolize the meaning of the hoodie in his/her academic community – figuring out whatever this means (what does this mean?).  Additionally, Perry notes the presence and academic contributions of Black or African American students may be automatically dismissed as illegitimate and therefore minimized through a lack of support; especially if students’ research interests are racially/culturally focused.  For instance and furthermore, Black or African American students may also consider an epistemological stance on the Trayvon Martin tragedy and how is it conveyed/embraced in one’s research, teaching, and interactions with others?

Overall, Perry’s work raises important questions for faculty, administrators and advocates of the historically marginalized experience to consider when developing programmatic efforts promoting academic success and transition into the professoriate. Some of these questions include: In what ways may a doctoral student’s research topic focused on Black or African American issues?  And, is this topic not well known/supported by faculty members in his/her program?  In what ways must Black or African Americans make sense of and carry the role model status in addition to managing their doctoral studies?  Also, in what ways might Black or African American doctoral students be expected to formally and informally represent the entire race to their academic communities?   Perry’s work reminds us that it’s important to consult research on race, diversity, and inclusion to further understand how this work informs our practice and disciplines.  These continued efforts support the interrogation of our policies, practices, and research.  And, celebrating degree completion serves to strengthen initiatives focused on racial/cultural awareness, diversity and inclusion.  The more we know about the doctoral student socialization translates into building and serving our institutional communities in ways that are meaningful and transformative.


To learn more about efforts supporting doctoral student socialization for historically marginalized students please visit: