Quick Tips on Choosing PhD Programs for POCs

I am in the process of choosing a PhD program to attend this fall. The job of choosing a program has been one of the most intensive things I’ve had to do since deciding to start graduate school. I mentioned in a previous article the lack of information transmission from one generation of academics to the next about how to navigate structures of advantage and disadvantage. I was afraid that I would be alone in this process but I have been lucky enough to have POC graduate students, faculty, and white allies in both positions give me VERY useful advice for considering graduate programs.

In the spirit of my commitment to making sure information essential to survival makes it to the next generation I’m going to share some of the advice I’ve been given and adding a few of my own opinions on this process. Take all of this with a grain of salt as different people in our space will have different opinions on the same issues and a diversity of opinions is always a good thing. Also this advice has been given to me as a Black cisgender male and although I will try to generalize these points as much as I can so they are useful to the largest amount of people some of these points may not apply to those of you who occupy other intersections of disadvantage, so again a grain a salt.

  1. Be Direct in Your Needs: In my opinion if you are going to invest 4-7 years of your life in an institution you have the right to have your needs met by that institution. If there is ANYTHING about that environment that makes you uneasy you have a right to speak up and ask about it. Don’t feel like you have to be silent in voicing your needs because they offered you “full funding.”
  2. Climate Matters: In addition to the issues of funding and faculty research fit, the racial, economic, gender, sexuality climate on a campus is VERY important to students of marginalized backgrounds. Although we would like to think that we can handle anything, many students have crumbled under the micro (and macro) aggressions brought to bear by their bigoted peers and mentors. One of the best ways to find out about the department climate is talk to former students or faculty who share your social position. If nobody like that exist, that absence may signal problems in of itself.
  3. Be Wary of Minority Fellowships: From my experience and that of others minority targeted fellowships or packages often come with strings attached. Some shoehorn you into endless teaching assistantships, some cut off funding as soon as you hit your minimum credit hours, and others are simply inferior to other institutional fellowships that you may be eligible for. Many of these fellowships are there to simply increase the numbers of POCs and other marginalized people in a program without investing the necessary resources those students need to succeed. So if you get one of these offers please read all the fine print people.
  4. Pay Attention to Who All the POC Students Work With: In any department with faculty of color there is likely going to be a synergy between their interest and that of some of the POC students by virtue of their shared standpoints and perspectives. Be wary however if ALL the POC students are huddled under the one or two faculty of color because that may indicate that either everyone one of them are doing similar work, which is possible but unlikely especially in more diverse programs, or that they only feel safe with that faculty member because of their shared status.
  5. Pay Attention to Job Placements: Ask or look into the placement record of programs for the students in general and marginalized students in particular. This is probably one of the strongest indicator of whether the department is investing in its students, how equal is that investment, and where you might end up if you go through this program.
  6. There Are Other Places Besides Your Department on Campus: If you have only one choice that has some red flags or have to choose from places that all have issues, remember that you aren’t limited to your department for your professional development. At most large universities today there are ethic , gender, sexuality, and other studies programs that concentrate on marginalized peoples of various statuses. Often in those departments are people like you who are academics who can offer support, mentorship, and publishing opportunities. Remember that there are often student organizations and even internet communities (like RRC) that can serve the same purpose. Before you cave in from the pressure, seek out these resources because they can give you what you need to keep going.
  7. Get External Funding if Possible: Many stories of marginalization and abuse within academia include reluctance to resist for fear of losing institutional support and funding. For all students getting external fellowships, funding, and support is great for your future job prospects. For marginalized students external funding can protect you from some of the more virulent forms of retaliation that can be brought to bear for speaking up. Lesson, don’t eat from the hand that punches you if possible. If you can’t do this try to look for institutional resources that are detached from the unit you’re having problems with.
  8. Test Possible Faculty Mentors: What I have done that has given me much insight into the culture of a department or individual faculty/students is explicitly bring up your research interests, marginal status, or other concerns to DGS’s, faculty, and students and see how they react to your statement, request, or question. I’m not saying blurt out “are you racist?!” but if you get a puzzled, detached, or dismissive response it speaks to whether these issues are something they are concerned with on any level. Some people have never been addressed on these issues by students so give some leeway but if someone ask you to explain basic terms or talks for 5 minutes and doesn’t really answer your question, you may need to look into that.

Again the purpose of this post is to give people some things to think about when choosing PhD programs. I won’t claim that these things will work for everyone in every situation but they have worked for me at least. The moral of the story regardless of the specifics is that as a marginalized person in academia you must be critical of everything lest you end up blindsided like many of us are by oppressive situations. Let us know of other tips that you would add to this list (especially from current PhD students or faculty) or let us know what you think about the points listed in the comments below!


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