Now Is the Perfect Time for Black Women To Apply To Doctorate Programs

If you’ve been thinking about going back to school, this is your sign!

Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images

Covid-19 has ushered in a global recession. And if this recession is anything like the one of 2008, more people will apply to graduate school this year, as those out of work consider investing in higher education as a way to explore interests, change careers, and enhance job security.

On top of the fact that the number of graduate applications will likely increase this year, many academic programs, especially in the humanities and social sciences, have suspended their doctoral admissions for the 2021–22 academic year, deciding instead to focus their pandemic-impacted funding on supporting current students rather than admitting new ones.

While there is no data on the exact numbers of Black women that enroll in doctoral programs each year, the National Science Foundation’s annual Survey of Earned Doctorates reports that, in 2018, 1,730 Black women earned doctoral degrees in the United States, just 3.1% of the 55,195 total number of doctoral degree recipients.

It goes without saying that Black women are grossly underrepresented in doctoral programs. I asked 400 women in my online community to support Black women pursuing doctoral studies about their number one challenge to obtaining a doctoral degree, and respondents listed lack of mentorship, finances, and knowing where to start as some of the main barriers to entering and completing doctoral studies.

Despite those challenges and countless others, there is a pressing need for Black female scholarship within academic spaces. And thanks to the growing public support of the Black Lives Matter movement, white liberal guilt is at an all-time high.

Institutions of higher learning and their gatekeepers tend to be liberal. Studies of the politics of college and university faculty demonstrate that faculty are far more likely to be liberal than conservative, especially in college hot spots like New England. One frequently cited 2007 study of nearly 1,500 college and university faculty members showed that 90% of faculty identified as either moderate or liberal.

Earlier this summer, pressured by national protests as well as Black students and allies who vocalized the glaring disparity of Black representation among both students and faculties, many predominantly white, private, and elite universities released statements supporting Black Lives Matter and committing to measures that would address racial injustice on campus. Some schools even recognized Juneteenth as an academic holiday for the first time. The momentum of the summer will likely continue through the spring when admissions committees decide on their fall 2021 cohorts.

Your voice is needed, your scholarship is impactful, and your representation is important.

Much to the chagrin of free-speech proponents on the right, the University of Chicago’s English department announced that it will only consider applications from students interested in working in and with Black studies. Although this does not translate to doctoral programs prioritizing or favoring Black applicants, it does signify an institutional willingness to center Black scholarship, which is traditionally dismissed. This is promising news for Black scholars, whose research interests and contributions have historically been undervalued and underfunded, and I suspect that many admissions committees will follow UChicago’s lead, though perhaps behind closed doors, and be more eager to accept students whose work addresses important and timely issues that advance racial equality.

Aside from the need for Black women to apply to doctoral programs to increase representation, and the social pressures that have encouraged universities to be more intentional about their inclusion of Black scholarship, there is one final reason why now is the perfect time for Black women to apply to doctoral programs.

One of the mantras that got me through the imposter syndrome that overshadowed my PhD journey was to “have the confidence of a mediocre white man.” In the past few weeks, I’ve reframed it to “have the confidence of a white woman in academia who carries out her career pretending to be Black.” From Rachel Dolezal to Jessica Krug and CV Vitolo-Haddad, some non-Black womxn see the immense value of Black scholarship so much that they co-opt a Black identity to boost their careers. While we are busy second-guessing the value of our research, others are benefitting from the little clout that being a Black female scholar brings.

So Black women: Now is the perfect time to polish your CV, carefully craft a statement of purpose, and apply to the doctoral program of your dreams. The competition might be tighter, but the current social climate is in our favor. And when you second-guess yourself, either now or at any point in your doctoral journey, remind yourself that your voice is needed, your scholarship is impactful, and your representation is important.

Historian of race & public health. Founder of Cohort Sistas for Black women pursuing doctoral degrees. Always wanted to be a doctor & a writer and now I’m both.

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