Doctors’ Orders: Advice from Black Women PhDs

Three Black women recently shared their experiences navigating the PhD process — basically everything I wish I’d known when I was entering my doctoral program.

China Layne
Mar 17 · 11 min read

Like many people, I found getting a PhD to be a challenging, thrilling, and ultimately transformative experience. As a Black woman, I also sometimes found the experience frankly more difficult than it needed to be.

Being the first in my family to get a PhD meant I didn’t have any role models close at hand. In my program, I was often one of only a few Black people (let alone Black women) in seminars or work groups. I often didn’t fit the expectation of what an academic looked like.

In February, I attended a Facebook fireside chat hosted by Black Women PhDs and organized by Facebook’s internal events team. The chat was paneled by Camela Logan, a UX researcher at Facebook (working across the family of Facebook apps), Dominiqua Griffin, CEO and founder of Black Women PhDs, and Alisha Alleyne, UX research manager at Instagram, who also served as moderator.

The panelists shared their experiences of succeeding in PhD programs as Black women. They provided invaluable insights that I wish I’d had during my time getting a PhD. In this article, I’ll share their advice for getting through the three crucial stages of PhD success: before starting the program, during the program, and beyond.

Before you start: Think broadly about what you can do with a PhD

Most PhD programs focus on preparing students for a limited set of professions, such as professor, academic researcher, or clinician. But getting a PhD can easily take half a decade or more, in which time the job market for any of these professions can change dramatically. As Camela advised, “You should think about what the job market is looking like in your field. There can be a lot of uncertainties in the academic job market. When I entered my program, it was quite promising, but that changed by my second or third year.”

Before you commit the time, effort, and (possibly) loans a PhD requires, it’s important to think about what you can and want to do with the degree. You may want to think broadly about the professional possibilities, beyond academia, that open up with a PhD. In research alone, opportunities for PhDs extend well beyond academia to the consulting, nonprofit, government, and industry worlds.

“When I was getting my degree in clinical psychology,” Alisha added, “we were trained as therapists. I was seeing clients along the way as part of my training, to inform my diagnostic and treatment-focused research. But at the time, and I hope it’s changed now, my faculty were incredibly disappointed if any of us went on to become a practicing clinician who didn’t also conduct research in a traditional academic setting. I’m hoping there’s more flexibility these days, but they struggled with the concept of educating people who would not be cookie-cutter versions of themselves.”

Based on that experience, Alisha recommended thinking proactively about post-PhD careers: “When considering doctoral programs, I think it’s important for everyone to see how attitudes towards non-academic careers may vary from graduate school to graduate school. It’s fair game to directly ask about expected post-PhD career paths as you are exploring programs. It’s important to contemplate: What are some of the other career possibilities that one can pursue with this degree, and what are some of the other career possibilities that this program supports.”

For those of us who don’t come from families with an academic background, it can be particularly difficult to know what opportunities are available. However, the lack of preset expectations can also be liberating, allowing you to decide for yourself what’s the best use of your degree.

For my part, when I started my PhD program, I knew I didn’t want to be a professor. I wanted to do applied research. This set me apart from most of my peers and from my professors, most of whom went directly from a PhD program to a tenure-track position. One professor told me bluntly that he couldn’t help me find a job outside academia because he didn’t know anything about that job market. At times it was difficult figuring out what combination of skills, experience, and training I needed to prepare myself for a non-academic research career. But it was also incredibly freeing to know that I could say no to some expectations (such as teaching summer courses) because they wouldn’t help me succeed at what I wanted to do with my degree.

During the program: Staying motivated

Completing a PhD program is the ultimate example of a “marathon, not a sprint.” Almost every program has well-known milestones (e.g., comprehensive exams, writing and defending your proposal, writing and defending your completed dissertation). But in between these milestones there are all the quotidian days of coursework, research, and writing.

And then, when you’re a Black woman in a PhD program, there are also those days that try your nerves: unfair standards or neglect from professors, microaggressions from peers, or just the weariness of feeling like you’re under scrutiny all the time. Sometimes it can be tough to keep going throughout this — to stay motivated not just to finish, but to continue doing your best work.

Maintaining a support network
The panelists agreed that maintaining a broad, diverse support network is vital to staying motivated during the PhD program. Alisha advised looking beyond your immediate management structure. “You can branch out for help beyond your manager or advisor,” she said. “Sometimes, unfortunately, there’s a hierarchy-based needs bubble. The thinking is, ‘There’s me and my manager. I’m only going to get resources and help from this person.’ But … it’s impossible for just one person to have access to all the knowledge and resources that will benefit you and your career journey. They might not always know the best way to support you. It’s okay to put yourself out there to to get help from other people.”

“Know the people to lean on when you want to get to the next step in your career,” Alisha continued. “Know the people to lean on when you need to escape. And know the people to lean on who can hold you accountable for self-care. And remember, these may not be the same sets of people.”

Camela added, “I really want to stress the importance of having those supportive networks both inside and outside of the program or even the university.” And Dominiqua recommended considering support beyond just the people you see in person. “While obtaining the doctoral degree,” she said, “it can feel very isolating, but really there’s a community of us out there. So really tapping into these virtual spaces and opportunities for support — I think that’s extremely important.”

Advocating for yourself
In addition to having a network of people who can support and advocate for you, it will often be necessary to advocate for yourself. You’ll need to know when and how to ask for what you want, and how to get to “yes” even if the first answer is “no.” Sometimes self-advocacy can be fairly straightforward, if still nerve-wracking. Other times, as Alisha recounted, repeatedly standing up for yourself over time can require sustained effort.

Ironically, one of my proudest examples of advocating for myself in the PhD program was giving up my last year of fellowship funding, which required the teaching of one course each semester. Because I knew I didn’t want to be a professor and had (deliberately) limited experience as a lecturer, I knew this requirement would drastically slow my dissertation progress. I asked the department chair if I could do a research assistantship for that year instead. When the answer was no, I looked for options elsewhere. In the end, I landed an applied research role that was less taxing than the teaching requirement, provided the non-academic research experience I needed, and paid a lot more than my fellowship would have.

Self-care
A PhD won’t do you any good if you’re a burned-out husk by the time you graduate. Taking time for yourself and your family, having hobbies or interests outside of your field, or just taking time away from the work can help you reserve your motivation for the times that you’ll need it most.

Dominiqua discussed taking on new, non-academic challenges while in the PhD program: “I made sure wellness was an essential part of my experience. Right when I was in the midst of comps and proposal, I entered into a scuba diving course. I was in the pool swimming, taking swimming lessons as well, to focus on breathing, so I could just get through it all.”

Likewise, Camela reconnected with an outside passion during her studies. “I created spaces that were not related to my studies but were really important to me,” she said. “I’m trained as a French pastry chef. When I was at the University of Oxford studying for my Master’s on the way to my PhD, I was ‘cake representative.’ What that meant is that I got to make cakes for my college’s graduate common room. I saw it as an opportunity to create a safe space because it was around something that I loved to do. It was also something I felt I had some control over, because I was the cake representative, and there were no cakes without me!”

Beyond the PhD: Navigating spaces with little or no representation

Finishing your PhD is just the beginning of your career, not the end. Unfortunately, some of the challenges you faced during the PhD will continue in your career — particularly the experience of being “one of only a few.” Many of the strategies you use to overcome this challenge in graduate school will also help in your working life beyond the PhD.

Finding your community
Camela and Alisha discussed the importance of finding a community and how it helped them, both during the program and after. “I really tried to create or identify community wherever I could find it,” Camela recounted. “Sometimes it was community by way of other individuals who had some kind of shared experience with me, who were in some kind of professional programs more generally or in other areas related to my area of focus. That provided me not only with people to get support from, but also opportunities to see other areas where I could use my PhD. Also, I’ve had a very strong network of Black women in other professional programs who I’ve known since my undergrad days. We’ve stayed connected, and it has been really great to know that I have this very robust community that is there for each other, that we know each other, and that we’re going to be there to see each other through.”

“Find your people,” Alisha added. “I mean that in all of the ways that resonate with you the most. It could be a shared lived experience. It could be someone who has a skill set you’d like to learn. It could be someone who has a role you’ve been curious about. Identify those people if you can and unlock those resources. These are the people who can support you in your career, and also support who you are outside of a given work setting.”

In addition, Dominiqua pointed out that “our community” may be broader than we initially expect. “I just want to add that we should recognize that the folks who may serve as part of your community may not look like you.”

Don’t let yourself be minimized
Finally, Dominiqua and Camela were clear about the importance of not letting yourself be minimized by other people’s perception of you. As Dominiqua said, “I do not take on that minority title. I do not see anything about my experience as minor, nor my people. Nothing about being Black is minor. I think that is something we have to be conscious about, how we label ourselves, how we talk about our experiences. We may have had experiences that others consider minority, but we are not minorities.”

“I’ve been the only one who looked like me in a lot of different spaces that I entered,” Camela added. “Not only as a Black woman, but as a Black-biracial, Middle Eastern woman. But it was really in grad school that I started to find myself in situations that I felt that more than ever…. I think that different fields may have a certain vision of what an academic looks like, and that may make sense based on how people try to make sense of the world. But there were times when me being me didn’t fit that mold. And sometimes it could just be something like me having a more bubbly personality and that being misread as maybe not being as serious or successful. And then surprising people when I got a fellowship, and then got another one, and then one more. Staying connected to, and checking in with, my support systems throughout my doctoral journey helped me not lose sight of who I am or let self-doubt creep in. You should think about strategies you can do to set yourself up for success so that if you aren’t fitting into that mold, other people’s responses to that aren’t throwing you off.”

Getting through the PhD program, and doing it well, is one of my biggest achievements. Overall I managed, sometimes by muddling through. But it would have been great to have had more guidance from other people who know what it’s like as a Black woman in academia. The wisdom Dominiqua, Camela, and Alisha shared can serve as a great guide for anyone navigating the process of getting — or using — a PhD. But it’s especially useful for those of us who are undertaking the journey as a “first in my family” or “one of only a few in the room.”

At Facebook we’re always on the lookout for talented researchers like Alisha, Camela, and China. See our open roles here.

Author: China Layne, UX researcher at Facebook

China earned her PhD in Sociology from the State University of New York at Albany and now leads quantitative research across Facebook’s Payments products.

Event panelists:

  • Camela Logan is a senior UX researcher at Facebook, leading research for the Social Impact team. She earned her PhD in contemporary Francophone African expressive cultures from the University of Michigan.
  • Alisha Alleyne is a UX research manager at Instagram, supporting the Feed & Relevance team. She earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southern California.
  • Dominiqua Griffin is the CEO and founder of Black Women PhDs. She earned her dual-title PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision and Comparative and International Education from Penn State.

Illustrator: Drew Bardana

Facebook Research

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