Race and Doctoral Student Socialization: Looking to HBCUs and MSIs to Address Vulnerabilities in Doctoral Education


Pamela Petrease Felder

A recently published article by Felder, Stevenson & Gasman (2014) focused on race and doctoral student socialization suggests that racial interaction, racial encounters and the embracing of racial interests continue to be some of the most difficult issues to navigate during the doctoral process for marginalized students. Oftentimes, these issues are situated within the exchange of student research interests and the purpose of meaningful faculty support. Further research on this exchange can facilitate greater awareness about how we can support the next generation of faculty leaders and practitioners. Two reports in particular have emphasized the need for this additional study: The Path Forward (2010) and a subsequent report titled, Pathways through Graduate School and into Careers (2012). In addition to discussing general trends about U.S. graduate education, these reports also suggest that research about underrepresented students within doctoral process should consider how a lack of understanding the underrepresented student experience creates vulnerabilities in our graduate education system and sustained our individual and organizational capacity for innovation related to an awareness of the nuances associated with the graduate student experience.

The role of HBCUs and MSIs in addressing vulnerabilities is essential to identifying and attracting talented students from historically marginalized groups. Comprehensive efforts are in place but greater importance must be placed on strategies to incorporate transitions into doctoral education; emphasizing degree completion. Efforts to develop effective strategies for supporting academic success and degree completion must consider attrition and the reasons students silently trickle out of programs. These efforts should be central to the institutional mission for recruitment and to the building of student service infrastructure. Understanding why and how students leave their doctoral programs are just as essential to understanding why and how students graduate. This knowledge is also essential to creating interventions that are aligned with specific organizational aspects associated with the student experience.

New kinds of innovative approaches for implementing these efforts should be considered and they should prioritize diversity practices and research. This includes novel ways of academically advising marginalized students. Felder and Barker (2013) discuss the value of understanding how research interests converge between students and faculty member and using characteristics associated with successful advisement strategies as models for student-faculty exchange. Talented students enter doctoral programs with expertise about being academically successful. Should their academic journeys involve tremendous hardship and challenges, their knowledge of overcoming them is wrought with rich cultural insights about navigating the academic process. Expression of this knowledge should be supported and challenged to cultivate new knowledge pathways focused on building practical competencies that are transferrable to a variety of professional contexts. For the doctoral students this should also include consideration of academic and nonacademic career opportunities.

Another important effort is building capacity for the preparation of future faculty members. In doing this it’s important to consider the rapidly changing demographics within college university contexts and the ways technology plays a role in facilitating capacity development. Culturally relevant technology including social media can be instrumental in communicating ideas, building relationships, and demonstrating support and a coalition-building of ideas. However, it’s important to consider how this technology can hinder meaningful dialogue and the translation of identities across generational and disciplinary gaps. Preparation of future faculty means that students will enter professional domains to work among multiple-stakeholders with a variety of generational and disciplinary backgrounds. Many diversity models emphasize the importance intercultural and multicultural competencies in developing infrastructures supportive of racial and cultural awareness.

Ultimately, strengthening the capacity of doctoral programs at HBCUs and other MSIs can improve our understanding of race and doctoral student socialization as they relate to vulnerabilities within doctoral education. Though racism has been considered a national birth defect, with sustained attention to understanding the perceptions of doctoral students who may be concerned with improving conditions associated with race, there is tremendous potential for healing the wounds of our past and improving our nation’s ability to compete and thrive globally.

Dr. Pamela Petrease Felder is an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland – Eastern Shore (UMES) and an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.


2 thoughts on “Race and Doctoral Student Socialization: Looking to HBCUs and MSIs to Address Vulnerabilities in Doctoral Education

  1. As an African American woman who is currently in the process of applying to doctoral programs there are many things that this article continues to highlight for me and place emphasis on. As a previous student of Dr. Felder’s many of these things have been made aware to me by her and her research. Deciding which Doctoral program interest me, means more than school name, or location. With the research done by Dr. Felder it made me question what forms of support I seek in a doctoral program and if the current faculties at the schools of my interest would or could provide this support. When I think of considering HBCUs and MSIs for the future of the doctorate degree I wish to obtain one day, I have to write down the pros and cons of these forms of institutions versus PWIs.

    I consider my chances of being admitted to these prestigious doctoral programs as a task in itself, then have to reconsider my efforts and ability for success at these places. As the article stated, demographically the student populations at colleges and universities are changing, and I hope that one day my face can be at the forefront to educate these students and bring awareness and support to students and future doctoral advisees. But first, I myself must obtain, strive and succeed through this journey, and I can only do this with help and support. But will I get that? I can only hope and wonder, and see where I end up!

  2. I could not agree more…This blog really highlights the extensive hurdles underrepresented students are faced with in doctoral programs across the country. Colleges and Universities must better understand and support students of color, especially at PWIs. I can’t imagine how enervating it must be to be a doctoral student of color at a PWI; think about how much time and energy is focused on trying to fit in and be valued…Can you imagine the learning potential if all energy was focused on research and learning?

    As we know, diversity efforts are complex and require multifaceted forces (e.g., structural, compositional) to align in order to achieve an environment that is conducive to learning. Until then, students of color are going to continue to face additional challenges compared to their white counterparts. More research is needed to better understand and solve these inequities.

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