Advising Students to the Ph.D.: Are We Equitable in Our Support?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman


A recent report published in Diverse: Issues In Higher Education states that Ph.D. completion varies by gender and race.  Specifically, the 10-year completion rate for Whites was 55 percent, for Hispanics it was 51 percent, for Asian Americans it was 50 percent and for African Americans the rate was only 47 percent.  Of course there are many factors that play a part in the lower completion rates for racial and ethnic minorities compared to their White counterparts.  However, I’d like to focus on one of these factors:  attention and support of one’s faculty advisor.


As a faculty member, every so often, I write down the name of all my doctoral advisees, noting the collaborations that I have with them or the introductions to opportunities that I have made for them.  I do this to see if I am being equitable in my support of students.  Sometimes as faculty, we tend to send all of the opportunities for scholarship, teaching, and professional service to one or two students.  These students often “think like us” and are eager to do whatever we ask.  But what about our other advisees?  I think that as faculty we need to ask ourselves periodically if we are making connections with and for all of our students. 


Are we passing on opportunities to teach and write to students of color?  Are we collaborating on research projects with students of color?  The doctoral process, and especially the dissertation process (the point at which those who drop out, drop out) is a lonely experience.  It is the first time in a student’s life that he or she is asked to “go it alone.”  Having the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member on an article or assist with a class can provide a doctoral student with a comforting venue for motivational interaction and self-reflection.  Watching another person navigate the writing process can be empowering, especially if that other person (the faculty advisor) is upfront about the ups and downs of the writing and research process.  Sharing our lack of invincibility with our students helps them to see that finishing the Ph.D. is possible.


In closing, I urge all faculty members to take a periodic look at the work they do with their students, asking whether or not they are equitable in their treatment of students, especially students of color.  It is absolutely crucial that we increase the success of doctoral students of color as this is the only way to change the racial and ethnic make-up of the professoriate.  And, in my opinion, this type of change is a moral imperative.


An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).

3 responses to “Advising Students to the Ph.D.: Are We Equitable in Our Support?

  1. I am pleased to read an article such as this, as I am at the end of my dissertation and must admit the attention I receive from advisors and even committee members while in the city of my university and 15oo miles away is equally lacking. I had little guidance in my pursuit of a Ph.D. I did not really know where to begin, but was more often than not made to feel like an idiot when I posed questions to several professor, even some of those with whom I had worked before. I am seriously disappointed in the way I was (un)guided throughout my graduate tenure at my school and must say that if not for my dissertation director, I would be lost. For example, after submitting my first two chapters last year, I received feedback from only two of four committee members! How can those who offer not guidance be part of the decision as to whether or not I receive my doctorate?! Before the current director, who is great, my former director passed me off on someone whom I couldn’t stand (she’s wacky and manic) without asking me! All he had to do was beg off of the project, but instead he disrespected me utterly and passed me off, while I was away burying my grandmother no less! This is the type of schizophrenic guidance that thwarts promising graduate students away from the Ph.D. Trust me, I’m working with hosts of wanna-be-Ph.D.’s who gave up because they didn’t receive academic support and they are black and white, male and female. Therefore, my advice is this: learn how to do what needs to be done independently. Don’t allow faculty to demean your ideas, inhibit your progress, or talk you out of what you want. You CAN do this. Finally, be very careful about trusting faculty who agrees to be on your committee to actually play an active roll in your quest; they may not.

    Good luck and happy reading, writing, and researching!


  2. After completing my Masters program in Criminal Justice in 04, I am now considering a PhD in C.J. or any other sociological arena and trying to obtain funding sources as a Black male has been difficult. I have reached the max. in loans for my BA and MS degrees at over $200K. While now working full-time in a low paying job with a mortgage, pursuing the PhD seems impossible. Can anyone offer advice?

  3. For Teddy Price:

    There is only one way to earn a doctorate; you MUST get full funding via a fellowship. From the debt you have amassed it appears that you have simply paid you own way, which is commendable until the payments to Nelnet kick in; trust me, I know. However, the full financial burden of the Ph.D. should come from the school. As a Ronald McNair fellow in undergraduate school at Temple University in Philadelphia, the first, and best, advice that I received from the director of the program at that time was this: “If you have to pay to get a doctorate, you might not have the juice to get one.” In other words, take your transcript, knowledge base, recommendations, and writing samples, then COMPETE for that fellowship and get that funding. It’s the only way, unless you are rich. Academia is a competition, and only those who compete and win are privy to its privileges. Good luck and I wish you well.

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