Tag Archives: students of color

Mentoring is Absolutely Essential for the Future of the Professoriate

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman-current-sittingYesterday as I was chatting on Facebook (yes, I do that) with a faculty member at a different institution than my own.  He’s brand new on the tenure-track at a research university.  In addition, he is African American at a traditionally White institution and as such, most likely has to contend with additional pressures.  I don’t know this man well, but had been introduced to him by a mutual friend.  As we were chatting, he expressed concern over balancing teaching and research.  I immediately switched into mentoring mode, offering advice on which journals to approach, how to limit the time spent on prepping classes, and how to carve out writing time during the academic year.  His response:  “You don’t even know me very well.  Why are you being so generous with your time?”

My immediate response was “Because someone mentored me; in fact several people mentored me.” One of these individuals was Asa Hilliard.  Asa was a larger than life figure, but never too large to spend time with young people.  I remember when I was a new, nervous faculty member with a small child in a strange city, Asa welcomed me to the department and welcomed my family.  He embraced me as a scholar and person.  This amazing intellectual would get down on the floor at eye level with my daughter and make her giggle — such humanity and care in someone who could have chosen to just go about his work or worse yet, bask in his ego.  Instead, Asa mentored and gave the best advice: stay out of office politics, rise above petty academic jealousy, and swallow your pride when necessary.  These are lessons that I think about daily and that I pass on to my own students and mentees.

All too often, once we reach a comfortable level of success in the academy, we forget about those who are coming after us into the profession.  I have been told countless stories by Ph.D. students about how they approached a faculty member and were rebuffed.  I have been told the same stories by young faculty members who approached those senior scholars they admire.  I know that people are busy, but there is always enough time to answer a quick question, to lend an ear, and to provide mentoring to future faculty members.  What is most disturbing to me about the rebuffs I mentioned is that quite often the person telling me about them is a student or faculty member of color.

My first book was a biography of Charles Spurgeon Johnson, sociologist, the architect of the Harlem Renaissance, and president of Fisk University.  While researching and writing the book, I became intensely familiar with Johnson’s approach to mentoring scholars and leaders.  Under his leadership, Fisk University became an incubator for talent, especially future faculty members. In fact, his students told me that he gave them “all the tools they needed to take on the world.”  This phrase stuck with me and I have striven to emulate Johnson’s approach.

I believe wholeheartedly that in order to have a productive, caring, empathetic, student-oriented future professoriate, we as current faculty members must invest the time in mentoring young scholars.  Of course, there are many ways to do this.  One can co-author publications, co-present at conferences, explain the book writing and grant proposal processes, share ways of simplifying class preparation, etc.  One of the ways that I take care for young scholars is by meeting with them for coffee or lunch at national conferences — providing a low stress way for them to ask for advice.  I never turn someone down who asked to meet with me (unless I run out of time!).  Why? Because I was rebuffed as a young scholar and I remember how it felt.  I was told by a senior scholar as I asked for a copy of one of her conference papers,  “I don’t have time for you.”  It stung!

I urge all scholars to think twice before ignoring a request from a young person.  In order to make sure that the academy is a healthy work environment for research and teaching, we need to provide the proper guidance and nurturing to future academics.

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).


It’s Ph.D. Application Time: Here are a Few Tips

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

It’s that time of the academic year — the time when students begin to ask for advice, and more importantly, letters of recommendations to pursue their Ph.D. research.  As I care greatly about the future of the professoriate (and I think being a professor is the last great job — one gets paid to think!), I am willing to talk with anyone interested in pursuing a Ph.D. and I typically offer the same advice year after year.  In the spirit of the season, I thought I would provide that advice here on my Diverse Issues in Higher Education Blog.

First, the best approach is to do well academically at both the undergraduate and graduate level.  Take learning seriously and capitalize on each and every opportunity you have in college.  If you didn’t do as well as you would have liked to, it’s important to communicate the reasons to the graduate admissions committee.

Second, write the best, most focused, personal statement that you can.  Make sure to have a specific purpose to the statement, with clearly outlined goals and interests.  The admissions committee needs to know why you want to pursue a Ph.D. and why in the specific academic area of your choice.  Moreover, they need to understand why you are interested in pursuing the degree at their particular institution.  In the statement, you need to make connections to the research interests of those on the faculty.  However, your connections should be genuine — don’t name drop or exaggerate your interest in faculty.  Link your work with one or two individuals and write a meaningful paragraph about the connections between your interests and the faculty members’ work.  Don’t use cliches and quotes that have been used for decades — be as original in your thinking and approach as you can. 

Third, acquire three very strong letters of support from faculty members.  Make sure that these individuals know you and that you did well in their classes.  When asking someone to write a letter of recommendation for you, say “Are you willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me?”  Graduate admissions committees are looking for evidence in the letters that you will be successful in the research and writing process and that you have strong critical thinking and analytical skills. 

Fourth, if at all possible, arrange to visit the institution and program to which you are applying.  Meet with students and faculty, attend a class or several, and get a good feel for the institutional culture.  Ask yourself, “Do students appear happy and busy?”  “Do students have dedicated workspaces at which to pursue their research and perform the work related to their research assistantship?”  “Are faculty visible and available?”  “Are faculty and students collaborating on research projects?”  Although you will be able to make a better assessment of a Ph.D. program by visiting, the faculty members will also get a better sense of you — and you are more likely to rise to the top of the application pile if you made a positive impression during your visit (of course, a negative impression could have the opposite effect!).

Fifth, if you are a student of color or someone interested in studying issues related to race, class, gender, or sexuality, make sure that there are faculty members who have your best interest in mind and who can relate to and inform your perspective.  Read faculty members’ research, notice which organizations they participate in and on which committees they serve, and if syllabi are available, see if your perspective is represented in course readings and assignments.

Lastly, do not apply to one one program.  I see students make this mistake year after year.  Identify the strong programs that appeal to your interests and apply to all of them, making sure to tailor your personal statement to each program’s focus.  Ph.D. programs are intensely competitive, especially those that offer full funding for multiple years — keep your options open.

Good luck!


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).

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).