The moment you decide to pursue a doctoral degree is one of the defining moments of your career. You have decided that you want to go further, push yourself and obtain the skills needed for training new counselors. You begin to research schools and their doctoral programs. A glimmer forms of what you would like to write your dissertation on. You apply to your favorite schools, plus some that you don’t like as much to increase the chances of your dream becoming a reality.
But when the interviews start, reality kicks in. For some people, that reality is the amount of work it takes to become a counselor educator. For others, it’s the reality that their favorite school might be just out of reach for a variety of factors.
And if you are a minority student, a different kind of reality starts to settle in. One that tells you your dream might be far more complicated to reach than it is for other students.
Growing up as a black woman in the United States, I was aware of the implicit bias that can affect who gets opportunities and who doesn’t. My father was born in 1928 in the South, so the history of being black in America is forever cemented in me in ways that are hard to describe.
This knowledge becomes personal when you enter the workforce and experience implicit and explicit bias firsthand. Even while obtaining my master’s degree in community counseling, I could see how this bias played into higher education. Once I completed my master’s and went into the field, I worked in social services, attempting to make a dent in the systems and make life better for those who may not be able to do so on their own. When I decided to get my Ph.D., I felt accomplished. I felt ready to go on an academic journey.
Upon starting the application process, I quickly realized how exclusive the “doctor” club is. Most schools accept six to 10 students for Ph.D. programs, and you are competing with students from around the world. What you want to do research on becomes extremely important because some universities want you to participate in or further research that aligns with the research interests of professors who are already in the program.
What I realized very quickly was that even if a professor has interest in multicultural issues or even race, it is rare to want to tackle implicit bias head-on. Diversity and social justice, even in the counseling profession, can be dirty words.
Some research has shown that students generally give poorer evaluations to professors who teach diversity. If those professors are minorities, their evaluations are often even lower. Depending on the university, those student evaluations can be the difference between getting tenure and not getting tenure, so these things matter.
You can imagine that several programs would proceed with caution if a student of color applied and stated that he or she wanted to do research on bias. There is a fine line between telling students that they must change their research ideas (which often change anyway over the course of study) or setting them up for a hard road that may lead to limited academic success. This was the first lesson I learned in my journey.
The first school to which I was accepted did so on the condition that I change my research topic. I had somehow been naive enough to think that in the world of academia, pushing the boundaries was encouraged. Entire bodies of research exist on implicit bias and how it affects almost every facet of society. Given the popularity of the online Implicit Association Test and the ever-growing body of research on the topic, I assumed that research on bias was no longer that controversial.
But when the program chair discussed concerns about my topic with me, I got a rude wake-up call. It shook me and made me question whether pursuing my Ph.D. was really the right course of action. I pushed on and eventually found a school that I am proud to call my academic home.
Upon starting classes, I realized this road could be a constant battle unless I had strategies for success. I hope that some of the skills I learned and implemented can be beneficial to other students, particularly minority students who are pursuing their doctoral degrees.
Strategies for success
Being accepted to a school that was interested in my research topic and supportive of my inclination toward social justice was the first hurdle. So, when applying and interviewing for schools, remember that you are reviewing those schools as much as they are reviewing you. It is important for any student, but particularly a student of color, to find an academic home that is supportive of your goals. Do not settle for the first school that accepts you. Review your options carefully, and make a choice that you will be happy with for the next several years to come.
The second step was becoming knowledgeable about the difficulties that African American students face. Per a 2011 research study by Malik Henfield, Delila Owens and Sheila Witherspoon in Counselor Education and Supervision, many African American doctoral students in counselor education programs feel that they face discrimination and a high level of stress. Many cite feelings of isolation, lack of support from faculty and treatment by other students as reasons for not continuing their programs. The article cited additional research done in 1996 that showed that as many as 49 percent of African American doctoral students felt at least partially, if not totally, negatively about their doctoral experience.
I was shocked to learn about these statistics and this research, but arming yourself with this knowledge will allow you to be prepared for the road ahead. So much of completing any graduate degree involves the subjective experience we have in our programs. Counselors, specifically, can forget to check in with themselves emotionally because we are used to caring for everyone else. So do your research and allow yourself to be sad about the extra set of hurdles ahead, but allow those hurdles to motivate you to achieve your goals.
Once you have been accepted to a doctoral program for counselor education, seek out professors and campus organizations that are supportive of and foster your passions. When I began school, I joined the campus diversity department, I stood strong in my passion for social justice and multicultural competency. Basically, I began the ongoing process of carving out my own space — one that is filled with support and is uniquely my own. Universities, particularly predominantly white institutions, might not have a ready-made space for you. If you begin creating your professional and collegiate identity early, it will allow you to start to set your own metric for success.
Set small, achievable goals that remind you that you are making progress. Setting your own standard for success is crucial, particularly for minority students, because feelings of isolation and a lack of support can make it hard to recognize how far you have come. This is where your family and friends can come in because they don’t have to understand what you are writing about to celebrate that you have finished a huge paper. They can constantly give you encouragement, and although their emotional support may not equal an A in the classroom or create a more inclusive environment in your school, it can mean the difference between feeling completely isolated on your journey and feeling supported.
My next step was having frank conversations with family and friends. I had already done this prior to applying to my doctoral program, but after becoming more knowledgeable about all the hurdles that minority students can face even after acceptance, it was important to talk again. I let my partner, my family and my friends know that I might need additional support because I wouldn’t necessarily be able to get it consistently at school. I feel completely supported by my school and faculty, but I wanted to ensure that I possessed multiple levels of support.
As mentioned previously, counselors can be hard pressed to practice self-care. Do not wallow in feelings of guilt when you need help or support, and don’t feel bad about telling your support network early on that you might need them to help lift you up.
Directly correlated with creating your support network is learning to be patient and gentle with yourself. Obtaining any degree is difficult, and the higher you go, the harder it is. You must deal with life’s challenges, and if you are a minority, you may face extra hurdles.
For most people, it will be a year from the time you start submitting applications to the time you actually enter school. During that year, begin practicing your self-care techniques, and then take them with you into the program. If possible, attend campus and association events to begin connecting yourself to your colleagues. Research divisions of the American Counseling Association that you might be interested in joining; these divisions can provide opportunities to expand and affirm your interests.
Also remember that pursuing your doctorate is as much about your learning as it is your grade. Talk with your adviser and take the course load that makes the most financial and emotional sense for you.
Finally, stand strong and proud in your interests and in who you are as an individual. Getting your doctorate should be about more than calling yourself a doctor. You should pursue a doctorate to do scholarly work that matters to you and to be a part of training future counselors.
What drew me to this path and program was a desire to learn more and further the discussions on implicit bias and mental health. Shying away from that path would have been detrimental to my ability to complete my studies and feel fully engaged in my profession. Although it is possible that I will change my topic down the road, it is important for me to pursue what interested me. My end goal is always “scholar” and “educator” first, not “doctor.” So unless your goals or interests change, don’t back away from your passions.
The challenges that students face when applying for and entering a doctoral counseling program can be great. Those stressors can be compounded when issues of diversity and inclusion arise. Arm yourself with all the tools and supports available to you to make your journey as smooth and successful as possible. Always be kind to yourself and, remember, we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.
Makeba Boykins has been working in the field for more than a decade. She obtained her master’s degree in community counseling from Argosy University Chicago and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in counselor education from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.