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JustCallMeDoc

The Silent Toxic Stress of Being a Minority in Academia

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I have been a longtime lurker in these forums and finally decided to join the convo.

I'm writing about a topic that is relatively sensitive and in a 2019 context is highly charged so I'm hoping this dialogue can be productive and respectful.

Full disclosure, I am a woman of color and this has been the most emotionally taxing process I've ever been through, and I've been through some shit.

I know this is something everyone has to accept, but I feel terribly alone at the moment. The silent but toxic stress of carrying all of these identities is killing me. 

After being one of the few members of my immediate and extended family to complete a bachelors degree, I entered the workforce for several years and after mind numbing work, I decided to re-enter academia and apply to PhD programs. Though I am not first generation, I might as well be. My mother has an associates and my father completed his masters shortly after I entered college myself. Beyond that, I don't know anyone who has ever ventured into getting any sort of advanced degrees of any kind let alone bachelors degrees or high school diplomas. My parents, though supportive, proved quite useless during this process and many of my other family and friends didn't understand why I'd give up a great career to "go back to school." It's draining at family functions to have conversations about things no one understands and judges me heavily for. Navigating the application process was such a difficult process. I reached out to other minorities and POC (person/people of color) during the initial stages but they too vocalized how taking on this endeavor can be very difficult if you're the first to do it. 

Not to sound like a martyr but for much of my academic and career journeys thus far I have always been the first and only in the spaces I exist in. I am one of a few POC at work and  I was one of 3 POC women in a group of about 10 total in my undergraduate program. The stress of constantly feeling like I need to represent an entire group is draining and the burden of not feeling like I can measure up is exhausting. Imposter syndrome has been real. At every step of this process I have been filled with self doubt. I waited 2 years to take the GRE just because I was afraid of failing. I did not I got 160Q/167V/5.5 Writing respectively. Then I applied to programs and felt like my statement of purpose wouldn't be good enough, I was told by many that it was great. I went to open houses and info sessions thinking I didn't belong only to walk away feeling empowered. 

But now, that has all come to an overflowing boil. I am at a point in the PhD application process where it's becoming more readily apparent that I will probably get a flush of denies to every program I applied. I have seen acceptances and invitations for interviews go up and my inbox remains empty save for the 4 denies I've already received. When people ask me how the process is going, i can't bring myself to tell them I've been denied so I just keep saying "I'm still waiting to hear back...". Though this is true, I have no faith that I'll get into the remaining 3 programs I'm waiting on. Even my 'safety school' denied me already.

What's more frustrating is the current undertones that exist in admissions -- the Harvard case against affirmative action, the feeling that spots are "deserved" rather than earned, this idea that POC are given spots in program. I was not expecting to be admitted based on some diversity metrics, and I don't fully believe at the PhD level special considerations are made based on race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. But to continually get denied makes me feel double as bad as I feel like I truly was the worst of a group that already gets special considerations/concessions. 

I am not sure how to move on from these denials and face the hoards of family who thought I was crazy for considering this, the coworkers and friends who have supported me with a zeal that honestly made me even consider doing this in the first place, and the countless other marginalized groups I wanted to encourage through my application and acceptances into programs.

Though I identify (and exist) as a woman of color, I know I am not alone. I know there are countless women, people of color, international students, immigrants, LGBTQ, and other underrepresented or marginalized populations who hopefully can identify with these emotions and I just wanted to allow for a space for folks to be vulnerable. 

 

Edited by JustCallMeDoc

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This is not exactly on topic with your discussion, but please don’t beat yourself up about not getting into your safety. My first rejection this cycle was my “ultra safety”, so I was then convinced I wasn’t going to get in anywhere. I was wrong.

You are correct that the PhD admissions process is very different from undergrad. For example, a school that may have a high undergraduate acceptance rate may have also an incredibly low PhD acceptance rate. A PhD program at a given school generally has a completely different identity than its corresponding undergraduate school (unless it’s Harvard, MIT, Stanford). PhD admissions are a bit of a crapshoot and involve some luck as stated by others on this forum. 

Don’t be discouraged, as hard as it might be! You will get in somewhere based on your own merit (your GRE alone is competitive). Again, sorry this is off topic, but you deserve to be very proud of your accomplishments. 

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Preach.

Fellow WoC here and I'm glad someone understands what it's like to be the first in the family to do this. I was first to graduate high school, get my BA, my MA, and now reaching for PhD! The overwhelming lack of support from my family is exhausting. They just don't understand how taxing this process is. They have no idea how to help. 

But you and I have both come this far and we will certainly continue moving forward. There's not enough PoC in academia, but we will be there to change it. My MA cohort graduated with eleven women of color last year. 

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YEESSSSSS

 

I am also PoC and I've heard many things about minorities making difference in the academia. my prospectives are also not the best but I want to persevere, just thinking about how much difference our presence is going to make. 

 

Wish you the best!

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I think the real issue you're having is your fear of failure and now that you're faced with the possibility of it, you're convinced that, as a whole, you're a failure.  I think that the majority of the "pressure" you feel from family or peers is largely self imposed.  Does affirmative action exist in univerisites?  Absolutely.  Do I think that people of colour are severely marginalised against from birth?  Yes.  Do I think that they often need help to break free of financial and societal limitations?  Absolutely.  Do I think that every person of colour who gets accepted to a graduate program or university, in general, got their because of their colour?  Hell no. 

I'm well aware that you are constantly reminded, socially, that you are a person of colour and you often have to struggle with being marginalised, but for the most part, I feel the greatest part of your struggle, right now, is due to your own pressures and whatever you think you have to prove to yourself, your family, or society that you're capable of. 

Though I'm not familiar with what it is like to be a woman of colour, I am, however, familiar with failure.  Many of us are, but in my case, I'm very familiar with failure when applying to grad schools.  This is my 3rd cycle and I've been denied from nearly 50 schools/programs over the last 3 cycles.  That said, I may see myself as a failure at getting into grad school, but not as a failure as scientist.  Failure is an important part of success.  If you don't know failure, how can you know the value of success.  Grad schools are very selective and most grad schools are filled with applications from near perfect applications.  The selection process is 30% your qualifications and 70% pure random luck.  You need to stop imposing deadlines on yourself or holding yourself to some unnecessary, over-bearing standard. 

Any body who has read my posts for any amount of time is familiar that I live by the motto: Strength is not determined by the number of times you get knocked down, but by the number of times you get back up.  If you truly want to prove to yourself you have the strength to succeed, you need to be able to brush yourself off and get back up and try again.  You need to accept that failure is an option and it is a method to grow and be stronger.  You need to stop fearing that the world is watching you or hoping you'll fail.  Failure is the key to learning any skill.  Take strength in your failures, change, and grow.  If you want to prove you're strong, don't let something so simple slow you down.  That's how you succeed. 

Additional (Edit):  Coming up against social pressure from your family to work instead of study is a problem you also need to not let bring you down.  If they don't support you for what you want to do with your life "f**k 'em".  They mean well, sure, but you need to surround yourself with people who respect your decisions, even if they aren't financially "logical."

Edited by Ternwild

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To be completely honest, though I'm a "woman of color," I can't empathize with the OP. I have no familiarity with being near-first gen (I'm black; the first person in my family to attend college was a daughter of slaves in the late 1800s; both my parents and all my siblings are college grads, several with postgraduate degrees; my mother attended an Ivy and both her parents, born in the 20's, were college grads; several other members of my family have or are currently pursuing PhDs). I've been one of the only if not the only minority in most situations of my life, so it hardly feels notable, and I've definitely never felt like I needed to represent all of the millions of people who are considered the same race as me. I want to say this not to dismiss what OP's written, but because I think it's important to note that people's experiences are not monolithic. 

Nonetheless, as a person, I can certainly sympathize. OP, from your GRE scores and from the sincerity and eloquence of your post, it's clear that you're driven and much more than capable. I trust that someone like yourself will end up somewhere good. If this application cycle doesn't turn out well, that somewhere good may be outside of academia. But please, don't think you are worth any less because a few admissions committees, looking briefly over an incredibly short summary of your academic career, chose to go in a different direction. 

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I want to say I'm happy to have found this thread because I felt so alone during this whole process too. It is incredibly hard to explain to anyone in my personal life what this means, how it feels to process rejection after rejection, and how even though I have received feedback from some of the most well-regarded professors in my desired field of study, who are also Black women, I feel like an utter failure. I have always been successful at any major challenge I pursued. Now all I feel is doubt about my abilities and how could I possibly be "good enough" next cycle if I somehow found the nerve to try again.

And honestly, I am so tired of anyone telling Black women to be resilient. We are not made of stone. How much of our lives must we commit to always being told to push through, and dust yourself off and try again? That crap is exhausting when you're not, nor ever will be, at an even playing field. For those who don't feel they've ever had to face such experiences as people of color, kudos to you - but that isn't the reality for a majority of people of color. If it were there would be more people of color, especially Black and Latino in academe. 

@JustCallMeDoc, you are heard and I see you on this bumpy journey. I do hope it leads you to a point where you feel whole and affirmed in your choices.

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1 hour ago, OBforme said:

And honestly, I am so tired of anyone telling Black women to be resilient. We are not made of stone. How much of our lives must we commit to always being told to push through, and dust yourself off and try again?

Being told this isn't because you're black or a woman.  Don't be so narcissistic.  Learning to fail and being able to stand back up and brush yourself off is life advice that EVERYONE needs to live by.  You need to learn how to fail and understand that failing doesn't make you a failure.  There's a difference.  How did you learn to walk?  You failed and literally got back up and brushed yourself off.  Only, now, you don't have your parents there to pick you up.  Now, when you fail, you need to pick yourself up.  Friends and family surrounding you, encouraging you, is important to making that possible, but you are still the one who needs to do it.  Sure, every time I have been rejected over the last three years, I could have curled into a ball, called myself a failure, and never tried again.  That option is entirely available to you and there are times I've certainly considered doing the same thing.  But the mind set of "I've succeeded at everything I've done up til now" has only diluded you into thinking you're some unstoppable force--none of use are.  Now that it looks like you've hit a small obstacle, you have only just realised that you aren't so "unstoppable" afterall.  That fact is, that's okay!  It's okay to fail. 

We, as humans, will all be confronted with the limits of our own success, at some point in our life.  What makes a difference between the strong among us and those who aren't is whether we accept our failure, learn from it, and work hard to push ourselves beyond our limits.  Is the struggle harder for some than others?  Yes.  Do some have to work harder to get to places that come so easily for others?  Yep.  Do some people have a list of things trying to keep them from succeeding, that are entirely out of their control (societal, financial, etc.)?  Absolutely.  The question you, and everyone here, have to ask yourself is: Am I okay with taking the loss and moving on?  Or do I want to prove to myself I can push myself to recover from this and succeed through perserverance.  No matter what decision you choose, you're welcome to it.  But don't blame people who encourage you to be stronger just because you don't think you can or don't think they understand how hard it will be.  You may not take value in what I have to say because I don't know what it's like to grow up as a black woman in a society that severely marginalises against you.  That's fine.  But it doesn't make what I say any less valid as advice for dealing with failure.  Telling you it is okay to fail and try again, is not invalidating the struggle you go through to do that.  It's acknowledging that the journey will not be easy, but we have faith you have the strength to do it--even if you don't think you do. 

If you take nothing away from this, at least take this with you:  The only difference between failing and being a failure, is your perception.

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11 hours ago, upsy said:

To be completely honest, though I'm a "woman of color," I can't empathize with the OP. I have no familiarity with being near-first gen (I'm black; the first person in my family to attend college was a daughter of slaves in the late 1800s; both my parents and all my siblings are college grads, several with postgraduate degrees; my mother attended an Ivy and both her parents, born in the 20's, were college grads; several other members of my family have or are currently pursuing PhDs). I've been one of the only if not the only minority in most situations of my life, so it hardly feels notable, and I've definitely never felt like I needed to represent all of the millions of people who are considered the same race as me. I want to say this not to dismiss what OP's written, but because I think it's important to note that people's experiences are not monolithic. 

Nonetheless, as a person, I can certainly sympathize. OP, from your GRE scores and from the sincerity and eloquence of your post, it's clear that you're driven and much more than capable. I trust that someone like yourself will end up somewhere good. If this application cycle doesn't turn out well, that somewhere good may be outside of academia. But please, don't think you are worth any less because a few admissions committees, looking briefly over an incredibly short summary of your academic career, chose to go in a different direction. 

I feel like you missed the OP's point. Yes not all POC are a monolithic group and there are many POC who have been afforded many privileges in life and grew up in well to do Huxtable type situations. I think her point extends beyond color which she touched upon in the last paragraph, to be alone in this process in addition to being a minority can make this process much much more difficult. You self reportedly grew up in an environment that made access to college and postgraduate degrees a thing that seemed attainable, feasible, and supported. Yes, your identities as a WoC still hold weight, but at the end of the day, you still had support in the process. It is easy to understand from your perspective how you didn't feel the need to represent other people of color because you saw that representation in the friends and family you've been surrounded by.

I can understand both perspectives but ultimately empathize with the OP a little more. I am not FGC but also do not know of any POC with more than a bachelor degree. Going through this process, I have felt alone and uncomfortable asking for help at times or seeking out support from non-POC folks as it can be intimidating and to expose yourself to vulnerabilities many POC work hard to keep hidden. I have found a few POC who have been helpful and my Master's advisor is an incredible Vietnamese woman (who married a Puerto Rican man) who has been an incredible sounding board in dealing with the politics of grad school. Not everyone has those supports though.

@JustCallMeDoc I am sending you lots of love and good juju. To misquote NeNe Leakes (and I hope you get this reference)... " The door IS NOT closed yet! 

Edited by OperationPhDforMe

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3 hours ago, JustCallMeDoc said:

@OBforme This is a WORD! Thank you so much for sharing... I'm rooting for you girl!

No, thank you for opening up this dialogue! I'm rooting for you as well. As long as you received that word that's all one can hope for on a forum where everyone has an opinion and perspective.

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3 hours ago, Ternwild said:

Being told this isn't because you're black or a woman.  Don't be so narcissistic.  Learning to fail and being able to stand back up and brush yourself off is life advice that EVERYONE needs to live by.  You need to learn how to fail and understand that failing doesn't make you a failure.  There's a difference.  How did you learn to walk?  You failed and literally got back up and brushed yourself off.  Only, now, you don't have your parents there to pick you up.  Now, when you fail, you need to pick yourself up.  Friends and family surrounding you, encouraging you, is important to making that possible, but you are still the one who needs to do it.  Sure, every time I have been rejected over the last three years, I could have curled into a ball, called myself a failure, and never tried again.  That option is entirely available to you and there are times I've certainly considered doing the same thing.  But the mind set of "I've succeeded at everything I've done up til now" has only diluded you into thinking you're some unstoppable force--none of use are.  Now that it looks like you've hit a small obstacle, you have only just realised that you aren't so "unstoppable" afterall.  That fact is, that's okay!  It's okay to fail. 

We, as humans, will all be confronted with the limits of our own success, at some point in our life.  What makes a difference between the strong among us and those who aren't is whether we accept our failure, learn from it, and work hard to push ourselves beyond our limits.  Is the struggle harder for some than others?  Yes.  Do some have to work harder to get to places that come so easily for others?  Yep.  Do some people have a list of things trying to keep them from succeeding, that are entirely out of their control (societal, financial, etc.)?  Absolutely.  The question you, and everyone here, have to ask yourself is: Am I okay with taking the loss and moving on?  Or do I want to prove to myself I can push myself to recover from this and succeed through perserverance.  No matter what decision you choose, you're welcome to it.  But don't blame people who encourage you to be stronger just because you don't think you can or don't think they understand how hard it will be.  You may not take value in what I have to say because I don't know what it's like to grow up as a black woman in a society that severely marginalises against you.  That's fine.  But it doesn't make what I say any less valid as advice for dealing with failure.  Telling you it is okay to fail and try again, is not invalidating the struggle you go through to do that.  It's acknowledging that the journey will not be easy, but we have faith you have the strength to do it--even if you don't think you do. 

If you take nothing away from this, at least take this with you:  The only difference between failing and being a failure, is your perception.

From all of the assumptions you made in your dismissive response to my post for the OP, I provide this: I'm good luv, enjoy.

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3 hours ago, OperationPhDforMe said:

I feel like you missed the OP's point. Yes not all POC are a monolithic group and there are many POC who have been afforded many privileges in life and grew up in well to do Huxtable type situations. I think her point extends beyond color which she touched upon in the last paragraph, to be alone in this process in addition to being a minority can make this process much much more difficult. You self reportedly grew up in an environment that made access to college and postgraduate degrees a thing that seemed attainable, feasible, and supported. Yes, your identities as a WoC still hold weight, but at the end of the day, you still had support in the process. It is easy to understand from your perspective how you didn't feel the need to represent other people of color because you saw that representation in the friends and family you've been surrounded by.

I can understand both perspectives but ultimately empathize with the OP a little more. I am not FGC but also do not know of any POC with more than a bachelor degree. Going through this process, I have felt alone and uncomfortable asking for help at times or seeking out support from non-POC folks as it can be intimidating and to expose yourself to vulnerabilities many POC work hard to keep hidden. I have found a few POC who have been helpful and my Master's advisor is an incredible Vietnamese woman (who married a Puerto Rican man) who has been an incredible sounding board in dealing with the politics of grad school. Not everyone has those supports though.

@JustCallMeDoc I am sending you lots of love and good juju. To misquote NeNe Leakes (and I hope you get this reference)... " The door IS NOT closed yet! 

And the church said...ahem.

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I'm cheering for you! 

Also let's just ignore that person who came here to tell a woman who has found the courage to share something so vulnerable that she should just get over it. OP never let yourself be discouraged by such terrible and frustrated people. You will meet some of these along the way. I'm not American but I work on epistemological racism and I see so very well how the US can be such a toxic place for non white people to thrive. It is exhausting I know, I know. But you have come this far, don't beat yourself up, you will do go one way or another. Stay strong and soft. You don't have to be unbreakable either. 

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14 hours ago, Anama said:

I'm cheering for you! 

Also let's just ignore that person who came here to tell a woman who has found the courage to share something so vulnerable that she should just get over it. OP never let yourself be discouraged by such terrible and frustrated people. You will meet some of these along the way. I'm not American but I work on epistemological racism and I see so very well how the US can be such a toxic place for non white people to thrive. It is exhausting I know, I know. But you have come this far, don't beat yourself up, you will do go one way or another. Stay strong and soft. You don't have to be unbreakable either. 

Clearly you missed the message, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.  Good luck you to. 

Edited by Ternwild

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I'm a gay woman in a field where there are typically very few women, and just last year someone big in the field was charged with sexual harassment of a female graduate student. It sucks. My male colleagues think I'm overreacting when I bring up that a man is toxic, and of course all men think that a female applicant has a higher chance of getting into a program with "lower" qualifications, so then when I don't get in, I must be like beyond stupid or something. 

@JustCallMeDoc I'm sending love and good luck for the rest of this application season. Sometimes what keeps me going is the thought that my presence in a space I don't "belong" might make some kind of change for those after me. 

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On 2/13/2019 at 11:19 AM, OperationPhDforMe said:

I feel like you missed the OP's point. Yes not all POC are a monolithic group and there are many POC who have been afforded many privileges in life and grew up in well to do Huxtable type situations. I think her point extends beyond color which she touched upon in the last paragraph, to be alone in this process in addition to being a minority can make this process much much more difficult. You self reportedly grew up in an environment that made access to college and postgraduate degrees a thing that seemed attainable, feasible, and supported. Yes, your identities as a WoC still hold weight, but at the end of the day, you still had support in the process. It is easy to understand from your perspective how you didn't feel the need to represent other people of color because you saw that representation in the friends and family you've been surrounded by.

I can understand both perspectives but ultimately empathize with the OP a little more. I am not FGC but also do not know of any POC with more than a bachelor degree. Going through this process, I have felt alone and uncomfortable asking for help at times or seeking out support from non-POC folks as it can be intimidating and to expose yourself to vulnerabilities many POC work hard to keep hidden. I have found a few POC who have been helpful and my Master's advisor is an incredible Vietnamese woman (who married a Puerto Rican man) who has been an incredible sounding board in dealing with the politics of grad school. Not everyone has those supports though.

@JustCallMeDoc I am sending you lots of love and good juju. To misquote NeNe Leakes (and I hope you get this reference)... " The door IS NOT closed yet! 

Thank you! I guess my true intentions of the post got lost in the shuffle. Whether you are a minority or not, support and privilege play a large part in this process so for those minorities who can't relate, that's fine...this post just isn't for them. Also major points for the Nene quote. RHOA (among other reality TV shows) has been a therapeutic release during this stressful time. 

 

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