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As a Minority Graduate Student, How do I Find a Suitable Advisor or Mentor?
Success in graduate school often depends on a successful mentoring relationship between you and your advisor.
Take a moment to consider what it might be like to function
day after day in an environment in which you are "the only
one" or, at minimum, one of only a few who represent your
particular race, nationality, age group, ethnicity, or
gender. In many graduate departments across the U.S.
minorities, foreigners and even women often find themselves
isolated within an intensely competitive academic environment
that provides no cultural understanding or support to assist
them in finishing their degree.
Further exacerbating this situation is a shortage of minority
faculty role models who can provide a mentoring and support
system for like graduate students. A lack of diverse faculty
in a department can create a signal of an unwelcoming
environment for women and minorities. This may curtail the
number of minority students who actually apply to graduate
school, and may also contribute to the small percentage who
actually complete their degree once they have enrolled. The
cycle continues, the next generation of female and minority
students will face the similar issues.
During an orientation for admitted students visiting a
department at Wisconsin, a black student quipped, "Whew; I'm
sure glad there are other white people here. I wasn't sure
when I applied!" Everyone laughed, but his comment proves
worthy of mention. Given the current demographics in higher
education, there is no guarantee that you(as a female,
foreign, or minority student) will meet other students or
faculty of color in the graduate department you choose.
The demographics of specific departments can vary greatly.
Some may feature far fewer minority students to provide a
sense of community of cultural, social, emotional and
professional support. If this type of support is critical for
your emotional well-being, be sure that to select a
department with a critical mass of minority students. For
example, if a department admits two minority students each
year, and the average time spent in graduate school is six
years, there may possibly be 10-12 minority students in the
department at any given time with whom you can
A campus visit can actually be quite helpful in reducing the stress about the unknown elements of graduate school. For example, some departments have a collegial working environment, while others are more competitive. Some allow collaboration across; other disciplines others do not. During your visit to the campus, it is not out of line to ask about the number of women and minority students in the department or what level and type of funding is available for minority students. If these types of issues are important to you, it is critical that you complete appropriate due diligence prior to applying.Many women and minority graduate students are determined to find an advisor who is their same race and/or gender. My advice is to not waste your time trying! Due to the current lack of diversity among academic faculty, the chances of finding one are slim.
Because there are so few of them in academia, female and
minority advisors tend to be overwhelmed and overburdened by
the extra mentoring responsibilities they are asked to
perform -- and this is particularly true of minority women!
Their workloads can become even more extreme because of
additional campus committee duties they may be asked to
fulfill because of their race, ethnicity, or gender. For
example, the chair of the department may ask them to help
diversify a variety of committees on campus. And, while some
female and minority faculty might feel a sense of
responsibility to mentor minority graduate students, others
simply do not. They should still, however, be viewed as key
allies; regard these faculty members as reserve mentors
rather than as advisors.
Furthermore, keep in mind that race, ethnicity, and gender
are simply not the best criterion for selecting an advisor. I
chose my advisor because he had a reputation of being
culturally sensitive to foreign students and, more
importantly, for helping his students complete the program
Success in graduate school often depends on a successful mentoring relationship between you and your advisor. As such, finding a faculty member with similar research interest is critical to finishing your degree, and far more important than finding a faculty member who matches your gender and/or race.
About the Author: As a single mother, professor Wendy Y. Carter, Ph.D., completed three masters' degrees and a PhD. Her motto is a Good Thesis/Dissertation is a Done Thesis/Dissertation. She is the creator of a new innovative interactive resource tool on CD-TADA! Thesis and Accomplished. To learn more contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit http://www.tadafinallyfinished.com
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