Black Women and Mental Health in Academia
Black women are exceptionally intelligent. That’s not up for debate. However, when pursuing advanced degrees, many face an uphill battle when it comes to getting the support they need.
How do they take care of their mental health? What do they do when they encounter racism? How do they balance a full-time job with the demands of higher education? Dimitrius is joined by Dr. Jen Harrison and Celeste Graham as they dive into what it takes to succeed as a black woman pursuing a PhD.
Black Women in Education
Celeste Graham 00:57
So I think a lot of people when they are getting started with their PhD, or even when they’re at you’re kind of already getting started. And they’re kind of in the thick of it. What they don’t realize is how different it’s going to be from previous degrees. So a grad degree is much more involved and there’s a lot less support, there’s a lot more expectation for independent working
First things first, I am team hashtag protect black women. If you follow me on social media, you know I don’t play when it comes to my advocacy of black women, whether it’s in the dating arena, dragging some of you dust bunnies, or speaking about the heightened levels of violence, and mental and emotional trauma, black women experience and society.
Growing up, I was blessed to be surrounded by beautiful, brilliant, hardworking and talented black women. There was my mother, who is one of my superheroes, and where I get my drive and determination from nothing stops that woman no matter what she always keeps pushing and going after it.
There’s my grandmother who taught me what it means to have empathy and care about people. Really, she’s the reason I wrote my book about self esteem, and wanted to do things like this podcast in the first place and to become a mental health advocate. My aunts and older cousins were always so nurturing and warm, always providing an environment of safety and comfort.
All of these women are incredibly smart and capable, despite society largely trying to convince them otherwise. On today’s episode, in particular, we’ll be diving into black woman pursuing higher education, particularly those who are PhD students and or PhD candidates. What are some of the challenges that they face the barriers to entry and their success stories?
Well, we’re gonna find all that out today. So let’s get started.
So friendly reminder, black women are smart as hell. That’s not up for debate. According to the Journal of blacks in higher education in the African American community, black women currently earn about two thirds of all bachelor’s degree awards 70% of all master’s degrees in over 60% of all doctorates.
Despite the odds they succeed, even in a society that does not value them as much as they shouldn’t. Even in a society where they often feel as though they don’t get the support that they need. We’ll talk more about mental health with regards to the black community and black woman in particular.
But I want to highlight that while women experienced depression at rates that are twice as much as men, according to the psychiatric times, black women are only half as likely to seek mental health care. This is mostly due to the stigma in our community regarding mental health care.
But according to the psychiatric times, it can also be due to their previous experiences with mental health treatment. All that to say, when these women began pursuing higher education, it can be difficult to not only find ways to cope with the stress that comes with academia, it can be even more difficult to ask for help or feel that you’ll be supported.
Even I struggled with this when going to college and stepping into the workplace after college. There’s this feeling of always having to be on guard, no matter the environment.
And it gets exhausting and it just gets to you. I have two guests today. Dr. Jen, a dissertation coach, and my dear friend Celeste, a PhD candidate and the host of her own podcast this Slayyyleste show, and thanks to Dr. Jen, I have a special offer for you all today.
If you’re a grad student struggling with any of the challenges discussed on this episode, you can email her at Jen at read right perfect.com mentioned you heard about her on the Dimitrius show. And she’ll schedule a free session together to get at least one problem off your plate.
I mean, that’s a pretty good deal if you asked me. So naturally, I wanted to pick her brain a bit on what she encounters when she’s interacting with the students she helps out. So let’s bring her on.
How People Struggle With Dissertations
Dr. Jen Harrison 05:33
My name is Dr. Jen Harrison, I’m the founder and CEO of Read Write perfect, which is a dissertation coaching business. And in the business, I try and give my students the one on one attention and support that they need to get their dissertations done, and that they don’t always get from their institutions.
If anyone wants to find me, they can find me on my website, which is www dot read right perfect.com or on Twitter. And my handle is at perfect underscore, right. So I’m one of those annoying people that always wanted to be a teacher and used to kind of harass my cousins and my siblings to teach them things.
I went to the United Kingdom to do my Literature degree, and I earned my PhD there as well. So I taught in university there, I trained as a secondary school teacher, I taught as a secondary school teacher, I ran a homeschooling business. And then after my kids were born, we decided we needed a country with more space than the UK because I have two ADHD children.
So we, we moved back here where my family are, after moving to the US, I taught at my local State University for about five years. And then COVID happened. And as we all know, COVID changed everything. Especially changed what the higher education landscape looked like, and what teaching as a university professor looked like.
And at the same time, I saw that students weren’t really getting the support that they needed from their institutions, especially after we switched to quite so much remote learning for, you know, a year or more. And that was when I decided to start the coaching business.
So now I do I coach, I do the same work that I was doing the university, but I do it privately for students who are struggling to get their degrees done and need that little bit of extra help.
Wonderful, wonderful. So in helping people with their dissertations, what are some of the concepts that people in general struggle with.
Dr. Jen Harrison 07:26
So I think a lot of people when they are getting started with their PhD, or even when they’re just kind of already getting started, and they’re kind of in the thick of it, what they don’t realize is how different it’s going to be from previous degrees.
So a grad degree is much more involved, and there’s a lot less support, there’s a lot more expectation for independent working. And I think a lot of students don’t realize that when they get started. And the institutions aren’t very good at pointing it out before you start or helping you transition to it afterwards. So a lot of people struggle with motivation.
They struggle with actually knowing what they’re supposed to be doing, you know, what should this degree What should their work, what should the standard look like, and they struggle as well with advocating for themselves and asking for the help they need.
And a lot of people struggle with impostor syndrome, you know, feeling like they don’t belong there, because they don’t know what’s going on and what they should be doing.
And things like motivation, and time management. All of these are kind of things that every student I see is struggling with, you know, the lucky ones are the ones that realize that they need some help and reach out for it. But others continue to just kind of fight their way through hoping for the best.
Okay, so in our discussion before today’s episode, we were highlighting the struggles that African American women face when they are looking to complete their dissertations. Can you kind of speak to that?
Dr. Jen Harrison 08:44
You know, it’s really interesting, because I wouldn’t necessarily predicted this before I started the business, but probably 98% of the students that I work with are African American women.
Most of them are already you know, they already have degrees, a lot of them already either have really high positions in the business world, or they run their own businesses.
So they’re very smart, really passionate, really driven women. And they’re really invested most of them and using their talents to make the world a better place. So they have really specific interests that have driven them to do a graduate degree.
And what I’m finding with these students is that more so than my, any other students that I encounter, they really do face that impostor syndrome.
And it’s fueled by years of fighting sexism and racism, you know, through their previous degrees through the struggles that they face to get to where they are in their current professions.
They know they’re talented, they know they’re smart, they know they know their stuff, but they’ve faced kind of so much opposition.
And they’ve had to prove themselves over so many times that it’s very easy when they get into that higher education situation, to feel like they don’t know what they’re doing that they don’t belong there.
Especially when as I said, these institutions are not very good at providing support. They’re not very good at recognizing when students need Some tuition or when they need a little bit more guidance than they’re getting.
And then I have actually had a number of students who are facing outright racist discrimination in their institutions as well, although that’s kind of a whole nother story and a bigger problem, and probably more than we can cover in one session.
Advocating for Students of Color
Of course. Well, I mean, what are some ways that you some main ways that you advocate for your students, and that are the people that you’re assisting. And those scenarios,
Dr. Jen Harrison 10:24
Advocate is exactly the right word, I think that is the top thing that you can do is advocate for yourself, you know, be willing to stand up and say, I need this help, and I deserve this help, you know, you should be giving it to me as the institution that I’m paying to support me in this degree, you know, that I shouldn’t be having to struggle and find my way, please tell me what I need to do, please give me the support I need, please teach me how to do this thing.
So that’s, you know, that’s the top thing that I would say needs to get done. Now, it’s really hard for a lot of students to do that a lot of students don’t like to rock the boats. So I hear that again.
And again, especially like I said, from my students of color, they are used to having to fight for what they want, but they’re either very tired of having to do that, and they just want to get done, you know, the degree is expensive, it’s time consuming, it’s energy consuming, and they don’t want to create waves, they want to just get done.
So it can be a struggle sometimes to say, well, you know, what, if I do just want to get done, I may have to make a few waves initially, so that I can have a smooth ride later. So that is one kind of discussion that I often end up having with these students.
And then the other thing is to, you know, if that doesn’t work, and if you’re still not getting the help that you need inside your institution is to reach out outside of your institution.
So draw on your family network, draw on your network of friends, find mentors within your industry, basically find your people know who they are, and don’t be afraid to ask them for help, whatever help they can give you, I think those are the top two things, I would say, just because I can imagine it’s very mentally taxing, just in general.
And I can speak to the one group that you’re talking about when they don’t want to kind of rock the boat, they feel like they have to do take it all on themselves as a black queer individual, I haven’t experienced that as well.
And it took me such a long time to learn that it was okay to not know something, especially in the workplace, to not know something and to make it known that I don’t know something to my superiors, because we go into these positions in these environments.
And we are very conscious of the depictions that we have that are often associated with us. And so we forget to that it’s okay to be humanized at times and make mistakes.
Yes, we are drawing from many of us experiences that we’ve had, where we unfortunately, could not make the same mistakes as our peers and be given the same amount of grace. Yeah, and I think that is what dry. I believe that’s what drives a lot of that, because it definitely did for me.
And it took a long time, probably till about a few years ago, where I finally was like, look, it’s okay to not understand something and go to superior, and help get them to help you figure it out.
That’s what they’re there for, you know, just like you were mentioning earlier, like, I mean, that’s what they’re there for, you’re supposed to go and be able to ask them something and get a question and get the support that you need, shouldn’t be met with hostility.
And a lot of the time. You know, hopefully a lot of the time that when you finally do work up that courage, you’re as likely to get a helpful response as you are to get a hostile one, especially depending on how you ask for that help and how you frame that advocacy for yourself.
But, you know, one way or another, you have to do it, because if you don’t do it, then there’s no way of knowing
of course, I also wanted to get the perspective of a PhD candidate. So I invited my friend Celeste to speak on her experiences.
I’ve known Celeste since high school, and she was this brilliant thing that she is now her being this close to getting a doctorate is absolutely no shock to anyone who knows her. So I knew she’d be the perfect person to talk to about what it’s like as a black woman with years of experience pursuing higher education. So let’s see what she had to say.
Navigating a PhD Program as a Black Woman
Celeste Graham 14:18
Hey, guys, so I’m Celeste Graham. I am currently right now a special education teacher and a doctoral candidate at Texas Woman’s University in the Department of Social Sciences and historical studies. I’m currently in the dissertation stage.
That’s like the final stage of my degree. I am writing and collecting research right now. And I’m hoping to be finished with that. By the end of this year. I really don’t want to go into 2024 We’re still working on my degrees this year.
And just basically I have a podcast called The Slayyyleste show where I talk about intersectional issues that women face, and I’m also a stylist I own a business called Bad bees and PhDs which is a styling and consignment business.
You And I’m also a mother to a very beautiful soon to be five year old. And I think that’s it for me
Wonderful. So let’s I have to brag. So the stylist portion of what you do is always phenomenal. If you were to can they find you on Instagram.
Celeste Graham 15:17
So for styling, you can find me at bad bees and PhDs that’s on Instagram. I also have a website, bad bees and phds.com.
And for podcasting I am currently doing I’m basically curating my podcasts around a really famous book about black woman and reproductive justice called Killing the black body.
And my podcast is called the Slayyyleste show. I’ve dedicated all of season five talking about that book. And we’re actually about to start back up. And you can find me there, www dot display list show.org.
And these are very interesting names. So I’ll also take this information up ascended to Dimitrius, that you guys can actually see it in text. But yes, that’s where you can find all of my endeavors.
Awesome. Yes. So clearly, you can see she’s very already distinguished, and she will be even more distinguished in the coming months. So I’m very excited to hear all that. So about your academic experience, what made you decide to pursue a doctorate degree.
Celeste Graham 16:18
So after I finished my master’s degree, I was very tired. I took a three year break during at which point I began teaching in K through 12. Schools have my daughter, and I was just really going back and forth about whether or not I should go to law school or I should get a PhD.
And I’ve kept thinking about, you know, what do I What, what do I really want to do and what will lend me, I guess more credibility in what I’m doing. And to be honest, I think if I had gone either route, I probably would have been fine.
But I’ve always wanted to be Dr. Graham. And to get a PhD. That’s been a goal of mine. Since I was like 16, after I had my daughter, I knew that I needed to be semi close to my family just for support reasons.
And so Texas Woman’s University has a reputation for being very hospitable to non traditional students at the students who are not, you know, most people who are getting PhDs, historically, and traditionally not sure, you know, this is designed for, you know, single white men who don’t have responsibilities.
But obviously, that wasn’t my case, I’ve worked full time, the entire time, I’ve been in this Ph. D. program, in addition to teaching collegiate courses, and still teaching full time and being a mom.
So it was really important for me that I found a program that was going to, you know, really see me for the most part and assist me, like, you know, regard me in a way that allowed me to be who I am and wasn’t going to force me to take academia and make it the top top top priority in my life like it is, obviously, something that’s very important does require a lot of my time, as required me to sacrifice a lot.
But also, I didn’t want it to be such a huge sacrifice. I felt like I wasn’t able to be there for my daughter or be there for myself or, you know, maintain a healthy balance in my life.
But to answer your question, just to kind of circle back around to why what I research and what I’m writing my dissertation on, is I talk about formerly incarcerated mothers of color and their experiences once they get to prison, there is not a lot of qualitative research about this, which is what I do I interview people.
And what I want to do is ultimately lend a voice to people who don’t, they don’t have one, you know, me getting a doctorate and being able to publish, you’re right puts me in a position to really do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is give voice to people who don’t traditionally have one,
Absolutely, absolutely. So speaking of the mother end of it, what was one of the biggest lessons you learned from being a mother and having to pursue your dream of obtaining your doctorate degree.
Celeste Graham 18:42
I’m always say, just balanced. Like I say this all the time, I actually just submitted some work that is probably going to get published at some point this year about this.
And I heard this saying one time, I’ve said this a bunch of times on my podcast, but knowing when you’re juggling a bunch of different things, knowing which balls or rubber in which balls or glass of which things can drop, which things are, you know, if I drop, it’s gonna bounce back, I’ll be able to pick it back up later.
Or if I drop this, this is going to be catastrophic for my life, catastrophic for my daughter’s life, what I’m trying to do, and just really understanding that has helped me a lot with being able to prioritize, I’m in my 30s.
Now, so saying, No, it’s a lot easier than it was when I was in my 20s. I used to get very easily overwhelmed and people will come to you with all these different opportunities.
You don’t ever want to tell people No, because you want to do somebody a solid, you want to do them a favor. At the same time, you have to understand that, you know, you’re pouring from an empty cup, you literally have nothing left to give.
And so that’s one of the toughest lessons I’ve had to learn and what um, I wouldn’t say that I have necessarily like learned that lesson. Like I’ve come to the endpoint, right?
This is a lesson I’m constantly learning as I enter into new chapters and different dimensions of my life, being able to kind of like understand what I can do what I can’t do what I can do right now when needs to wait. So I would say that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned.
You know, for instance, my baby, gotta be a mom. 100% gotta be there for My kid finishing this degree that has to happen and because once it once it, you know, I get to that culminating point where it’s done, it’s going to open up even more doors for me, it’s going to put me in a position to really balance my my work in life the way I really want to.
And then of course, you know, everybody got bills, I gotta go to work, I gotta go to work, I gotta pay my bills. So, obviously, those are like the three main things, I the things I cannot when I’m juggling, I can’t let those things drop
Concepts That Many Struggle With
In pursuing your doctorate degree, what are some concepts that you feel or maybe maybe you’ve noticed, that people tend to struggle with,
Celeste Graham 20:32
Being a black woman in academia is such an interesting space to be in first and foremost, I have been blessed to be surrounded by sisters who look like me who are doing things, phenomenal research in a bunch of different areas.
But I also realized that we’re like, less than what 2% I don’t even know if we’re, if we’re even 2% of people pursuing and actually obtaining PhD degrees, I would say, these are still very white sintered male spaces.
And even when you talk about women, when you talk about our queer family that is also within academia, it’s still very white people of color, specifically black people, we are still its faces, where we’ll still be sitting at a table having conversations, and someone will say something, someone who’s not, you know, a person of color specifically, or someone who’s not even black, they’ll say something and that thing is so groundbreaking.
The black people at the table look at each other, like how did you not know that? Why this is our this is our everyday life experience. What do you mean?
And so it’s just those those, those aha moments where, you know, even though you’re around people who are equally as educated as you are equally as ambitious, they still have a lot of learning to understand about what it means to be a black person in this country in the world.
So many different dimensions that you can, that you can really dive into where you’re having these conversations, and you’re constantly still having to educate people about hey, like these are, this is what it actually is, like, I know, you might think or you might conceptualize the world this way.
But you’ve never taken into account how we see the world that’s a very real, these are very real experiences that need to be discussed and need to be understood.
Do you and your peers, if you know, feel that you get the support that you need?
Celeste Graham 22:09
I have felt very supported throughout my time at GW and in this in this doctoral program, specifically by my chair, was an older white man from Georgia, Dr. James Williams, and he is amazing.
He’s the best chair in the world. He understands, you know, like, hey, you know, I work, you know, I have a baby, you know, like, you know, both of my parents, chronically ill that my dad passed away this past year.
Celeste Graham 22:33
And so that that delayed some deadlines for me, but he’s always been very helpful and very kind in so much as like being a support system for me. One of the other professors that’s on my, my committee, Dr. Paul bones is also amazing.
So he just because of the things that he said, he’s just a person that he is, he understands a lot of like, when I’m telling you like, Hey, I can’t do this shit. I’m tired. Like I, you know, can I personally I’m sorry.
Celeste Graham 23:01
You’re good. Like, you know, he understands like, you know, just the daily grind of life and how exhausting life can be and like, you know, those times where I have to shut down I’m like, you know, I’m shutting down for the day. I’m shutting down for the month.
Celeste Graham 23:13
Like, just recently, I worked very hard all last year. So I told myself, you know, November and December a mom wants to just party she’ll watch movies hang out, so on and so forth. Nobody on my committee, I told him I was like I’m not doing anything two months you know, Godspeed at all, but I won’t be doing anything I’ll start back in January and they were very understanding of that because academia is very very demanding.
Your is very fast paced. You’re always doing something like just this month, like this month is my wants to start back next week is do like this entire month is jam packed with stuff.
So yes, it’s gracious. Yes, but interesting. And you know, and I keep I keep saying this, but look, I’m literally dedicated to finishing this degree this year. Because baby when I say I’m tired, hired in multiple ways. But I’m just ready to like, be done with obtained degrees for forever. This is my third one. I’m ready to be done for for, you know, forever. So,
Okay, so for your dissertation, what goes into writing your dissertation?
Celeste Graham 24:19
Sure. So for dissertation, first and foremost, you know, we can do this like an order of like the way I’m actually writing it.
So first, you have to introduce your topic, you need to understand typically, when you go into a doctoral program as to not waste time, you want to have a general idea of what you want to do, what you want to research what area that you would like to go in, because that saves you a lot of time and money like you’re pursuing a doctoral degree.
First off, they’re very expensive to do right. This is a huge financial undertaking. So you want to make sure that you’re pretty clear about what it is that you want to go in and do.
You want to understand that so that you can tailor your schedule your classes, your advisors to people you want to serve on your committee, what you want to do your qualifying exams, all everything you want that to be as clear as possible, not saying that you can’t go into grad school with an idea and that idea be more sharp and become more specific.
As you learn more things, you read more things, you research and write more things, right. But I think that’s the first step. So for a dissertation, you’re gonna do introduction, what are you talking about? You want you have to have a rationale, you know, why are you talking about this?
What is this actually going to contribute to the field, once you get to the PhD level, you’re considered an expert in your field.
And so you are trying to make some type of significant contribution to what has already been published, what’s already been written, black people in mass incarceration is not a topic that has not gone unnoticed. It is very, very popular, especially within the past 15 years.
So now what I am doing is I’m focusing specifically on these women, a lot of these women that are getting locked up for 20 years, 15 years, 30 years, their moms, how does this affect our family units? How does it affect our communities, specifically in cities?
And so then you want to do a literary review, literary? You know, what is what is the literature that’s talking about this specific topic?
What is it saying? What are you trying to say, then you do your data collection, if you’re doing quantitative data, you’re looking at data sets, if you’re doing qualitative data, you’re talking to people, if you’re doing mixed methods, you’re doing a bit of both.
You take all that information, analyze it, you coat it, and then you talk about your findings you discuss, what did I find in my specific research?
How does it connect to the research that has already been published? It’s already been done? And where what are the you know, what are still the gaps in this field that other people need going forward to research the same topic?
What should they attempt to focus on which they attempt to find out? How can they take these ideas and essentially, use them to further the pursuit of of having these really tough conversations about women of color, mothers being locked away in prison then being released and having very, very few resources to really successfully readapt to freedom?
What About Self Care?
Good, very good. Okay. So that all sounds you’ve mentioned, how it’s such a huge financial undertaking, right?
And I’m, of course, sure that it’s also a mental and emotional undertaking. So how, what are some ways that you had to sit back and gain a sense of self care?
Celeste Graham 27:15
I would say this past summer, this past fall, I really enjoyed like, just having some V times I would go swimming a lot, I would go walking a lot.
And just being physically active, has helped clear my mind, it’s helped me really regulate my emotions, my stressors, and being able to kind of like, you know, identify those points where I feel overwhelmed.
And this year, I plan to cut out even more and not not want to say cut out not like I am, you know, a little hesitant to say cut out because I felt that like you have to chip away at your life just to get something done.
That’s not exactly what I’m doing. I am cutting out things that don’t really serve me in this season. So I can focus on what I’m really trying to do.
I want I would like to phrase it that way. Because there are things that I think can serve as distractions, you don’t really know what’s a distraction. But so for instance, one of the things I have I said, No more shopping list, because I know I love to shop and I love clothing and shoes as it goes shop anymore.
You sit down somewhere, to you know, make sure you’re getting you know, an ample amount of sleep every night so that you can feel well rested.
I love the streets. So no more streets for me for a little while. And so you will start to take my next break. So just different things like that. Just you know, okay, I’m planning my life in a way that really assists me in getting to the golden mean, the bottom line, you know.
Very good, very good. Well, I guess my last question then is, what as a black woman, or just black individual is something when you’re pursuing this doctorate degree, what is one thing you feel that everyone needs to know,
Celeste Graham 28:47
Go where you are supported, and do not be afraid to speak up for yourself, it’s to advocate for yourself better.
And for people that look like you, that can be scary in some instances, because you don’t know what the outcome might be. But I will say history has shown us that if you’re not, if you know, if no one speaks up, nothing’s ever going to change.
And the same continued abuses will continue to be perpetuated against people that look like you. So just be brave in your pursuit of like, you know, always speaking truth to power and go over your love and your supporting. I cannot stress that last part of going where you’re loving, supportive.
If you’re going to go into a doctoral program, and you have an idea of what you want to pursue and what you want to talk about, go where people are going to nurture those ideas, and we’re going to help you find all the funding resources because that’s the thing too, about being a PhD student.
I’ve had so many cool last opportunities along this journey that have just like fall into my lap. I just published an op ed.
This week, actually in the Fort Worth weekly news. I got to go to the Op Ed project. And this is all because people, I was in a community where people saw something in me and were able to like, you know, they were able to call me forward like I’ve had publication opportunities thrown my way by my professors who were just like, you know, I have loved what you’ve been doing in these different spaces where you’d like to be a part of this project.
So just different stuff like that. I would say that all came from being in spaces where people were like, yes, like what you’re doing is awesome. We want to support you, we want to put you in the best possible position. I know that there are not a lot of black PhDs, there aren’t a lot of black professors.
But there are we are out here we are out here. A lot of us are doing groundbreaking us work. And so don’t be afraid to really look and see what’s out there for yourself. Because there’s so many different opportunities. I know several people off the top of my head that are coding the idea of getting PhDs.
And these are brilliant as people these are people who are I think personally have you included Dimitrius I know we’ve had this conversation a little bit more. But there’s, there’s so many different things out there for you to do with a PhD, some different things for you to research and write about.
And there’s so much there’s so many grants and so much money, that it’s just like the opportunities are almost boundless. A lot of people always ask me, What are you going to do when you finish your PhD? And my answer is always the same. Whatever the fuck I want.
I’m literally going to take my resume, throw it up in the air, see where it lands, whoever’s offering me the best job at the best money, the best opportunities where I’m gonna go, and I will that I stick to that I feel very strongly about that. But yeah, that about wraps it up.