When I registered for my masters program in 1998, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. I prayed for a miracle, and God showed up. Literally the day before classes were to begin, I received a call from the English Department offering funding for my studies in exchange for working in the Graduate Writing Center. I accepted and shouted my praise for a good 5 minutes after hanging up the phone. I started graduate school the next day.
The following year, I got funding that would last me throughout the rest of my masters and my doctoral program, and I knew God intended this road for me. I believed in my spirit He wanted this for me, but many things in the natural told me otherwise. My first two years of financial miracles reminded me that I was on the right path as my doctoral journey began to take difficult turns.
I completed my MA in 2000 and finished my doctoral coursework about 18 months later. I had just written a seminar paper, which my professor suggested I use as a basis for my dissertation, and we provisionally decided to work together. I felt elated and confident.
Then my professor took a position at another university out of state, and I was left with no clear direction. I floundered for the next several years.
I was technically a full-time student, but I was just wasting money on non-value added credit hours that helped me maintain full-time status. I wasn’t making any progress. Eventually my funding ran out, so my husband and I started paying my fees on our credit cards. Every semester I didn’t progress, I wasted our family’s money. My husband was awesome and didn’t say anything about it, but I felt so much guilt that it eventually paralyzed me.
I got to a point that I couldn’t even drive by campus without feeling sick. Guilt and shame weighed so heavily on me. I was wasting my family’s money. I squandered my funding. No one seemed particularly interested in my ideas. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I was depressed.
So I pretended like everything was fine and like I wasn’t in graduate school. I threw myself into church activities and reading. I had always been an avid reader, but reading became a means of escape for me. I couldn’t bring myself to read anything related to my topic, so I read any random novel I could find. By this point, my husband and I had a daughter and another baby on the way, and I really didn’t see how continuing down the sinkhole of the hot mess of my graduate career would serve them or anyone else. I wanted to quit, but I wasn’t even brave enough to do that.
Then I got called in to see my department chair.
She told me about a teaching fellowship in the African American Studies department (not my field of study) that I might be interested in. I got the position, which laid the foundation for my world to change.
At first, I just taught my classes and left. I didn’t socialize with departmental colleagues at all. That had always been how I had operated in my home department. I never fit there. At the time, I was the only black student in the department, and I felt so unlike everyone else there. Discomfort and inauthenticity characterized my mindset while there. So to avoid those feelings, I did what I had to do and went home. That behavior, however, didn’t work in the African American Studies department. They loved on me by letting me ease my way into their culture, and before I knew it, I had found a home.
I had a community of black women who understood what I was going through. I didn’t know I needed that, but I did. Desperately. I spent many hours laughing and crying in the common area where we sat for meals and impromptu discussions on life. I made a lifelong friend. I began reading books that fascinated me, prompting me to explore my curiosity. These books didn’t necessarily align with my dissertation focus, but reading them helped me think about my work in new and beneficial ways, which led to a fortunate reframing of my dissertation topic. And I received mentoring from the department chair, who eventually became a reader on my dissertation committee.
Goodness, I still experienced many more difficulties on my journey, but forging community with other black women helped me face them. I learned to manage my expectations, forgive myself when I failed, and seek support when I needed it. Which was often. I saw examples of how to balance my church and family life with my academic life, and I learned how to use writing and reading as self-care that supported my doctoral journey, instead of as a way to escape from it.
I continued to face setbacks and didn’t graduate until 2009. By that point, I was married with 2 preschoolers and working full-time. But I still had the support of the community I found in the African American Studies department. Their continued support, mentoring, and life lessons gave me the balance I needed to manage my expectations, my family’s expectations, and the demands of doctoral work. I would have gone crazy without that group of women.
I realized I didn’t have to travel my doctoral journey alone. I realized God provides in ways we never imagined, because I’m here to tell you that group of women was a beautiful gift from God. I realized strong black women need and deserve support. I realized other black women are willing to support me. I realized my path and timeline didn’t have to look like anyone else’s. But in the learning process, I lost a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of myself.
So many black women suffer in similar ways, but you don’t have to do this alone. You don’t have to be lost and overwhelmed, stranded by yourself on Strong Black Woman Island. You don’t have to waste time and money floundering.
You can have the support you need to survive the challenges of your doctoral journey, whether that support is community connection, spiritual recharge, self-care, or even writing help.
How does that sound to you? Would you like to learn more?
Check out Sistahs on the Doctoral Journey, a new online community for black women to find connection, resources, and coaching while on their doctoral journeys.
If this sounds interesting to you or you have any questions, type ME! in the comments, and I’ll reach out to you.
You do not have to journey alone.