grad skool rulz #20: for students of color

Get the entire book – Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure – for only $2. You can read it on personal computers, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smart phones.

A whille back, I was asked to give a talk about life as a professor to minority undergraduate students who were contemplating the academic career. Of course, I recommended that they read the grad skool rulz. I gave them the basics of academic life – it’s about knowledge production, being professional, etc. But I also threw in additional comments for students of color. Here’s what I wrote:

  1. The era of overt discrimination has ended. Seriously. It is extremely rare for people to be denied admission to graduate school, or appointment to the faculty, because they belong to the wrong ethnic group. Nobody will stand up and say “we don’t hire X here.” People now understand that is unethical. It is also illegal.
  2. However, people of color often have to counter certain misconceptions. I honestly believe that most people in academia know racism is wrong. Most people will treat you fairly. At the same time, certain people may have prejudices that affect their judgments of individuals. It may not even be conscious. Unfortunately, students of color may be seen as inferior and you might have to prove yourself twice over to get the same reward. Be prepared to go the extra distance.
  3. Treat your graduate career as a job that deserves respect. If you are lazy, late, or otherwise show poor performance, you will be penalized, often more so than others. Even if people let you slide, you will get a bad reputation that can be hard to shake. As a person of color, you might not get a second chance. Get your act together.
  4. Do not depend on affirmative action. Its importance is exaggerated. It is true that many graduate programs have affirmative action in admissions, but that’s the end of the game. While a few professors are hired to fill quotas, almost every hire I have seen at the faculty level was debated on the merits of the person’s research, especially in competitive universities. Few get promoted at any decent school without some serious record of publication.
  5. Affirmative action colors people’s perceptions. Ironically, a lot of people think the faculty is filled with armies of affirmative action hires. Strangely, these critics fail to notice that most major university departments, except for area studies (e.g., African Studies), are not filled with minority faculty members. Despite that fact, you will still be seen by many as an affirmative action case. You will have to prevail over this misconception.
  6. Do not work with a professor just because they are black/latino/female/etc. Why? The most important trait of a faculty member is that they have a track record of helping students publish and land good jobs. There is no benefit to working with an African American professor if they are a jerk, or if they haven’t published anything decent in years. Just as you wouldn’t want your ethnicity to affect how people judge your work, you shouldn’t judge potential advisers based on their ethnicity. Go for quality.
  7. Be nice to people. For some reason, students of color sometimes get the idea that they have to be abrasive and act tough. There is no reason for you to do this, even if some faculty don’t treat minority students well. Instead, be courteous. Without being unctuous, you should return email, say hello to both students and professors, and be a decent person. Don’t let people take advantage of you, but if you can lend a hand to someone who needs a little help, do so.
  8. Finally, understand that this is the beginning of your career. It’s not longer about getting good grades – it’s about research output. Everything you do in graduate school should be about getting you closer to working on research. Read the big journals, catch up on all the current theory, build networks with other scholars, and submit your work to those leading journals. Don’t wait for things to happen. Make yourself into the person you want to be!

As usual, please feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments section.


Written by fabiorojas

May 27, 2008 at 12:47 am

Posted in fabio, grad school rulz

8 Responses

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  1. looks like good advice throughout.

    in addition, while it may be a bit disheartening to do so, I think it’s worth linking back to your earlier post on race and the pipeline. not only is the post itself worth reading, but so are many of the comments. much of the discussion centered around the hypothesis that ethnic minorities may gravitate towards research topics that aren’t especially marketable. likewise Omar noted that while undergraduate sociology is largely about indignation, graduate/journal sociology is about relatively dispassionate explanation and the disjuncture can be particularly disheartening to ethnic minority students as many of them are attracted as undergraduates to the critical aspect of social science pedagogy.

    to put this in the normative style of the grad skool rulz series, i suppose the upshot is that students of color especially need to have clear expectations of the marketability and other trade-offs of various research topics, methodologies, and research agendas. (likewise, i think this is also good advice for the many white students who sees academia as a “social justice” career).



    May 27, 2008 at 3:16 am

  2. Thanks, Gabriel, in a future revision, the race/career post will likely be bundled with the gsr #20 post.



    May 27, 2008 at 3:43 am

  3. Still, on the previous point, I think it is important to work out for yourself what is it about the discipline that attracts you, and only then, when you have a clear idea about what fuels your sociological passion, should you consider how you can present your outputs in a more marketable way. It takes as much time, and much more effort to work on something you don’t enjoy as something you do. It’s true that you can build a career doing work that is marketable but dull, but its not going to be a very satisfying career, nor is it going to produce very interesting work. When there is so much pressure to publish, I think it is necessary to step back and think ‘what do I want to publish and why’ – after all, if you find your work exciting, it is much more likely that you will be able to transmit your enthusiasm to others. So if a student is concerned with social justice, they should think about how their research can usefully promote their aim first, and then how the packaging might be altered to make them more employable. I’d be worried that if they focused solely on the later, they would forget what it is that made them want to be a sociologist in the first place.



    May 28, 2008 at 1:28 pm

  4. aileen,

    i don’t think we really disagree.

    the intrinsic satisfaction of research is indeed very important, particularly since academics have so much autonomy (and the procrastination issues that come with it). certainly i would never suggest that people choose dissertation topics that they can’t stand because i agree that they are unlikely to finish.

    all i said was that people should have “clear expectations of the trade-offs.” this could mean that they decide to do something less intrinsically rewarding but much more externally valued, but it could also mean that they go ahead and do what they want with the full understanding that it’s probably not going to get in AJS. yet a third possibility is that they decide that if (elite research) academia isn’t a social justice career, then they’ll find some other career that is.

    another way to look at it is how you define “the discipline” and “sociologist.” in the broad sense of these terms, yes, people can do the kinds of things that “made them want to be a sociologist in the first place.” but in the narrower sense of “the (core of the) displine” or “sociologist (at a major research department)” there is a very strong preference for what buroway calls professional sociology. if someone says, well that’s OK because i only care about doing what inspires me and i don’t expect to get tenured at Wisconsin, well that’s fine. i just worry that people have the unrealistic expectation that they can do both. given that grad school is such a major commitment and has such high attrition, it’s important that people understand the trade-offs, regardless of how they choose to resolve them.



    May 28, 2008 at 4:37 pm

  5. “For some reason, students of color sometimes get the idea that they have to be abrasive and act tough.”

    Have you ever thought that institutional racism forces you to act tough? We have to deal with a lot as students of color: people constantly doubting out intelligence because we’re not white; being looked over for research and mentorship opportunities because we’re not white; being told that our research interests are not valuable (particularly if we don’t study whites). In order to survive academia, you have to be tough. It’s something that most white students will never understand.

    Here’s an idea: white professors to be should make an effort to mentor students of color and not continue to work with students who look like you. When we are no longer grossly underrepresented in academia, we’ll probably smile more.



    January 28, 2011 at 2:55 am

  6. Dear Kim,

    You and I agree already on the issue of mentoring. On this blog, I’ve argued many times about the need for mentoring. And as a faculty member, I do try my best.

    Regarding abrasiveness, yes, there are bad forces out there. But in my own life, I’ve found that excellent work and openness open more doors than hostility, however well justified. And yes, that may mean that I have to smile even when I really don’t want to.



    January 28, 2011 at 3:17 am

  7. Kim,
    I find your assumptions to be grossly misconceived and ridiculous. The fact is that in today’s world, especially in prestigious or ‘elite’ institutions, blacks are the ones getting the opportunities, NOT whites. It’s funny, because MOST of the blacks with full rides at top institutions cannot speak English correctly (delivering all speech in Ebonics), fail to show up to the majority of classes, and take the free ride that they are receiving for granted (e.g., by taking the fewest amount of classes per term as possible, or by not completing readings or assignments, or by barely sliding by in classes but instead receiving high grades because of their race). The attitude and minimal effort of the majority of these students is abhorrent and sickening. Only a very small fraction of blacks in these schools are truly hard working and deserve what they are given.

    You should brush up on what’s going on in today’s world, and take the chip off of your shoulder. I think you are 100% incorrect in your assertion that black students are “being looked over for research and mentorship opportunities because we’re not white.” The truth is actually found in the reversal of your ignorant statement: WHITE students are being looked over for research and mentorship opportunities because they aren’t BLACK. The money in today’s elite institutions goes to blacks (and to Latinos). They are the ones almost exclusively offered free programs, free rides, and free grades.

    And on to your next point: Who studies ‘whites’ these days? The money, once again (whether we’re talking federal or institutional grants, summer internships or other fellowship opportunities) is devoted toward the benefit of minorities, not the whites. Check your facts, please stop living in the past, and most importantly, desist in your ignorant preaching about your misconceived position as a victim. You are a perpetrator in your comments and sadly are failing to realize that you are the one pushing forth the racism, not the institution.

    P.S. Congratulations on the internship you just received. I’m sure you took it from a deserving non-minority who was actually qualified.


    Deshawn Walker

    January 28, 2011 at 7:33 am

  8. DeShawn, the “facts” are that despite what you think about blacks and other minorities being “given” an opportunity to be in universities, we are still grossly underrepresented in academia– less than 13%, despite blacks and Latinos making up close to 1/3 of the population. (And that’s not to mention our underepresentation as freshman at the university level.) So when you look at opportunities like grad school admissions, like tenure, and like research mentorship, blacks and Latinos still get the short end of the stick. The biggest grants are given to large-scale population studies that often undercount or ignore minority populations. When they do study out populations, the big grants go mostly to whites to study “the minority problem.”

    If you ever doubted whether whites are advantaged at the university level, look around you. Look at the stats at your school. You’ll see they comprise far more than their fair share of the population.

    Too often, the responsibility is placed on Blacks and Latinos to “overcome” racism. My original point was to make it clear that *everyone* needs to do their part, especially those that are overrepresented in academia to make universities a fair place for *everyone*. Then people of color can have something to smile about.



    February 2, 2011 at 1:07 am

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