The Experiences of African American Ph.D. Students at a Predominately White Carnegie I-Research Institution

By Lewis, Chance W.; Ginsberg, Rick et al. | College Student Journal, June 2004 | Go to article overview

The Experiences of African American Ph.D. Students at a Predominately White Carnegie I-Research Institution


Lewis, Chance W., Ginsberg, Rick, Davies, Timothy, Smith, Kent, College Student Journal


This research study examined the experiences of African American Ph.D. students at a predominately White Carnegie I Research institution in the Mid-West Region of the United States. Given the current statistics in higher education, fewer African Americans are receiving terminal degrees from the nation's top universities. In order to understand this trend, African Americans that were currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program and recent graduates from this Ph.D. program were interviewed to examine their experiences in matriculating through their program and also dealing with the other "intangibles" of being an African American at a predominately White Carnegie I institution.

This study used a qualitative research design with retrospective interviews (Reiff, Gerber & Ginsberg, 1997). Key themes that emerged from this study were 1) Feelings of Isolation, 2) We Stand Out, 3) Relationships with Peers, and 4) Negotiating the System. Key recommendations were made based on the data from this study to improve the Ph.D. training of African American students at predominately White universities.

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African-American undergraduate students' experiences on predominantly White campuses have been the focus of many research studies primarily highlighting these students' academic difficulties (Fleming, 1984; Nettles, 1998; Mow & Nettles, 1990; Allen, 1992). Major findings reveal that African-American undergraduate students experience higher attrition rates, lower cumulative grade point averages, and less persistence to graduation than do majority students (Nettles, 1998; Mow & Nettles, 1990; Allen, 1992). Weak academic preparation, limited campus role models, feelings of isolation and helplessness, and unsure how to negotiate their campus' academic and social systems have these students experiencing their undergraduate environment as though they were "uninvited guests in a strange land" (Parker & Scott, 1985, p. 67; Brown, 1986). The research is clear that neither persistence nor progress toward identified goals have yet to occur at satisfactory levels for African-American undergraduate students. According to Brown (1986) the factors that lead to high attrition rates for undergraduates hold true for African-American doctoral students as well.

Previous research on retention for African-American undergraduates has focused mainly on identifying factors that aid these students to stay in school. While many non-academic variables appear to be most significant (Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984, 1985; Hinton, 1988), the research is clear that neither persistence nor progress toward identified goals is occurring at satisfactory levels for African-American students.

Other retention research on African-American undergraduates identified significant factors that aid these students to stay in school. While non-academic variables appear to be most significant (Tracey & Sedlacek, 1984, 1985; Hinton, 1988), the research is clear that neither persistence nor progress toward identified goals have yet to occur at satisfactory levels for African-American students. According to Brown (1986), the factors that lead to high attrition rates for undergraduates also holds true for African-American students at the doctoral level.

Researchers have applied student success models that illustrate the interaction between doctoral students' background characteristics and institutional social support and their combined effects on measures of doctoral students' success (Girves & Wemmerus, 1988; Nora, Cabrera, & Shinville, 1992; Hurtado & Carter, 1994). Taking these factors into consideration, the researchers have focused on the previous life experiences of these students as possible success factors at the doctoral level. These models focus on academic and social integration, peer interaction, and students' background characteristics including goals and commitments as direct moderators of graduate students' success. …

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