Ensuring Underrepresented Grad Students’ Well-Being
Strategies to help racially minoritized students replenish their social resource capital so as to navigate the challenges of grad school successfully.
Well-being is an important aspect for anyone pursuing higher education, but it’s especially so for graduate students, who face distinct challenges. The impact of universities in North America on student success and well-being is a continuing and crucial topic of discussion, as higher education institutions play a significant role in shaping the academic, professional and personal growth of grad students. It is well established that grad students who feel connected and supported in their social networks are more likely to thrive academically and personally and have better well-being outcomes.
In an article for The International Journal of Wellbeing, Rachel Dodge and her co-authors define well-being as the balance between the psychological, social and physical resources that you have access to compared to your psychological, social and physical challenges. By that definition, for graduate students to achieve balance (a.k.a. well-being), they need to have strong support in the social realm, especially since the socialization aspect of a grad student’s journey is important to their success. But racially minoritized students often face additional challenges in their social experiences, such as a lack of diversity in their academic and personal communities and systemic discrimination, which can often erode their sense of well-being. In this article, we focus on those challenges and provide actionable strategies to help racially minoritized students replenish their social resource capital so as to navigate successfully the challenges of graduate school and beyond.
John Weidman, Darla Twale and Elizabeth Stein define socialization in graduate education as the “processes through which individuals gain the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for successful entry into a professional career, requiring an advanced level of specialized knowledge and skills.” That includes networking with professors and peers and navigating various structures and expectations. The social aspect is especially important during the Ph.D. journey, where students are learning to engage in their programs and respective fields of scholarship. Networking with professors, mentors and peers and attending conferences are integral parts of the Ph.D. journey. Beyond the academy, social capital also plays a pivotal role in the North American labor market as students explore careers beyond academe.
The social aspect of learning can be challenging for all students, but it can be especially difficult for first-generation, Black, Indigenous and other underrepresented students in predominantly white academe. That can lead to a steep learning curve and impact their well-being. For those students, the lack of representation and diversity among professors and peers can add to the challenge. A 2019 national survey of Canadian universities revealed a significant representation of white graduate students and faculty members in postsecondary institutions in Canada.
Moreover, beyond those numbers, it is evident that universities and academia uphold whiteness and white privilege through their structures, policies and processes. Over the past decade, numerous studies have shed light on the experiences of racially minoritized Ph.D. students within these contexts, highlighting the numerous challenges they face, including continuing racial microaggressions, elitism, isolation and limited access to opportunities.
Microaggressions are subtle, normalized and verbal or nonverbal exchanges that discriminate against underrepresented individuals and damage their self-esteem. Yet those exchanges can be difficult to identify as specific acts of discrimination, leading students to question their experiences and perceptions of reality—which can, in turn, impact their sense of well-being.
Another challenge racially minoritized Ph.D. students face is navigating the elitism that typically values whiteness in academic spaces. The difference in forms of social capital is acutely felt in elite spaces, causing students to take on additional labor by having to learn new social norms and code switch to fit in, all of which take a toll on their well-being.
Racially minoritized Ph.D. students must also deal with isolation, as they are usually underrepresented in their classes and cohorts. That can lead to difficulties in connecting with faculty members, seeking advice, managing conflicts and building relationships. Those difficulties can take the form of failed and insufficient advising and mentoring relationships with faculty, academic and personal invalidation, lack of departmental and institutional support, alienation, and even further isolation. In addition, racially minoritized Ph.D. students often lack access to research and teaching assistantships, limiting their success pathways and integration into the Ph.D. experience. All this can further hinder their opportunities for success within the academic setting.
We’ve witnessed graduate students grappling with all these challenges in our work with them. These experiences are complex and interwoven with other aspects of intersectional identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, international status and language proficiency. Additionally, personality traits, such as introversion and extroversion, can influence the social aspect of a Ph.D. journey, including networking at conferences, which is crucial for obtaining access to research and teaching opportunities.
Advice for Students
If you are a racially minoritized graduate student, we have compiled some tactics that could potentially help you navigate these challenges and balance your well-being.
- Interview potential supervisors. This is a crucial step in your graduate journey. When looking for a supervisor, consider more than just their expertise in your field of interest. You are a whole person with distinct needs, expectations and strengths, and your supervisor will be with you for the long term. It’s important to think through what else you need from the supervisor-student relationship and the environment where you will be working. Don’t be afraid to ask how your supervisor will help you navigate academe and support you during race-based incidents. Knowing that you have a supportive supervisor will add to your sense of well-being.
- Join or establish an affinity group for BIPOC graduate students. It can provide crucial support, networking and socialization opportunities. Student unions may have specific student groups that you can join, where you can drop the extra work of code switching and connect with others who understand your experiences. These groups can be life-giving, and if they do not already exist, don’t be afraid to start your own.
- Finding community outside your faculty or division. The pandemic has forced many of us to network and find community online, giving us access to additional BIPOC networks and allies for support, sharing and belonging. Building and sustaining online communities can continue to be a valuable source of support for you.
- Name harm rather than questioning yourself when dealing with racism and microaggressions. Racism and microaggressions are real and can happen even among the most well-intentioned people. Naming the harm and holding others accountable for their actions is important in healing from racial trauma. Minda Harts shares additional tips on taking care of yourself and healing from racial trauma in professional spaces in Right Within: How to Heal From Racial Trauma in the Workplace.
- Ground yourself before entering uncomfortable spaces. This could involve personal practices such as meditation, yoga or simply taking deep breaths to calm your mind and body. By preparing yourself in this way, you can enter these spaces with a clearer mind and a sense of calm, which can help you navigate and respond to any challenges that may arise.
- Make connections. Networking as an introvert can be intimidating, but identifying strengths and interests, preparing ahead, and connecting online can all be great starting points. Start small and build your network gradually. Finding mentors within and outside your academic network can also add tremendous value. For our introverted students, we recommend reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Well-being and success in Ph.D. programs are deeply tied to socialization within academic, professional and personal spaces. Such socialization includes interacting with peers and faculty, sharing knowledge, creating networks, and finding support and friends. The social aspects of Ph.D. programs can be challenging to navigate, especially for Indigenous, Black and other underrepresented students who can face additional race-based barriers in academe. But establishing strong relationships with supportive individuals and communities can help you build the social capital and resources you need to improve your well-being. We encourage you to look for the connections, resources and spaces that will help you nurture yourself.
Dinuka Gunaratne (he/him) serves as the director of career development and experiential learning at Northeastern University in Vancouver, Canada. He was previously the inaugural director of the Centre for Graduate Professional Development at the University of Toronto. He is an active member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. Punita Lumb (she/her) is the associate director of the Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Toronto and a Ph.D. candidate in higher education specializing in comparative, international and development education at Ontario Institute for the Studies of Education at the University of Toronto.