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“I Know I Have to Work Twice as Hard and Hope That Makes Me Good Enough”: Exploring the Stress and Strain of Black Doctoral Students in Engineering and Computing

by Ebony O. McGee, Derek M. Griffith & Stacey L. Houston II - 2019

Background/Context: It is well documented that Black doctoral students in engineering and computing fields experience more stress and strain during doctoral training than their White and Asian peers. However, few studies have examined how Black engineering and computing doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers experience these challenges and stressors or focused on the psychological effects, behavioral responses, or health costs for these students.

We interviewed 48 Black PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in engineering and computing departments to find out how they describe, make sense of, and cope with stressors and strains in their training programs. Study participants (29 men and 19 women) ranged from first-year doctoral students to recent PhDs. Students attended various institutions and institution types, primarily in eastern and central time zones. Nine participants attended historically Black colleges and universities, and though we anticipated that their experiences would be vastly different , their experiences closely resembled those of students in other institutions.

Research Design: Each person participated in either an individual interview or focus group. Data were collected via video- and audio-recording. All focus groups took place at either a national engineering-/computing-related conference or at the students’ home institutions. Twenty-three participants were interviewed, while the remainder participated in focus groups of three to five students (maximum of ten). Interviews and focus groups were semistructured, using open-ended questions but allowing some flexibility to develop new ideas and order topics differently. 

Data Collection and Analysis: This study employed transcendental phenomenology, using three steps to investigate and make meaning of participants’ experiences: examining the phenomenon with intentionality, eidetic reduction, and constitution of meaning. Transcendental reduction allowed for examining the experience of Black doctoral students in engineering and computing in general and separating what the research perspectives supplied from what our intuitions offered, guided by our theoretical frameworks of role strain and racial battle fatigue. Transcendental phenomenology also gave the authors a context to examine and disclose our own experiences and feelings.

 Consistent with prior research on role strain and John Henryism (i.e., trying to overcome a chronic stressor by working harder), we found that seeking success in training, employment, work, or career was more important to these Black graduate students and postdocs than safeguarding their mental or physical health. Meeting the demands of a PhD program or postdoctoral fellowship were critical priorities congruent with their phase of life. Their focus and sacrifice may have helped them complete their degrees, but our findings suggest that these strategies exacted psychological, emotional, and physical costs.

The study deepened our understanding of significant interrelated dynamics for this population in four key ways. We found that (a) the stresses and strains made students question their qualifications; (b) racialized experiences were often the source of stress, strain, and academic performance anxiety; (c) discordance between the racial make-up of their academic environments and their racialized engineering and computing identities appeared to exacerbate impostor phenomenon; and (d) the students’ proactive coping mechanisms took an emotional toll. Participants discussed the nature and sources of their feelings of self-doubt.

The implications extend beyond the dwindling numbers of Black students earning STEM doctorates; this racial climate also affects the academic workforce and the professional landscape. Although Black researchers who leave academia after completing doctoral training can influence scientific innovation through other positions, it is alarming and problematic that potentially qualified future professors are dissuaded from pursuing academic careers because of their training experiences. Their absence from faculty can hinder critical innovation, breakthroughs, and the training of succeeding generations of scholars who might have learned from and collaborated with them.

Conclusions and Recommendations: The added stress, strain, and toll on Black students’ well-being is an underappreciated reason for their relinquishing of academic careers. Our findings illustrate the students’ resilience and strength. Continued research on added stressors (e.g., impostor syndrome, racialized stress) and strengths could add much-needed consideration of cultural, structural, and interpersonal racism and the ways that Black students earning doctoral degrees in STEM fields manage to succeed despite cultural and institutional barriers. Future research should explore how to modify the microculture of STEM programs and departments to allow Black students to feel that these are healthy, safe, and fair spaces in which they can make contributions. Otherwise, an invaluable diversity of perspectives may disappear altogether from academic environments. In addition, diversifying the faculty and students in doctoral engineering and computing programs could help to reduce impostor syndrome, isolation, and other damaging psychological stress. Forthcoming research, programs, and policies should consider what Black students in STEM endure, because simply surviving racially toxic environments should not be the end goal.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 4, 2019, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22610, Date Accessed: 8/1/2021 4:08:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Ebony McGee
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author
    EBONY MCGEE, associate professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, investigates what it means to be racially marginalized in the context of learning and achieving in STEM. In particular, she studies the racialized experiences and racial stereotypes affecting underrepresented groups of color. McGee’s research also focuses on the effect of racialized experiences and bias on STEM education and career by exploring the costs of academic achievement and problematizing success. McGee investigates how marginalization undercuts success in STEM through psychological stress, interrupted STEM career trajectories, impostor phenomenon, and other debilitating issues. With funding from five National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, McGee cofounded the Explorations in Diversifying Engineering Faculty Initiative (EDEFI; pronounced “edify”). (Visit EDEFI’s website at blackengineeringphd.org.) Recent publications include: McGee, E. O., & Bentley, L. C. (2017). The equity ethic: Black and Latino college students reengineering their STEM careers toward justice. American Journal of Education, 124(1), 1–36; and McGee, E. O., & Bentley, L. C. (2017). The troubled success of Black women in STEM. Cognition and Instruction, 35(4), 265–289.
  • Derek Griffith
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author
    DEREK M. GRIFFITH is the Founder and Director of the Center for Research on Men’s Health at Vanderbilt University. The Center for Research on Men’s Health is one of the first university-wide centers in the U.S. that focuses on men’s health. Dr. Griffith specializes in examining and promoting African American men’s health, and he also studies how racism affects population health and public health institutions. At Vanderbilt, he is an associate professor of medicine, health and society and has secondary appointments in the departments of American Studies, Health Policy, Medicine, and Sociology. Dr. Griffith is a social scientist, trained in clinical-community psychology and public health, specializing in understanding and addressing social determinants of racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in health through an intersectional lens. Dr. Griffith’s research has been funded by the American Cancer Society, the Aetna Foundation, and several institutes within the National Institutes of Health. Recent publications include: Griffith, D. M., Shelton, R. C., & Kegler, M. C. (2017). Advancing the science of qualitative research to promote health equity. Health Education & Behavior, 44(5), 673–676; and Griffith, D. M., & Cornish, E. K. (2018). “What defines a man?”: Perspectives of African American men on the components and consequences of manhood. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 19(1), 78–88.
  • Stacey Houston II
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    STACEY HOUSTON, II, is an assistant professor whose research uses sociological theories to link education, justice system involvement, and health disparities. His most recent research efforts involve a series of projects on life course outcomes for youth as a function of justice system presence, or what he calls justice system toxic reach. These projects investigate the role that residential and educational proximity to justice facilities plays in contributing to health inequity. In other words, this line of work investigates the ways in which justice system presence is a systematic environmental health hazard. Dr. Houston utilizes a wide-range of quantitative methods with large, longitudinal data-sets, though he also has formal qualitative research training. He has expertise in quasi-experimental research designs and has several years of experience with program evaluation. Recent publications include:
    McKane, R. G., Satcher, L. A., Houston, S. L., & Hess, D. J. (2018). Race, space, and waste: An intersectional approach to environmental justice in New York City. Environmental Sociology.
    Houston, S. L. (2017). Drinking and learning while Black: The effect of family problem drinking on children’s later educational attainment. In N. Finigan-Carr (Ed.), Linking health and education for African American students’ success (pp. 27–44). New York, NY: Routledge.
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