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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.

Findings:
 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.



All doctoral students confront intense pressures on their time, energy, endurance, and organizational abilities, but Black and other underrepresented minoritized doctoral students face added burdens and pressures in their efforts to complete doctoral training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields that are well documented (Jett, 2011; McGee & Martin, 2011b; McGee et al., 2016). Traditional explanations of the underrepresentation of Black STEM doctoral students suggest that Black students are intellectually inferior or woefully underprepared in comparison to colleagues of other racial and ethnic groups, despite evidence supporting the idea that the representation of Black students has more to do with the discriminatory culture of their STEM department, their resources, and the structure of the program than their intellectual abilities (Figueroa & Hurtado, 2013; McGee, 2016).

From college freshman year, discipline-dependent variability appears in the retention rates of Black engineering students, with indications that students’ racialized experiences of “being the only one” or “one of a few” are contributing factors in poor retention (Bonous-Hammarth, 2000; Lord, Layton, & Ohland, 2011; Ro & Loya, 2015). At the graduate level, class sizes shrink and individuals disaggregate into highly specialized courses of study and training, and as a result student–student and student–faculty interactions as well as professional interdependency increase. Despite the centrality of professional interdependence, racial/ethnic stereotyping and discrimination are pervasive and damaging to those relationships (Malone & Barabino, 2009; Museus, Palmer, Davis, & Maramba, 2011; NassarMcMillan, Wyer, OliverHoyo, & Schneider, 2011). If Black doctoral students in STEM fields perceive racial bias, especially from the people directly responsible for ensuring their success, they may develop and employ self-protective mechanisms to combat implicit and explicit forms of racism that generate racialized stress and take an emotional, psychological, and physical toll on them (McGee, 2016). For example, many Black doctoral students said they always come to class prepared to be challenged on their intellectual capacity because they feel they must know more than their peers, and thus racialized stereotypes of intellectual inferiority can induce feelings of stress and anxiety.


Although many STEM education researchers focus on mathematics and science education, we are part of an emerging group of researchers who focus more on the E (engineering) and T (technology) in STEM (Besterfield-Sacre, Cox, Borrego, Beddoes, & Zhu, 2014; Eglash, Gilbert, & Foster, 2013; Riley, 2003; Scott, Martin, McAlear, & Koshy, 2017). Yet the individual disciplines represented in STEM research studies are different, as evidenced by the greater attrition of students of color from some fields than from others. Additionally, there is great overlap between computing and engineering (e.g., computer science and software engineering, electrical engineering, and computer engineering), and computing disciplines are often housed in engineering departments and share similar curricula. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to understand how Black doctoral engineering and computing students and postdocs describe the stressors and psychological strains they experience in their training programs. We make sense of these tensions and pressures by exploring how Black doctoral engineering and computing students and postdoctoral researchers appear to experience stresses and strains different from those of their White and Asian counterparts. In this paper, we unpack the stressful experiences of Black engineering and computing doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, and we explore the ways in which they respond and cope with racialized stressors and strains in their doctoral programs.


We begin by describing the institutional context of STEM programs for underrepresented minority students. Next, we discuss John Henryism and role strain as our guiding frameworks for examining how doctoral students and postdocs in general, and Black students and postdocs in particular, may approach the stress of pursuing a Ph.D. or career in computing and engineering fields. After covering other education, psychology, and health literature that is consistent with role strain, we discuss some of the psychological and health-related costs of seeking an education in computing and engineering fields for Black doctoral students. Our research question centers on the descriptions, processing, and coping associated with the stressors and strains that Black doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers encountered in their engineering and computing programs. We conclude by discussing the responsibility of institutions charged with developing future STEM Ph.D.s in alleviating the fatigue of the doctoral and postdoctoral process so that future Black engineering designers and technological leaders can thrive and not simply survive their training.


THE INSTITUTIONAL CONTEXT OF STEM DOCTORAL STUDENTS AND FACULTY


The National Science Foundation defines an underrepresented minority as one of three racial/ethnic minority groups—Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians or Alaska Natives—whose representation in science and engineering is smaller than their representation in the U.S. population (National Science Foundation, 2013). Harper (2012) and others have argued that the term underrepresented racially minoritized (URM) more accurately captures the marginalization and subordination that these groups experience in U.S. colleges, universities, and other institutions. Minoritized acknowledges a system of actionable policies and practices that racialize people of color in contrast to the passive term minority, implying some inherent (and normalized) state of affairs (Harper, 2012). In this context, minoritized is useful for describing racism as a framework for understanding the experiences of Black doctoral students and postdocs.


Racism is an organized system rooted in an ideology of inferiority that categorizes, ranks, and differentially allocates societal resources to human population groups (Williams & Rucker, 2000). Consequently, our efforts to understand racism focus on it as a characteristic of the structure of institutions and programs that frame the experiences of students. In this context, cultural racism describes the symbolic or interpretive ideas that reproduce ideas of racial difference or inequality, and institutional racism delineates the institutional policies and practices that contribute to inequities (Griffith, Johnson, Ellis, & Schulz, 2010). Racism includes both differential treatment—intentional efforts to treat someone less favorably based on their perceived race—and differential impact (i.e., institutional racism); both practices adversely affect one group but not another, regardless of intent (Blank, Dabady, & Citro, 2004). For example, the racial demographics of faculty and other students (which shape the experience of Black students and postdocs in engineering and computing) resemble the demographics of those who decide who can and should earn Ph.D.s in STEM fields, regardless of their intention to discriminate against these students or trainees. The formal policies and informal practices that have created these demographic patterns are strikingly congruent with the climate and context of STEM programs.


The process of racializing and minoritizing students and faculty in U.S. colleges and universities has created spaces where URM students see few faculty members who resemble them phenotypically or share similar experiences with them in and out of the classroom. In STEM fields, racial gaps have persisted and, in some cases, widened. In 2015, the percentage of Black faculty remained stagnant at 2.5% while the proportion of Asian faculty grew to 26.3% of all engineering faculty (Yoder, 2015). The percentage of institutions with at least 5% Black engineering faculty decreased from 12.3% in 2008 to 10.6% in 2015. The lack of URM diversity in STEM departments, particularly the lack of role models or mentors with whom to identify (Fuesting & Diekman, 2017; May & Chubin, 2003; Robinson, McGee, Bentley, Houston, & Botchway, 2016) can lead URM doctoral students to feel as if no one in their demographic group belongs in that setting (Eagan & Garvey, 2015; Zambrana et al., 2015).


Extant work focusing on doctoral education has revealed that racialized stressors such as racial stereotypes plague one of the most crucial aspects of doctoral socialization: faculty–student relationships. The relationship that doctoral students have with their mentors and advisors is paramount for successful degree completion (Herzig, 2004; Weidman & Stein, 2003; Weidman, Twale, & Stein, 2001; Welde & Laursen, 2008). Work on the role of faculty members in perpetuating racial stereotypes reveals that even when attempting to downplay race or adopting a colorblind ideology in their mentoring, White and Asian faculty members speak of URM students’ lack of preparation, lack of commitment to research, lack of passion (which often serves as a euphemism for poor intellectual competencies; Bentley, 2017), and low aspirations; such attitudes fall short of expectations of the ideal faculty mentor or advisor (McCoy, Winkle-Wagner, & Luedke, 2015). These racialized characterizations disrupt the process of professional socialization that is expected to occur in doctoral training programs (Posselt, 2014; Weidman & Stein, 2003; Weidman et al., 2001).


The pet-to-threat phenomenon describes the process in which Black students and faculty go from being viewed as docile tokens to being seen as threats, which leads to their being bullied, isolated, ignored, and otherwise treated uncivilly (Johnson-Bailey, 2015; Thomas, Johnson-Bailey, Phelps, Tran, & Johnson, 2013). Pet suggests that Black doctoral students may be welcomed into their doctoral programs but are not treated as equal to their faculty mentors or their White and Asian peers. These students may be embraced (albeit temporarily) for demeaning reasons and often in a childlike fashion (Forman, 2003). In these contexts, Black students receive the message that they are in their programs only because of their race rather than what they can contribute to their programs and the field, while their peers and faculty minimize their abilities, credentials, and accomplishments. Despite training them, colleagues and faculty mentors of Black Ph.D. students have expressed shock and horror when they did achieve any significant measures of success; in other words, these students moved from being perceived as a pet to a threat (Thomas et al., 2013). As Black students’ research prowess increases, their peers and even some faculty become threatened by not only by the potential increase in competition but also by the cognitive dissonance they experience due to their positioning Black students as intellectually inferior (Thomas et al., 2013). This success has been found to turn once warm and passively affirming faculty and students to being cold and difficult. Nonetheless, Black and other URM students and postdocs often view their successes and failures as demonstrations or tests of their character, strength, and ability (Robinson et al., 2016). What is rarely studied in STEM training is the psychological and physical costs that these perceptions of success and failure can have.


THE COSTS OF SELF-RELIANCE, GRIT, AND PERSEVERANCE: LESSONS FROM THE FABLE OF JOHN HENRY


Self-reliance, resilience, grit, perseverance, and mental toughness are characteristics that seem to be required for anyone to complete a doctoral program or pursue a career in computing and engineering fields. Health is not a consideration for most until something goes wrong. In Western societies, good students, successful professors, and accomplished computer science and engineering professionals are rewarded for prioritizing their educational and professional success at the expense of their health and well-being (Griffith, Brinkley-Rubinstein, Thorpe, Bruce, & Metzl, 2015; Robertson, 2006). In this context, human bodies are often treated as tools that afford people the opportunity to achieve certain goals (e.g., complete a Ph.D.) and to fulfill socially important roles (e.g., be a good parent) that are valued less than the ability to achieve educational and professional goals (Griffith, Cornish, McKissic, & Dean, 2016). One example of this is the fable of John Henry.


In the fable of the “steel driving man,” John Henry was an African American railroad worker in the late 1800s who was said to be one of the strongest men who ever lived (Voice of America, n.d.). According to legend, John Henry's job was to hammer a steel drill into a mountainside to make holes for explosives that would blast away rock to make a railroad tunnel. John Henry was pitted against a steam-powered hammer to prove that a man could beat a machine at the same task. Although he won the race, he died from heart failure immediately afterward, “with his hammer in his hand.” More than 20 years ago, epidemiologist Sherman James coined the term John Henryism—the psychological and behavioral pattern of active coping with chronic life stressors—in an effort to explain African Americans’ high rates of heart disease and premature mortality through men’s physiological and behavioral response to stress (James, 1994). The concept of John Henryism is the idea that people try to overcome a chronic stressor or barrier in life by mobilizing their individual skills and psychological resources to work harder and longer (Griffith et al., 2016). This approach to success, whether professional or academic, is congruent with characteristics of self-reliance and fortitude that we value in graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. What has been underappreciated is the psychological and emotional toll this takes on students and postdocs in general and Black students and postdocs in particular.


ROLE STRAIN: A FRAMEWORK FOR EXAMINING STRESS IN INSTITUTIONAL CONTEXTS


Role strain is a theoretical framework describing the nature, antecedents, and consequences of chronic stressors and psychological strains that result from challenges in fulfilling major life roles that threaten quality of life (Bowman, 1989). Role strain includes both the objective difficulties, which can be produced by personal limitations or environmental barriers, and the cognitive appraisals of such difficulties. These difficulties in fulfilling valued life roles (e.g., the role of a student) may be seen as within one’s capacity to control or as exceeding one’s resources. This framework emphasizes not the psychological or intrapersonal limitations but the forces of structural and institutional context that have been linked to negative psychological experiences of strain and poor mental health outcomes (Bowman, 1989; Cokley, McClain, Enciso, & Martinez, 2013).


Stress and psychological experiences of strain are not simply abstract notions but ones that are salient in different phases of students’ lives, social and economic conditions, and behaviors. Each phase of life can be distinguished, in part, by people’s efforts to fulfill salient role performance goals: educational and professional preparation in the pre-adult and early adult years, being a provider for oneself and a family in the middle adult years, and dignified aging as people move through older adulthood (Bowman, 1989; Erikson, 1980). These goals may not be universal, but it remains critical to recognize that social and cultural pressures exist and that these pressures, which may be rooted in efforts to fulfill salient roles, change as students age. Fulfilling the role of a student is particularly challenging for Black and other students because the academic institutions where they train are often ill prepared for or even overtly hostile to their presence.


BLACK STEM DOCTORAL STUDENTS’ PSYCHOLOGICAL AND BEHAVIORAL RESPONSES TO STRESS


Despite the realities of the racialized experience for Black Ph.D. students in engineering and computing, multiple research findings reveal how Black high achievers mitigate oppressive environments as they earn advanced degrees. Role adaptation, for example, is the process through which resilient individuals faced with objective role difficulty mobilize multilevel cultural strengths (i.e., personal, kinship, community) to promote adaptive coping, well-being, and health (Bowman, 2006). Congruent with this notion, in a study of undergraduate honor students at a large state university (Fries-Britt & Griffin, 2007), participants described feeling high levels of pressure to carry themselves in a way that would mobilize personal strengths and attributes and not confirm societal racial stereotypes, especially after being introduced as honor students in public. Another study by Sue, Capodilupo, and Holder (2008) brings to light the various ways in which graduate students process the constant onslaught of microaggressions they face in their programs and beyond. Respondents in this study reported constantly checking their sanity and trying to process the source and reality of microaggressions they experienced.


A number of studies explore how Black STEM doctoral students persist in their fields. In several investigations of the experiences of STEM students of color who did not succumb to identity-related threats in ways that lowered their academic performance or their likelihood of earning a STEM degree, as the theory of stereotype threat implies (Steele & Aronson, 1995), some high-achieving Black and Latinx STEM students were able to rearticulate negative racist stereotypes and manage them to minimize their impact, at least to some degree (McGee & Martin, 2011a). Stereotype management is both a process and a learned competency that enables students to recognize and negotiate social and psychological threats to their identities (McGee, 2016). Stereotype management is one tactic used by high-achieving Black students in predominantly White institutions (PWIs) who feel pressure to represent their race to combat stereotypes driven by institutional norms. Black STEM students who engage in stereotype management use an array of strategies to either preempt or lessen the likelihood of being stereotyped, based on prior STEM classroom experiences. These include coming to class prepared to be challenged on their intellectual capacity, being hypervigilant and preemptive about negative perceptions of Black behavior (e.g., getting to class early to circumvent the stereotype of people of color always being late), and displaying a high-marked STEM test or report to prove to peers their worthiness to be included in study groups (McGee, 2016).


Since the racialized culture and climate on many campuses reifies deficit ideologies about students of color that depict them as unqualified, incompetent, and undeserving of opportunities in the STEM arena, the majority of Black and Latinx STEM students found stereotype management both necessary and unnerving (McGee, 2016). Consequently, continually managing stereotypes while dealing with the pressures associated with obtaining a STEM degree itself has consequences for Black students. The concept of racial battle fatigue, brought to prominence by Smith and his colleagues (Smith, 2004; Smith, Hung, & Franklin, 2011), maintains that race-related stressors, such as the differential exposure to on-campus racism and discrimination and the time and energy these stereotypes demand from Black students, can cause debilitating psychological and physiological stress (Smith, Yosso, & Solórzano, 2011). Feelings of powerlessness, invisibility, loss of integrity, or pressure to represent one’s group often accompany racialized stress in these environments (McGee & Stovall, 2015; Sue et al., 2008), and the psychological and behavioral responses to race-related stressors include anger, escapism, withdrawal, frustration, and avoidance and are consistent with the notion of racial battle fatigue as a psychological response to racism and discrimination.


PURPOSE OF THE STUDY


The aforementioned studies chronicle the racialized terrain facing Black engineering and computing doctoral students and some strategies they employ to mitigate stressful racialized experiences, but few studies have described the psychological effects, behavioral responses, or health costs of Black doctoral students and postdocs in engineering and computing. Along with the traditional responsibilities and demands of graduate and postdoctoral training, URM engineering and computing students face a variety of stressors and strains while they seek to complete their training, but these factors have been underexplored (Bowman, 1989, 2006; Museus & Jayakumar, 2012; Smith, Yosso, & Solórzano, 2011; Villalpando & Bernal, 2002). We interviewed 48 Black Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers in engineering and computing departments in an effort to answer two research questions:


1. How do Black engineering and computing doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers describe and make sense of the stressors and strains in their training programs?

2. How do Black engineering and computing doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers cope with the stressors and strains in their training programs?


DATA AND METHODS


In this study, we were interested in exploring what these students and postdoctoral researchers identified as sources of stress, how these sources of stress were racialized, and how they responded to these stressors and strains. The design arose out of our desire to understand complex social phenomena surrounding how racism manifests in Black doctoral students’ STEM contexts and how students respond to them. Thus, in addition to our research questions, we asked throughout the data analysis process: how is this stress and strain actually experienced? What are examples of possible incidents or events? What are the reactions and responses of the participants?


CONTEXT AND METHOD


Beginning in the 2014–2015 academic year, we began investigating one of the barriers to attracting a diverse engineering faculty and workforce by exploring why African Americans remain one of the most underrepresented racial groups in engineering faculty positions. Their representation in the field had remained steady at 2.5% for the previous 5 years, despite intervention programs that aimed to broaden the participation of minorities in engineering. As part of this study, the authors interviewed a cohort of Black engineering Ph.D. students and postdocs, Black engineering pretenure and tenured faculty, and minority engineering program directors and engineering administrators (e.g., deans and other administrative leadership, including chief diversity officers and similar titles).


The authors gained access to these participants in three ways:


(1) a convenience sample of preexisting professional connections with the principal investigator(s),

(2) face-to-face recruiting at a national engineering-/computing-related conference, and

(3) systematic sampling of institutions with five or more tenured or tenure-track Black engineering faculty.


After gaining access to potential participants, we invited them to take part in our study, which consisted of an interview or focus group for all participants and an additional survey for the doctoral students and postdocs. The participants came from a diverse array of institutions, including PWIs, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), private universities, public institutions, and technological institutes. The variety of institution type was valuable because the different social contexts reflected varying pressures, supports, and resources affecting our participants. Table 1 depicts the geographic location, type of institution (PWI or HBCU), and total number of participants from the 10 institutions represented in this study.


Table 1. Institution Type/Location and Number of Participants

Pseudonymous Institution

Institution Type

Number of Participants

Eastern State University 1

PWI

13

Southern Technical University 1

PWI

11

Midwestern Private University 2

PWI

7

Southern State University 1

HBCU

7

Southern State University 3

HBCU

2

Southern Private University 1

PWI

2

Midwestern State University 2

PWI

1

Northern Private University 2

PWI

1

Northern State University 1

PWI

1

Southern Private University 2

PWI

1

Southern State University 4

PWI

2

Total

 

48


PARTICIPANTS AND INSTITUTIONAL CONTEXT


The 48 participants in this study (29 men and 19 women) were at various stages in their graduate training, ranging from first-year doctoral students to doctoral candidates in their eighth year of training to recently awarded Ph.D.s. Nine of our 48 participants attended HBCUs, and though we anticipated that their engineering and computing experiences would be vastly different because HBCUs are seen as culturally affirming, their experiences in the engineering and computing departments were eerily similar to those of students in other institutions. Strategies HBCU students used to circumvent racial stereotypes were similar to those of participants in PWIs because the HBCU engineering and computing departments’ microculture had similar characteristics: high numbers of international Asian and White students and faculty; a competitive, even cutthroat environment; overburdening of the few Black STEM faculty with serving and mentoring students of color; and the segregation by race of study and laboratory groups.


The students were affiliated with a number of institutions and institution types primarily concentrated in the eastern and central time zones. Table 2 shows that the students were studying a variety of engineering and computing disciplines, the most common of which was biomedical engineering. (Because the computing fields were generally located and operated within engineering colleges, we included computing and computer science disciplines under the larger engineering category).


Table 2. Characteristics of the Student Participants

Pseudonym

Pseudonymous Institution

Gender

Year

Major

Candela

Eastern State University 1

F

1

Human-Centered Computing

Vernon

Eastern State University 1

M

1

Information Systems Department

Sandra

Midwestern Private University 2

F

1

Mechanical Engineering

Jordan

Midwestern Private University 2

M

1

Biomedical Engineering

Davonte

Northern Private University 2

M

1

Computer Science

Dace

Southern Technical University 1

M

1

Materials Science

Douglas

Eastern State University 1

M

2

Computer Science

Rebecca

Eastern State University 1

F

2

Human-Centered Computing

Samantha

Midwestern Private University 2

F

2

Chemical and Biological Engineering

Cedric

Midwestern Private University 2

M

2

Technology and Social Behavior

Aubrey

Southern State University 1

F

2

Biomedical Engineering

Jacob

Southern Technical University 1

M

2

Industrial and Systems Engineering

Leia

Southern Technical University 1

F

2

Civil Engineering

Taylor

Southern Technical University 1

M

2

Operations Research

Todd

Eastern State University 1

M

3

Mechanical Engineering

Tatum

Midwestern Private University 2

M

3

Materials Science

Rasheeda

Southern State University 3

F

3

Computer Information Systems Engineering

Phillip

Eastern State University 1

M

4

Human Science Computing

Frederick

Midwestern Private University 2

M

4

Mechanical Engineering

Hector

Southern Private University 1

M

4

Chemical Engineering

JaMil

Southern State University 1

M

4

Civil Engineering

Kaila

Southern State University 1

F

4

Industrial and Systems Engineering

Raymond

Southern State University 1

M

4

Computer Science

Shontae

Southern Technical University 1

F

4

Electrical Computer Engineering

Nicole

Eastern State University 1

F

5

Biochemical Engineering

A = Applicant did not indicate or did not wish to share. G = Graduated. P = Postdoc


Table 2. Characteristics of the Student Participants (Continued)

Pseudonym

Pseudonymous Institution

Gender

Year

Major

Chike

Southern State University 1

M

5

Chemical and Biological Engineering

Malinda

Southern State University 1

F

P

Mechanical Engineering

Richard

Southern State University 1

M

5

A

Harold

Southern Private University 1

M

5

Electrical and Computer Engineering

Akoni

Southern Technical University 1

M

5

Chemical Engineering

Derek

Eastern State University 1

M

6

Aerospace Engineering

Jimmy

Eastern State University 1

M

6

A

Shanice

Midwestern State University 2

F

6

Biomedical Engineering

Mykisha

Southern Technical University 1

F

6

Materials Science

Terrene

Southern Technical University 1

M

6

Biomedical Engineering

Saleem

Southern State University 4

M

7

Computer Science

Herman

Eastern State University 1

M

8

Computer Science

Chukwuma

Eastern State University 1

F

A

A

Kristen

Eastern State University 1

F

A

A

M

Eastern State University 1

M

A

A

Samuel

Southern State University 3

M

A

A

Naliece

Southern Technical University 1

F

A

A

Ngozi

Southern Technical University 1

F

A

A

Neil

Southern Technical University 1

M

G

Environmental Engineering

Corey

Northern State University 1

M

P

Biomedical Engineering

Celine

Southern Private University 2

F

P

Electrical and Computer Engineering

Chinoso

Midwestern Private University 2

M

1

Mechanical Engineering

Tisha

Southern State University 4

F

2

Computer Engineering

A = Applicant did not indicate or did not wish to share. G = Graduated. P = Postdoc



DATA COLLECTION


The data for this study were collected via video- and audio-recorded interviews and focus groups. The videos will be used in a critical part of the larger project, in which, with the participants’ permission, segments will be compiled into a video narrative that will be accessible via a password-protected website to share with the larger STEM community for a firsthand account of diversity challenges in engineering. All focus groups, which generally consisted of three to five students (with a maximum of 10), were conducted at either a national engineering-/computing-related conference or at the students’ home institutions. Interviews and focus groups lasted from 45 minutes to just over 2.5 hours, with a median time of 1.5 hours. Twenty-three participants took part in individual interviews, while 25 of the students participated in the focus groups. Both the interviews and focus groups were semistructured, utilizing a protocol of open-ended questions but allowing for a degree of flexibility in developing new ideas and differently ordered topics (Yin, 1998). The questions in the protocol were designed to stimulate rich accounts of the students’ experiences in the program related to mentoring (or lack thereof), racism, sexism, their future plans, and their motivation to persist in their Ph.D. or postdoctoral programs. (Full interview protocol can be found at http://www.blackengineeringphd.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/EDEFI-PhD-Post-doc-Interview-Guide.pdf.) All students were asked the same questions on these topics, enabling variability across respondents (Patton, 1990). Although all students were asked the same questions, the order of the questions varied depending on the direction and flow of the students’ ideas and responses.


DATA ANALYSIS


This study employed transcendental phenomenology, using three steps to investigate and make meaning of research participants’ experiences (Moustakas, 1994). Phenomenology tends to be the preferred strategy when asking how or why questions, when the investigator has little control over events, and when the focus is on a contemporary phenomenon in some real-life context. The interview format is particularly appropriate given that our phenomena of study are entrenched in participants’ real-world contexts (Moustakas, 1994). In this context transcendental means examining the phenomenon with intentionality, eidetic reduction, and constitution of meaning, which results in acquiring new knowledge derived from the essence of experiences (Moustakas, 1994). Thus, 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 provided a context for the authors to disclose our own experiences and feelings (Merriam, 2009; Moustakas, 1994). Examining our own experiences first was essential to avoid prejudgment and bias later during the course of research (Merriam, 2009; Moustakas, 1994). The systematic data organization and analysis process we used was similar to the methods used by Griffith, Allen, and colleagues (Griffith & Cornish, 2016; Griffith, Cornish, Bergner, Bruce, & Beech, 2017; Griffith, King, & Allen, 2013; Griffith et al., 2007; Griffith, Wooley, & Allen, 2013).


The interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim, and entered into the qualitative data software package, NVivo. Selected transcripts were reviewed in order to inductively identify recurring concepts that emerged from the transcripts and topics. We primarily focused on identifying how and why Black doctoral STEM students and postdoctoral researchers described their experiences in particular ways and used our guiding theories, and we used frameworks (role strain and John Henryism) to help expand and elaborate on the ways in which we understood their experiences. Members of the research team first read the transcribed data for participant responses that dealt with similar topics. Members of the research team used highlighting and notes to (a) summarize themes within each document, using a combination of in vivo restatements of the data and direct quotes, and (b) document potential questions, connections, underlying themes, and possible implications of the text for further analysis. We bracketed theoretical meaning from our frameworks and existing literature by using phenomenological insights coupled with room for new and expanded insights and knowledge from our participants. Because role strain and John Henryism often go beyond more traditional theoretical frameworks to explain the phenomena and provide more concrete understanding of experience, we did not presume that these theories would not gloss over or hide some important elements of the experiential reality of Black doctoral STEM students and postdocs. Thus, in addition to our research questions, we asked throughout the data analysis process: how is this stress and strain actually experienced? What are examples of possible incidents or events? What are the reactions and responses of the participants?


Our initial round of coding began with identifying phenomena surrounding these two constructs, along with the behavioral and psychosocial consequences of navigating the racialized and gendered engineering and computer science spaces these participants occupied: spaces known to be riddled with inequities and that subjugate Black students to a host of stereotypes associated with their gender and race. Our original coding architecture is shown in Table 3.


Table 3. Initial Coding Architecture

Code and Code Definition

Representative Quote

Poor Mental Health (maladaptive response to enduring John Henryism/role strain) Refers to instances in which students report diminished mental health as a result of working or overworking in their programs; feelings of anxiety that are the result of work or work-life imbalance.

Ah, so I don’t do a very good job of taking vacation time. Since I’ve been here I think I’ve taken a total of two and a half days off in two years. Um, I guess with the exception of like Christmas Day.

Poor Physical Health (maladaptive response to enduring John Henryism/role strain) Refers to instances in which respondents indicate that their bodies changed in some ways because of undue strain associated with their programs.

So, I gained weight and stuff like that. I mean, not a lot of weight, but like maybe 30 pounds. And I stopped eating right.

Impostor Syndrome (John Henryism/role strain) Refers to respondents feeling as if they do not belong or as if they are not as competent as others in their program due to the overwhelming workload.

So I feel like I have to work a lot harder, and I don’t know if that’s self-inflicted or if it’s the pressure of not feeling adequate to the level that I should be, that I push myself a lot harder. But at the same time, when I do that, I burn out really quickly and productivity just hits [snaps fingers] the wall, and then I just sit by myself sitting in my office like this sometimes for hours at a time just . . . [sighs].

Self-Blame versus System-Blame (John Henryism) Refers to students wrestling with whether feelings of being overworked are related to their character or to a system that puts undue pressure on them due to their minoritized status.

Sometimes I blame myself for my mini-failures but honestly, we have very few supports as Black doc students. You know, even for the best situations for us like where we have a “decent” amount of Black faculty, we don’t have like a million people to turn to for support and experience—like to deal with tenure process and help through research. We might have some guidance with it, but we don’t have it from [the] holistic perspective as White people, I don’t think.

Professional Help-Seeking (adaptive response to enduring John Henryism/role strain) Instances in which respondents note that they sought, received, or considered getting help from a professional for issues related to school and work.

I actually had to go to counseling, I think I went through like a depression. Um, that, so that, that helped to put things into perspective.

Extra Labor (John Henryism/role strain) Refers to instances when respondents said they felt as if they had to work extra hard to overcome workload associated with their Ph.D. programs or postdoc positions.

Um, I think, I feel like engineering in general is much harder for minorities because they don't have a lot of people they can look up to. Um, one thing I saw that happened in my first year at [HBCU University] was a lot of people who registered in computer science classes were like all excited about this and then their first language to learn was C plus plus and it was pretty horrible. We had an Asian professor and it was really, really hard. And pretty much everyone dropped out. And I, I could have dropped out too.

Perseverance (John Henryism) Refers to instances when respondents say they just pushed through the work or experience of graduate training or postdoc.

It was hard to quit because of all the time I knew I put into the program and I just felt like I had to buckle down and just persevere and just be—just get something out of it in the end, because there’s always the thought, “Well, I’ve spent so much time and then I won’t even have anything if I quit.”


We coded the first 23 transcripts using 7 definitional index codes with 48 subcodes. We combined index codes where significant overlap was prevalent (e.g., we combined self-blame versus system-blame with internalized impostor syndrome and students who said race and racism placed them as impostors). However, after several analysis meetings, the three authors concluded that this data would be better presented as two separate manuscripts: one focused on the mental and physical strain of Black doctoral students in engineering and computing and another focused on the racialized stressors that led up to the eventual physical and mental health consequences. Thus, the remainder of the analysis for this paper centers on the race-related stressors and the main ways in which the participants reacted to the racialized stresses and strains.


With this more centered analysis, we were able to reduce the number of index codes to three:


Self-blame/self-questioning. Censuring or questioning themselves, constructed by the racialized culture of their engineering and computing departments (e.g., peers and faculty). Subcodes were (a) persistent feelings of inadequacy; (b) self-questioning related to the lack of Black faculty and, to a lesser extent, Black peers; (c) self-questioning related to the lack of minoritized faculty and, to a lesser extent, minoritized peers; and (d) self-questioning due to the stark contrast between their racially affirming undergraduate experience and their racially isolating graduate experience.

Working twice as hard. Refers to instances in which students recognize and describe a need to work “twice as hard” as their White and Asian peers in order to prove their intellectual abilities to professors, peers, and administrators, as a response to persistent stereotypes about their intellectual abilities and work ethic. Subcodes were (a) a “representin’ my race”-fueled reaction to prove to their departments that Black students are worthy of full and unbiased participation, (b) the triple tax of Black women who work exceedingly hard because of racism and sexism and its double bind, (c) underemployed as a direct result of being shut out of opportunities by White or Asian PIs, and (d) the racialized environment of STEM doctoral departments that necessitate that Black students prove their worthiness (e.g., constant presence in the research activities of the department and lab, sacrificing weekends and holidays). As a counter against working twice as hard, students identified places and spaces that affirm and compliment their racial and academic identities, as solace against their racially toxic environments.

Survival mode. Refers to instances in which students described pushing through the negative encounters (often as a result of racialized experiences), which caused significant distress, in order to persist in their programs. Subcodes were (a) channeling survival mode from a history of childhood and young adult trauma (where pushing through was a frequent coping mechanism), (b) racially insensitive undergraduate STEM experiences that served as preparation for doctoral survival mode (prevalent at both PWIs and HBCUs), and (c) a more generalized response to racialized incidents as a by-product of being and growing up Black.


We examined the text segments associated with these codes and used highlighting and margin notes to summarize and document potential questions, connections, and implications of the text for further analysis. We used comparison analysis to ensure consistent interpretation of the statements. The coders then met to summarize notes into a larger document organized according to three codes that emerged from this analytic process. Finally, two of the authors extracted the segments of text associated with each theme across all transcripts for comparison and selection. This article presents codes that are representative of Black doctoral students’ and postdoctoral researchers’ accounts of racialized stress and coping as a result of their training.


POSITIONALITY OF THE RESEARCHERS


We entered into this research focused on the experiences and sense-making of a select group of Black doctoral and postdoctoral engineering and computing students as a pursuit of the human project, which is, in Toni Morrison’s (2017) words, “to remain human and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others” (p. 37), exploring how race is an effect of power. Researcher reflexivity is a critical process that enables researchers to remain attentive to the perspectives and bias that can influence study design, analysis, and interpretation (Merriam, 2009). Du Bois (1904/1996) held that we must gain reflexive control over such assumptions and deliberately form new ones: “Some assumptions are necessary. [But] they must be held tentatively ever subject to change and revision” (p. 57). Throughout this study, we remained attentive to and reflective of the ways in which our perspectives as authors related to those of our participants (Peshkin, 1988). Further, we wanted to demonstrate the unique ways in which racial dehumanization can be enacted even at the highest pinnacle of the educational pipeline (the Ph.D. and beyond). All three researchers are Black, part of an academic research team consisting of two faculty and one doctoral student, and we have not been spared the power-yielding effects of racism in our pursuit of academic success. Thus, our positionality includes the negotiation of racialized experiences, discrimination, bias, and oppression; our understanding of White domination and its power structure in the United States; our own resistance against the dominant culture in both our scholarly and personal lives; and our overlapping yet divergent experiences with our Black culture (Parsons, 2008).


As Black researchers, we believe our positionality helped us gain insider status and cultural broker status, giving us access to willing participants who revealed a significant amount of racial trauma (racial battle fatigue) along with mental and physical health outcomes (D'Silva et al., 2016). Further, because of these shared characteristics, members of the research team also shared many of the experiences the participants described during their own doctoral training experience. Despite this important shared characteristic, we made a concerted effort to remain true to phenomenological principles of trying to articulate the ways in which our participants described the stress and strain of being Black and in a training role in academic spaces. Race emerged as the lens through which our participants described and seemed to make sense of their experiences. It is important to note that we did not approach this study foregrounding race as the primary lens through which to view participants’ experiences. However, we were not surprised that this was the case for participants themselves. As the analyses for this project progressed, we acknowledged the instances in which there was potential for bias from our own perspectives and experiences. We sought to check and bracket these perspectives and experiences in ways that would help us to remain true to the data and the ways participants described what was stressful and how it affected them. In addition to shared characteristics, we differed from our participants in a number of ways, which helped us to maintain our distance from the participants’ narratives. Our attentiveness to the shared and diverging characteristics of research team and participants reduced the extent to which our subjectivity influenced the interpretation of the data.


RESULTS


Two primary themes emerged from participants’ commentary on experiencing racialized stress in their programs: (1) working twice as hard as their non-Black peers and (2) going into survival mode, the latter being a signal to the body and brain that well-being may be at risk. Within each theme, participants described how they reacted to the competitive, high-pressure, racialized environment in which they pursued doctoral degrees. In this section, we begin by discussing the self-doubt that the participants experienced in these racialized contexts. Then we describe themes and provide quotes that illustrate how students responded to stress in their engineering and computing environments.


SELF-BLAME, SYSTEM-BLAME, AND IMPOSTOR SYNDROME: COMBATING THE FEELING OF BEING UNQUALIFIED?


When many Black STEM doctoral students struggle in their doctoral programs, their first response is to question themselves instead of the structure or racialized context of the program. Beyond recognizing that doctoral-level engineering and computer science programs are inherently challenging, 86% of students questioned whether the difficulties they were facing in their programs were a result of their own inadequacies. Celine, a participant who had recently completed her postdoctoral program, concisely described the feeling of self-doubt that plagued participants:


I was fatigued. And so at that point I said to myself, I need to stop fighting to be somewhere that it seems like this, whatever it is, doesn’t want me to be in the system. Individual[s] have to have this idea of what an intelligent person looks like, and maybe that person doesn’t look like me, or doesn’t sound like me, or doesn’t have my background. And so that was something that I thought about and I just told myself that I would look at other options and see if there were opportunities there in other areas.


Celine wondered whether the Ph.D. program was really appropriate for someone of her race (“background”), the alternative being that her feelings came from being perceived as having inherent intellectual inadequacies. Regardless, Celine questioned the value of remaining in the doctoral program and noted that the faculty looked nothing like her.


Seven other students recognized the lack of role models and faculty of similar racial backgrounds as a particular challenge of the program, and they saw their difficulties as a reflection of their perceived or imagined inherent failings, not the nature of the program or its racialized and isolating contexts. After describing previous thoughts of inadequacy, several participants said that it might indeed be the nature of the program to make students feel as if they do not belong there. For example, Davonte, a first-year computer science doctoral student, tied his feeling of being an impostor and not belonging in the program to the lack of underrepresented students and faculty of color:


Um, I feel like engineering in general is much harder for minorities because they don't have a lot of people they can look up to. One thing I saw that happened in my first year at [undergraduate institution] was a lot of people who registered in computer science classes were like all excited about this and then their first language to learn was C++ and it was pretty horrible; we had an Asian professor and it was really, really hard. And pretty much everyone dropped out. And I . . . I could have dropped out too.


Though Davonte was reflecting on his undergraduate experience, his narrative revealed a demographic context, namely the lack of Black faculty, that made him and other Black doctoral students feel different from their colleagues. To Davonte and other students, this lack of representation meant being without a role model. Further, in the absence of Black faculty, Black doctoral students may experience strain in their attempts to fulfill the role of a student due to a lack of Black faculty who can serve as mentors, affirm their presence, and help mitigate the negative racialized experiences they either face or expect to face. In the absence of such faculty, Black doctoral students lack an important piece of the doctoral socialization puzzle and an important mediating resource when faced with racialized stress.


In concert with how students come to understand the feeling of not being “good enough” to thrive in their programs, one fourth of participants whose responses reflected this theme expressed similar thoughts. It appeared the participants did not ultimately attribute the feeling of inadequacy to the educational system but, rather, continued to harbor varying degrees of self-doubt. Many universities emphasize effort and engagement on the part of the student as critical to maximizing their educational experiences and outcomes. However, these institutions usually do not acknowledge that the efforts of Black students, who endure racial incongruence, are stifled in an environment that threatens their success and harms their health. Most universities would not describe the lack of URM STEM faculty as harmful and invalidating, as they tend to lean toward more colorblind and culturally neutral STEM classroom practices and policies, thus ignoring the potential harm to the self-worth and STEM identities of Black students. In actuality, a lack of racially underrepresented STEM faculty is an important source of role strain for Black doctoral students, as it contributes to a feeling of isolation and deprives them of what could be an important mediating resource. Thus, the ability of URM students to fully engage their doctoral education is hampered by the negative pressures they experience (otherwise known as intercultural effort) as well as a lack of institutional efforts to reduce racialized bias (Dowd, Sawatzky, & Korn, 2011).


COPING WITH OTHERS’ SUSPICION OF INCOMPETENCE BY WORKING TWICE AS HARD


Despite doctoral programs, and particularly STEM doctoral programs, being challenging for everyone, 81% of our participants perceived themselves as working twice as hard as their Asian and White peers in a strategy to prove themselves to professors and peers, who they felt doubted the STEM abilities of Black students. They expended extra labor, which they hoped would demonstrate their strong work ethic and engender respect and a sense of belonging in their departments and labs.


Participants recognized prevalent stereotypes that African American students did not work as hard and were not as smart as their White and Asian peers in their programs and in the field in general. As early as the first year, students reported feeling the need to combat stereotypes that seeped from society at large into their engineering and computing programs. Chinoso, a first-year mechanical engineering doctoral student, spoke of the faculty in his department:


I had to prove . . . just with the . . . the cultural baggage, not . . . not necessarily personal, but just the perception and persona of African American men that it’s . . . it’s kind of “bigger than me”-type sense. And again, knowing that . . . or not knowing in the sense of, like, this is what they’re probably thinking of me, I feel I want to conduct myself in a way that would, you know, disavow any stereotypes.


Thus, Chinoso and other participants described the need to expend extra energy demonstrating their skills in order to counter these stereotypes.


Most students presented in this section linked working twice as hard to proving their competence as engineering and computing doctoral student or researchers. More than 50% made statements such as these: “I know I have to work twice as hard and hope that makes me good enough”; “You’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far as a Black person at this White institution”; “It is widely known that we [Blacks] have to work longer and harder to be seen as worthy”; and “I feel obligated to prove I’m smart enough and that I belong here.” For Black women participants, the necessity of working twice as hard extended beyond their doctoral program. For example, Rasheeda, a third-year student in computer information systems engineering, is also a mother; she said that working twice as hard at her schoolwork often compromised her parenting:


What that really boils down to is it stretches outside of this environment. I’m sitting on the couch, racking my brain on how to finish something, and my children are trying to interact, and I have nothing to give them because I’m pouring everything into this.


Rasheeda went on to express that she was triple-taxed by her Blackness, her gender, and motherhood in ways that other Black women without children did not endure. In 1976, Malcom, Hall, and Brown introduced the science world to the “double bind” of being a woman and a person of color. It was a phrase coined during the exploration of the status of minority women in science. The double bind comprised the effects of dual oppressions, being both a woman and a person of color, and motherhood seems to complicate the double bind.


Samantha, who was in her second year of a chemical and biological engineering doctoral program, was unable to pinpoint the cause of her feeling of needing to work twice as hard but suggested that her strategy to “go above and beyond” may be the result of self-imposed high expectations. When asked about her work-life coordination, she said that she’s never in balance because she works so hard, which resulted in burnout:


Ah, so I don’t do a very good job of taking vacation time. Since I’ve been here I think I’ve taken a total of two and a half days off in two years. Um, I guess with the exception of like Christmas Day. So I feel like I have to work a lot harder, and I don’t know if that’s self-inflicted or if it’s the pressure of not feeling adequate to the level that I should be, that I push myself a lot harder. But at the same time, when I do that, I burn out really quickly and productivity just hits [snaps fingers] the wall, and then I just sit by myself sitting in my office like this sometimes for hours at a time just . . . [sighs]. So there are days that, like things just don’t get done, not because I don’t . . . I’m not . . . not working, but it’s because I can’t find the motivation to work.


Jacob, a second-year industrial and systems engineering doctoral student, shared similar sentiments, saying he did not get involved in programs that catered to URM student engineers (e.g., National Society of Black Engineers) that might have mitigated some of his negative experiences: “I was involved [with minority graduate programming on campus], but I . . . I didn’t really spend a lot of time with that, because I honestly was working myself to death in the lab. So, I unfortunately wasn’t really able to make really strong relationships with the people in that group.” Jacob said he worked so much that he lacked social interaction: “I really had no life in the beginning when I was working for the other advisors. Spent my weekends, nights, early mornings in the lab. I mean, that’s all I did. I really had no outside social interaction.” Derek, a sixth-year aerospace engineering doctoral student, likened doctoral training and the need to overwork to his experience in the military, in which working to exhaustion is taught and expected:


In hindsight this [combat in Iraq] is what it [doctoral training] looks like. . . . But when you’re there, and you’re in it, and you’re being told, like, “What graduate students do is they sleep in the lab.” They . . . they . . . you need to be tired and disheveled and if you’re not, you’re not passionate about the work. You don’t put in enough time. And you’re like, well, okay. . . . But then it does do something to your psyche and to your . . . I mean, it could make you stronger, but it does damage you in some way, internally like, you know, damage in the sense that like, well, how am I going to deal with this?


Derek also said that in addition to the socialized expectations of working until you are fatigued and/or psychologically damaged, the racialized experience exacerbates the necessity to overwork. Derek epitomizes racial battle fatigue as he compares military combat with the racialized battles he endured as a doctoral student. Smith, Mustaffa, Jones, Curry, and Allen (2016) affirm that being marginalized at PWIs creates racial tension for students of color that takes many different forms, including racial microaggressions and racial stereotyping, which are racial assaults on the character of students of color.


Derek’s response is in line with those of other participants who said that at some point they felt unworthy of being in their programs but also attributed some of those feelings to the way their professors and peers negatively compared them with White and Asian doctoral students, who were positioned as exemplary students. For example, Derek said, “My advisor is an Asian woman. And the other three people in our research group are all Asian. So, I’m not included in a lot of things. And, I wouldn’t say she does it on purpose; it just happens because I’m not Asian.” Derek’s advisor discussed only research with him, while her interactions with her other students were much more nurturing and personal: “I feel like with the other students in the group that are Asian, like they talk about other things. Or they talk about, you know, professional development and family life and things like that.” Similarly, Mykisha, a materials science doctoral student in her sixth year, spoke about her White advisor in her majority-Asian lab:


I definitely felt that, ah . . . the relationship wasn’t as . . . I don’t even know the word to describe it. But I feel like she did trust the other [Asian] students more, like their abilities. But I didn’t know if that was because they were there longer than I was, or . . . I don’t know.


These recognitions of differential treatment added to the racially chilly climate that seemed to necessitate coping strategies. Our participants overwhelmingly concluded that engineering and computer science departments are racialized spaces that evoke the need to work twice as hard.


In addition, participants also recognized that the lack of Black faculty was part of the reason they felt strained in their departments and thus had to work harder. For example, Tisha, a second-year doctoral student in computer engineering, explained,


We have very few supports. You know, even for the best situations there may be only two or three Black faculty; we don’t have like a million people to turn to for support and experience—like to deal with tenure process and help through research. We might have some guidance with it, but we don’t have it from holistic and multifaceted perspectives as the White students ingest on a normal basis.


Derek, Mykisha, and Tisha exemplify the participants’ perception that navigating engineering and computing doctoral programs required more effort from Black students than from their majority counterparts. Though we do not know about the efforts of their majority counterparts, our participants’ reports of their experiences are in line with findings that being Black in PWIs creates the additional effort of employing personal and social coping strategies to manage and mitigate social inequities (Bowman, 1989).


SURVIVAL MODE: COPING BY IGNORING OR COMPROMISING SELF-CARE


The second major strategy reported to cope with impostor syndrome was to push through and simply endure (“put up with”) seemingly insurmountable and often racialized obstacles. Although we found some overlap with the need to work twice as hard as their White and Asian peers, survival mode was perceived as a distinct technique that students adopted in order to persist in the face of racialized structural and institutional barriers. Students attested to enduring a host of negative encounters that caused distressing emotions, which appeared to shift the participants’ brains and bodies out of balance and into nonhomeostasis, otherwise known as survival mode.


One way students responded to the added pressure of “achieving while Black” in their departments was to “just push through”; participants summoned a form of survival mode that seemed familiar from a lifelong legacy of tumultuous experiences. More than two thirds (67%) of our respondents responded to being racially stereotyped and stressed by continuing to push through. Mykisha explained that she did not leave the program despite feeling like she could not handle the overwhelming amount of pressure to succeed. Recounting the second time she felt like quitting, she said,


The second time, it was hard to quit because of all the time I knew I put into the program and I just felt like I had to buckle down and just persevere and just be . . . just get something out of it in the end, because there’s always the thought, “Well, I’ve spent so much time and then I won’t even have anything if I quit.”


Rasheeda explained that her background had prepared her for that type of environment. Here is how she responded to the added pressure of not having support from Black faculty:


It’s like the only reason I’m able to survive this chaos is because of the background that I have. I’m used to being in an environment where it ain’t no love here. It ain’t no support. I come from the streets. There’s no love out there. There is no support. There’s no friends. People will tell you one thing and do something different. They will smile at you and smack you in the back of the head with a brick when you turn your back. All of those elements are here, except here all the actors are White [or] Asian, and mostly male.


Celine, introduced previously, had a different background from Rasheeda’s, but she too said she was somewhat prepared to continue pushing through because of her undergraduate training experience.


I’ve been fighting that situation for so long, being in undergrad and being the only one, then going to graduate school and, you know, being the only one in my lab and trying to pull other people in and . . . and then trying to fight to get a connection with someone who doesn’t really seem to want to connect with me. And I just am tired but I kept going.


In the same vein, Rasheeda recalled her determination to persist even when she became seriously ill.


I was hospitalized. And I was receiving calls in my hospital bed asking for materials. And not just asking for materials; asking for materials that I had already submitted as a studious student, but had been misplaced. So, because your end of it wasn’t handled, I’m being berated in my hospital bed to the point to where my mother has to get on the phone, like, “My child is [at] death’s door. What is wrong with you?”


Rasheeda explained, as did most of the nine students who attend HBCUs, that being at an HBCU “did not save me.” Although they did not have to contend with a lack of Black faces on campus, most of their doctoral STEM labs and STEM professors were Asian or European international students and faculty. Malinda, a postdoctoral scholar in mechanical engineering, also attending an HBCU, described her department as mostly Asian faculty, doctoral students, and postdoctoral researchers, who berated Black students as “under-intelligent” and even sabotaged their research projects as further proof of their inferiority. Malinda responded to this environment by implementing her survival tactics for the good of the Black race:


That representation piece is key, because a lot of times, some of the classes I struggled in, I struggled in because I didn't want to go to the professor's office hours, or I felt like the professor was unreachable. I felt like maybe, I had to kind of seem strong and maybe visiting office hours would be seen as a sign of weakness or something like that. I just felt like by going to their office hours, they would make me feel dumb or they wouldn't listen to me as a person and they would just say, "Hey, see these Black kids can't cut it." That type of thing. So, I try to make it so that all the Black people can see, um, "Well there's someone who looks like me, I might be able to reach out to them." I know some Black faculty can get burdened . . . not burdened, but overwhelmed with being that one Black voice. And they can get burnt out from it. And they have . . . scholarly stuff that they have to do, too. So, you know, it, it helps to have another person there or something to kind of balance that out.


One group of students attributed their need to mobilize their survival instincts to a response to multiple forms of racialization. For example, Jimmy, a sixth-year doctoral student, asserted that his perseverance kept him going. He longed for collegiality and comradery but often felt ignored and marginalized due to a lack of faculty and students with shared experiences in his program and lab.


My stick-to-it-ive nature . . . has kept me and gotten me to the point where I am, and gotten me to the point where I can finish. Ah, but, again, to talk about the grand scheme, you shouldn’t necessarily have to, as a . . . because I’m the only Black guy in the group . . . and the only one being treated this way. So, you’re like, “What?!” you know.


Racial battle fatigue seemed to be operationalized through the students’ response to trauma and the experience of stress symptoms, as the participants gave up on thriving and simply stayed alive in their programs. Although racial battle fatigue characterizes the response to trauma as manifestations of anger, escapism, withdrawal, frustration, and avoidance, we would like to propose the additional response of survival mode.


Almost 50% of our students acknowledged that they have been persevering through these kinds of environments and situations throughout their academic careers. A history of rising above hardships allowed them to summon the resilience to survive racially hostile academic environments, but their success was tempered by the concomitant stress and strain. Next, we consider the effect that long-term survival in racialized spaces has on the health of Black engineering and computing doctoral students.


DISCUSSION


Despite the number of efforts and wealth of resources dedicated to increasing the number of URM students in engineering, computing, and other STEM fields, few studies have described the psychological effects, behavioral responses, or health costs that Black doctoral students and postdocs in engineering and computing experience in trying to complete their training. In this qualitative study, we found that Black engineering and computing doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers had two primary responses to the stress and anxiety of their academic experiences: working seemingly twice as hard to be perceived as competitive with their White and Asian peers and focusing on simply seeking to survive the daily challenges they faced.


Consistent with prior research on role strain and John Henryism (Bowman, 1989; Diemer, 2002; Griffith, Gunter, & Allen, 2011; James, Hartnett, & Kalsbeek, 1983), we found that seeking to be successful in one’s current training, employment, work, or career was more important to these Black graduate students and postdocs than taking care of their mental or physical health. Seeking to meet the demands of a Ph.D. program or postdoctoral fellowship were critical priorities that were congruent with their phase of life and more important to them than their own self-care, health, or well-being. Demonstrating this type of focus and sacrifice may have proved successful in helping them complete their degrees, but our findings also suggest that employing these strategies exacts psychological, emotional, and physical costs.


The study deepened our understanding of significant, interrelated dynamics for this population in four key ways. We found that (1) the stresses and strains that they experienced left students questioning their qualifications to complete their training; (2) racialized experiences were often the source of stress, strain and academic performance anxiety; (3) discordance between the racial make-up of their engineering and computing environments and their racialized engineering and computing identities in those disciplines appeared to exacerbate impostor phenomenon; and (4) amid the stress and anxiety of experiencing impostor phenomenon, the proactive coping mechanisms students found or searched for took an emotional toll. They discussed the nature and sources of the self-doubt they experienced and why their primary response was often to question themselves and their qualifications within their programs.


THE STRAIN OF MANAGING RACISM


Proving oneself by working presumably twice as hard as White and Asian STEM peers is aligned with stereotype management, and it demonstrates the myriad ways Black doctoral students in STEM fields cope with multiple forms of racism while managing their academic environments (McGee, 2016). Stereotype management is both a process and a learned competency that enables students to recognize and negotiate social and psychological threats to their identities (McGee & Martin, 2011a). Stereotype management, survival mode, and working twice as hard are not ideal, however; they are pragmatic strategies to combat the persistent, complex barrier of being seen as a problem or as one who does not belong in that environment. Stereotype management temporarily deals with the persistent structural framing that positions Black STEM students at the bottom of STEM educational and career hierarchies. The pet-to-threat phenomenon highlights the dynamism and complexity of the relationships that are at the core of success in doctoral and postdoctoral training, particularly in the STEM fields. STEM leaders, researchers, educators, and politicians in the United States seek to enhance the postsecondary-to-career STEM pipeline by inviting marginalized students to rise above their racialized challenges and roadblocks, but they do this without recognizing the social and institutional contexts that shape these outcomes and experiences and the psychological and physical health costs associated with their ascent for Black graduate students and postdocs.


The literature on stereotype management is based in part on the idea that these coping strategies are conscious cognitions; that is, they are based on clear recognition, labeling, and action in response to a stimulus that is creating psychological strain. What we found, however, was that students realized they were facing challenges that proved to produce anxiety, stress, and strain, but they could not always pinpoint the source of the problem, which made devising a strategy to address or manage the stressor or feeling of strain challenging. In this context, it is difficult for students to identify the real, racialized structural barriers embodied in cultural norms, policies, and practices, which have created a demographic profile of their peers, mentors, and faculty and which reflect the intentional and unintentional choices of institutional leaders and the interaction of cultural and institutional racism (Griffith et al., 2010).


Relatedly, a key advantage of role strain as a guiding framework is that it puts the psychological and behavioral responses in the context of structural and institutional forces (Bowman, 1989, 2006; Watkins, 2012). As role strain would suggest, the ordinariness and ubiquity of racism makes it difficult for Black students to make sense of what they experience; they often turn to racialized explanations only after exhausting other explanations of why their experiences diverge from those of their peers. Because the racial climate on many campuses reifies deficit ideologies about URM STEM students as unqualified, incompetent, and undeserving of opportunities in the STEM arena, stereotype management is an indispensable practice that helps students endure these hostile environments; however, this strategy comes at a cost, which our participants described.


THE HBCU PARADOX


One might assume that Black STEM doctoral students at HBCUs would fare better than their peers at PWIs, but our study’s findings were inconsistent with this assumption. Among Black STEM Ph.D. recipients who earned their degrees between 2005 and 2010, 12% earned their doctorates at an HBCU (Upton & Tanenbaum, 2014). The pronounced focus of HBCUs on student support and their ability to foster better academic and social integration are often touted as benefits of HBCUs compared to PWIs. However, for the participants in our study who attended HBCUs, the racial composition of their engineering and computing departments’ faculty offered them little help in mediating their stress and strain, although they said that the larger university culture did affirm their Black identities. The practices and policies of engineering and computing departments help to control structural possibilities, and so the departments marginalize these students and regulate how they should behave and what behavior is deemed misbehaving. More research on sociocultural norms at HBCU STEM departments that mirror the dominant culture’s values and ideologies at the expense of Black graduate students will complicate the cultural affirmation that HBCUs are assumed to possess. This microculture in HBCU engineering and computing departments includes values, beliefs, and behaviors based on a common history of racial stereotyping and discrimination that varies systematically from the larger, often affirming cultural milieu of the HBCU (McGee, 2016). Thus, future studies should examine the White supremacist STEM microculture of many HBCUs and its impact on the well-being and other outcomes for Black STEM doctoral students.


IMPLICATIONS: JEOPARDIZING FUTURE STEM INNOVATION


Moreover, the implications of the experiences of Black students earning doctoral degrees in STEM fields extend beyond negative experiences of the students and the dwindling numbers of Black students earning STEM doctorates. This racial context and climate also affect the academic workforce and the professional landscape. One may argue that Black students and researchers who do not choose to enter academia after completing doctoral training can influence scientific innovation through other positions, but it is alarming and problematic that potentially qualified future professors are dissuaded from pursing academic careers because of what they experienced in their training. This may have consequences for critical innovation, breakthroughs, and the training of succeeding generations of scholars who could learn from and collaborate with these scholars.


The added stress, strain, and toll on Black students’ lives and well-being is an underappreciated reason that they may not pursue academic careers. Black students demonstrate their tenacity, grit, fortitude, strength, and willingness to actively cope with the stressors and strains that success in STEM requires; however, it also appears that they question the benefits that they will reap from academia. Future research should explore how the microculture of STEM programs and departments can be modified to be—and give Black students the perception that they are—healthy, safe, and fair spaces where they can make real contributions to engineering and computing fields. Otherwise, the diversity of perspectives and thought that business and other fields have recognized are beneficial to all will be compromised in this academic space.


LIMITATIONS


Several limitations of the study should be noted. We sought to understand how Black doctoral engineering and computing students and postdocs experience stressors and psychological strains in their academic training programs, so the findings may not be generalizable to other racial/ethnic groups or to doctoral students in other disciplines. Additionally, we chose to integrate the perspectives of men and women in our results. One advantage of this approach is the resulting holistic picture in which men’s and women’s perspectives complement each other, but one could argue that failing to disaggregate results lessens the impact that either set of perspectives could have on their own. Another limitation could be that this study was aimed at presenting key trends rather than comparing students with different characteristics. For example, we did not collect data on students’ academic preparation. Therefore, we are not able to discuss the potential implications that students’ undergraduate experiences may have had on their reported experiences of stress in the doctoral programs. Finally, due to the focus group structure of some of our interviews, some participants may have decided not to share what can be sensitive information about their experiences of stress. However, we engaged in member checking with many of the students as we prepared to use their interviews for mentor training material.


CONCLUSION


These findings highlight the experiences and perspectives of Black students earning doctoral degrees in engineering and computing fields. In addition to the troubling racialized context, these findings also illustrate the resilience and strength that these Black students demonstrate individually and collectively. 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. Diversifying the faculty and students in doctoral engineering and computing programs could help to reduce feelings associated with impostor syndrome, isolation, and other psychological stresses and strains that adversely affect the health and well-being of these students. Future research, programs, and policies should consider the complex determinants and contexts that 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: 10/22/2021 3:24:11 PM

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  • 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.
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    George Mason University
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