Ph.D. : Poor, Hungry & Destitute?

If you get one from an HBCU then maybe, according to some.

As if my life weren’t hectic enough I am also preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs in Educational Psychology for the next school year. A friend of mine checking in asked how the process was going and where I’m applying to. I told him that I was looking at about ten schools and that Columbia was my first choice then reeled off my top 5 or so. Among them was Howard. He recoiled.

“A Ph.D. from an HBCU? Nah fam, stick to Columbia or University of Michigan…you could get a good paying gig off a degree from those schools. HBCU’s are for if you’re trying to have fun and be around black people, not if you’re trying to make paper.”

His attitude is problematic and he’s not the only one who espouses this view…but that’s not what got my mind ticking.

It just so happens that I have a good friend who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at, you guessed it, Howard. I ran his statement past her and we started talking about why we found the idea of Howard appealing. To say psychology is Eurocentric would be an understatement. White people dominate in teaching, research and publishing. I was the only black person in many of my upper level seminars in undergrad and one of two black women in my Master’s program. There were no black men. So when I visited the website of the psychology department at Howard and saw all those black faculty members I couldn’t help but come down with a terminal case of the warm fuzzies. My friend who is enrolled there says it is surreal and wonderful studying psychology among so many black people; that sometimes you forget there is any such thing as white psychologists. She wasn’t surprised by my other friend’s comment but she did note that people seemed to expect you to be an expert in all things African American if you had a Ph.D. from Howard and this might be what affects your marketability after graduation. The assumption is that if you’re a black psychologist that graduated from a black school that you’re only qualified to work with black patients and speak about black issues.

What I find discomfiting about all this is the assumption of white as the “unmarked” racial option. If I go to a PWI, despite being taught only by white people I am qualified to work anywhere and with anyone, but if I go to an HBCU my professional expertise is only valid when applied to a black population? Surfing the web you find countless people saying they chose a PWI because they were seeking “diversity” but is that just a coded way for saying that it more closely simulates the situation in the outside world and hence people are more assured of your status as a “safe” black person i.e. one who knows how to work with white people?

I’m struggling with this one y’all.


Cross posted from Entropy Inc.

  • **long response ahead, apologies in advance**

    Hmm. Well, obviously, I went to Howard, so I’m biased. But I know people who got B.A.s there and then went on to pursue grad degrees at PWIs. I also know of people who attended PWIs in undergrad and went to Howard for grad school. I have one Jamaican friend who got her B.A. at Howard, master’s at a PWI in D.C., and is pursuing her doctorate at Howard.

    I’m not as familiar with the grad programs, but I know some (including psych) are very, very good (and not just ‘for a black school’).

    The assumption is that if you’re a black psychologist that graduated from a black school that you’re only qualified to work with black patients and speak about black issues.

    This is really interesting. As a note, there are many students at Howard Law who aren’t black, and I presume they aren’t expected to only prosecute or defend black people.

    You also make an excellent point about PWIs being non-racialized in a way. Just as white men and women are the baseline by which all others are judged, so are PWIs.

    I think in a field like psychology, going to a black school could be invaluable, depending on what your intentions are, career-wise. As you mention, psychology is rather Eurocentric, and in education, that’s especially unfortunate, because all kids are being measured by standards which were created by white males. If you’re interested in challenging or exploring psychology in relation to people of color, you might be better off at HU.

    Disclaimer: I’m completely unqualified to offer any advice, and these are just my musings, based mainly on anecdotal evidence.

  • Ultimately I’m going to go wherever gives me the best financial package, lol. Being a broke international student comes before my blackness in this case unfortunately. I just found this whole thing to be disturbing, because I hadn’t thought about it that way at all until she brought it up. My friend and I also talked about the eurocentrism in psychology being responsible for a lack of exploration of intra-racial differences because the thrust in studies with ethnicity as a variable tends to be comparing all blacks against all white, or all asians or whatever the case may be. As a result really interesting work about how Afro-Caribbean people differ from African Americans for example, tends to get lost in the shuffle.

  • WestIndianArchie

    I’m a bottom line person.
    Forget personal growth, how’s that IRA doing? Sup with that FICO?

    I’d start with these questions first.

    Who hires Psych PHd’s? A few people, a lot?

    Out of how many do they choose from? – Just you and your lonesome, or thousands of other graduating PhD’s and already out PHD’s

    How much does a PH.D in Psychology pay right out of the gate? Low 5’s? Mid 5’s? High 5″s, Low 6:s

    How long will you have loans for? Are you about to buy into 6 figures of debt, to make 48K?

    Is more education a good idea financially?

    I’d start with that before I got to applying to a PWI or a HBCU.

    If it is a good idea financially, and you’re heart is set on going to a HBCU….then figure out how you can monetize your knowledge in the absence of a Predominantly White employer extending an offer your way.

    Can you open up shop and aim @ your target market?
    Can you be a poverty pimp and use your services as a government contractor? (not working for the gov or a non-profit)

    Otherwise, save your money.

  • WIA: I’ve thoroughly thought out the financial implications of going back to school…and the money is only tangentially what this post is about. But since you ask Ph.D. programs in psychology are horrendously competitive – intakes hover at around 10% of applicants and most programs take numbers in the single digits every year. There is very little surplus of psych Ph.D.’s to fill the demand for them, it’s estimated at around 4%. Having a doctoral degree increases entry level salary by about $15k on average from the master’s level. For my field, which is Ed. Psych, entry is about $60k with the field projected to grow about 15% in the next 5 years due to shifting trends in education and greater involvement and demand for school psychologists. Don’t worry about me homes, I’ve got this mkay?

  • UE- I totally get what you’re saying about the money thing. That’s a serious consideration for me as well right now as I’m doing my grad school research. I don’t have debt from college and I really don’t want to have debt from grad school. And Howard isn’t known for its bounty of scholarships and grants, lol.

    And the point you make about the lack of study of intra-racial relationships is really important. We’re going global, and it’s no longer a matter of the colonizers vs. the colonized. With new world players on the scene (China, N. Korea, Iran), a paradigm shift is certainly in order.

    BTW, I don’t think an HBCU degree knocks one out of the running for a job working for/with whites or non-blacks. Though, if one’s thesis and interest is related to POC, then one might be taking oneself out of the running.

  • Grump

    Another thing to consider in your search is whether or not your research ideas will be supported by the department that you are going to be in. It sucks for any graduate student when their faculty advisor leaves and you have to search for a new one that will be able to either pick up the slack left behind by the departure or will support your interests within the faculty and dept while you finish up.

  • quadmoniker

    UE: Can you clarify what you mean by “eurocentric?”

  • QM: I had a nice thought out reply…and then my browser ate it:-( so unfortuntely I’ll have to give you the cliff’s notes version. What I basically mean by eurocentric is that white populations tend to be the standard within psychology and on top of that white people make up the majority of the teachers, researchers and practiioners in the field, which perpetuates the bias. As time goes on there is cross cultural and comparative research coming out that causes little shifts in psychology but it pales in comparison with the sheer volume done by, for and about white people. Added to that there is a tendency to use white populations as the “control” so the study of different cultures or populations turns into a study of their “deviation”.

    There is a “universality” that informs psychology, especially in clinical settings. The “universal patient” is white, middle-class and western. So, for example, the therapy techniques that are considered tried and true tend to have individualistic underpinnings and tailored for that type of person. In addition a lot of research in clinical psychology is positivist in its thrust…only that which can be emnpirically measured is valid. But where does that leave someone whose conception of mental illness is informed by a culture that believes strongly in the existence of witchcraft for example? A lot of the theories we use and the so called “rules” we operate under are not contextualized for different populations or indigenized for different cultures.

    Grump: That definitely was a big part of my research and contact with the schools. From the experiences I saw some people have during my masters program it became obvious that having a thesis advisor who isn’t on the same page as you or a faculty that doesn’t support your research can make or break you. I’ve tried as far as possible to identify possible advisors and faculty members I think I would enjoy working with to stay in contact with an ask pertinent questions about the program. It’ll be one of my major concerns for if I get called in for interview anywhere too.

  • quadmoniker

    UE: That’s what I thought you meant. So wouldn’t a better word be ethnocentric? It’s not as if there aren’t non-white people in Europe, and it’s always been a pet peeve of mine when people use the word “European” instead of white. Particularly if you look at the ethnographic makeup of Europe and how the perception of various ethnic groups have changed over the years.

    I don’t argue with you that it’s a primarily white field and so consideration of the different ways that different cultures investigate the universe should be taken into account in a better way. It is definitely a eurocentric discipline in that it was born of European medical traditions, and as such is touched by the particular ways in which some cultures within Europe perceive and navigate the world. It’s a history it can’t separate itself from as a discipline. A culture with a different understanding of the ways humans navigate the world wouldn’t have born this particular type of inquisition, just like a culture that doesn’t believe our body has energy channels wouldn’t have developed something like acupuncture. But being ethnocentric is something that it could, and should, adjust.

  • QM: Point taken – that probably is the more apt term to use. And you’re right, a willingness to adjust is what the field needs. There are people who are trying but there are also issues with suppression of publication of certain articles about certain topics. Or maybe suppression isn’t the right word – that would imply that the people doing the picking and choosing have an active stake in preventing things from being published. It’s more like they just are not convinced of the worth of such research.

    Shani: I just noticed something, in your comment above. You noted that if my thesis and interests had to do with people of color that might hurt my chances and that’s kind of what I really wanted this post to be about. If I did a thesis that used a majority white population for my sampling and data collection future employees may have less of a problem assuming I can generalize my knowledge to other populations, but the reverse isn’t true. *That* assumption is what is bugging me.

  • shani-o

    QM- I know you were talking to UE, but I find what you said about ethnocentricity vs. Eurocentricity to be pretty interesting and sensible. Except, ethnocentricity doesn’t have quite the same connotations as Eurocentricity. That is, the power and ubiquity associated with Eurocentricity isn’t the same as the adjectives used to describe, say, Afrocentricity. But perhaps that’s a quibble. Do you think ethnocentric is a workable replacement for Afrocentric? I’m not sure if it works that way.

    UE- you’re right, it is a very, very problematic assumption. I guess ideally, your dissertation is tied to what your life’s work will be, so it might not be such a conflict if your plan is to study, say, afro carib/african american relations and then do work relating to that? But in reality, people develop over a lifetime, and being tied to a college paper forever isn’t very appealing.

    I’m still not totally convinced that where you go to school matters as much as what you study and how good you are.

    Though I have to wonder if a white PhD who has studied POC would be questioned in the same manner as a black or Latino or Asian who has studied POC. Like, does having whiteness somewhere in the equation become necessary for a study to be ‘normalized?’

    This has given me a lot to consider … Great post.

  • quadmoniker

    No, I don’t think that ethnocentric is a replacement for Afrocentric, but I don’t think Euro and ethnocentric are interchangeable either. That’s why I thought UE meant ethnocentric rather than Eurocentric. Of course psychology is “eurocentric,” it sprang from European traditions, but her critique was really that it has been unable to adapt to different cultural traditions as a modern discipline. I think that was the critique, but they are completely different things.

  • QM- ahhh, gotcha. Thanks for explaining! This has been a really interesting conversation.

  • ladyfresshh

    I am far from an expert but i must say i would consider this primarily:
    Ultimately I’m going to go wherever gives me the best financial package -universeexpanding

    this secondarily
    I’m still not totally convinced that where you go to school matters as much as what you study and how good you are. – shani-o

    In addition, whether you know how to practically apply that education outside of the institution you attend.

    and finally
    I did relate to the conundrum of a minority focus in your degree and attending a hbcu and can’t help but think if i were to pursue say, an arts phd with a leaning towards minorities i would somehow be better served in some respects at a school with that focus, because in my search and undergrad experience i’ve found quite major school lacking in this sort of focus. the inverse oddly did not occur to me though