The Emotional Work of a PhD: Why I cannot forget my first meetings as a PhD student.

(A longer entry than my usual)

COVID Update –

My last entry was a short reflection about life during the pandemic. Although many folks have been vaccinated, there are still many people across the world who are still dying from COVID, particularly in India.  See this article from the BBC that tries to account for numbers all around the world.   It is important to note that these numbers will not include every death due to COVID not does it show all the emotional and physical toll on families worldwide.

The Beginning of My Doctoral Journey –

Dear readers, you are all probably wondering why I waited this long to write about my first days a PhD student.  Last year after the murders of Mr. Floyd and Ms. Taylor, UD like many schools called for groups of professors, staff, and students to have conversations about the systemic inequities faced by students of various backgrounds. Many of these efforts seemed performative but many of us joined them anyway in hope of spurring change and making lives different.   It turned out that joining these groups was fruitless because some of the members managed to diminish the perspectives of students of color while using our emotional labor and presence.  This experience angered and upset me so much that I must share it with others.

The GRE –

I started my PhD journey in the summer of 2017 when I moved to Delaware to study at University of Delaware.  My coursework started at the end of August, but my emotional journey started much earlier. 

Applying to a PhD program required many steps before I even completed an application. In my case, it also meant taking the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and relearning algebra, geometry, and other quantitative skills that I have not touched since my high school and undergraduate years of college.  The GRE exam and any current prep materials, and courses also cost money.  I was fortunate that I had money saved to apply to these costs and had the time to prep for the exam.  The day I took the exam, I can tell you that I was praying just to pass.  I knew that my PhD application would be incomplete without passing GRE scores. I was also realistic about my test anxiety and inability to test well in these situations.   When I completed the exam, I got my score, and it was low.  But I did not care; I passed.   I could check the GRE off my list. 

Once I assembled my application with my writing sample, letters of recommendation, transcripts, and résumé, I sent it off with a prayer.  We must put so much faith in the admissions committee.  Will they see us as whole people or only as a GRE score?  I know with such a low GRE score I many only be seen as that – a low scoring individual.  I even had a conversation with a professor who told me I would not be a good candidate for the program because my score was so low.  I told this professor that in my professional capacity I had no problems working with my multidisciplinary colleagues even when I did not fully understand their areas of study. I had the ability to collaborate and learn with and from my colleagues.  Since the GRE is just a test of arbitrary quantitative, qualitative, and typing skills completed in limited time frames, it could not measure my actual work or my future potential

In the end, I was accepted into the disaster science PhD program but still placed into the “less than” category because of my abysmal GRE score.  In fact, during my first two meetings with UD professors, I was told how I could be a better graduate student.  One of those suggestions included joining the school chapter of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM).  I thought that was a remarkably interesting suggestion. As a reminder, these meetings happened in the summer of 2017 and I had just spent the last five years (2012 to 2016) as the chairperson of the IAEM-USA conference committee.  Did either of these professors look beyond my GRE score and read my application?  I wonder.   Maybe they would have noticed that I was a Certified Emergency Manager and have been a practitioner in my field since 2008. How about that I was a medic in the U. S. Army or that I completed the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard? 

Being Useful –

I met with both professors separately, and both independently suggested that I join the IAEM chapter. When I told each of them that I spent the last five years as the conference chairperson for IAEM, they were both quiet and perhaps, a little embarrassed. What was worse was that both professors told me that I would be “useful” for their students.  I realized at this point that I was not an individual to them.  I was acceptable because I could serve as a resource for their other more important students. After those appointments, I was extremely disappointed and disheartened, but I did not realize that my journey was just starting.   Being “othered” in this situation by two separate professors within an hour of each other was one of the first indications that my doctoral journey was not just an intellectual pursuit. At that point, I did not know if I was being “othered” for being a non-traditional student who came from emergency management practice, for being an older female student, or for being non-white. Unfortunately, it took months before I realized the emotional toll I dealt with as well as the typical challenges of a doctoral program.

Can’t Be Quiet Anymore –

As I mentioned in my quick intro, I joined a diversity and inclusion committee to reduce the social inequities and found myself surrounded by accomplished individuals who were still unable to see how their privilege and power were advantages that non-white individuals will never have access to.  After four years of staying quiet about my experiences, I can no longer ignore the willful ignorance of the role of privilege and power.    As a woman of color, it is time to bring my concerns forward in a space where they will be heard rather than invalidated as “just my perspective” and “not the whole story” from individuals who are not people of color and who are unable to acknowledge the differences in lived experiences.  

Many of us suffer because of the imbalance of power where we relive or experience trauma regularly in the classes we take or in exchanges with other students, professors, or staff. The imbalance of power exists because of hiring practices, implicit bias, and where some white professors/staff are unable to acknowledge the privilege (and power) they hold in being white.

I have found my thoughts and my feedback are questioned for its validity or quality because as a woman of color, I must be “angry”. I am also speaking out since I find white centering or misappropriating our experiences problematic, and it is still happening too often. 

I will continue to write about these experiences from a place of growth and a desire for change.  In my practice as a disaster manager, I often said that I would speak for those who could not speak for themselves, and I find myself doing that again.  There are many students and professionals around the world who cannot speak their truth without consequences. 

Lastly, I am not entirely free of retribution.  I am still slowly working on my dissertation proposal now and hope to be done with it in the next year.   The political fallout for a doctoral student can be terrible, but I feel so strongly about speaking out anyway. 

I thank you for sticking with me.  Stay tuned for more. 



 #PhD #DoctoralJourney #Other #Othering #BIPOC #GRE #Diversity #Inclusion #Perspectives #Power #Privilege #PhDStudent

10 thoughts on “The Emotional Work of a PhD: Why I cannot forget my first meetings as a PhD student.

  1. Good writing about “other”. Don’t let anyone “other ” you (probably not grammatically correct) You are an amazing woman, a doer, someone wanting to make changes and speak for those who can’t. You will are a guiding light for our field.


      1. Thanks for this, Susamma. I appreciate your candor and I’m grateful for your courage I’m sharing this. Blessings to you.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Susamma, proceed with your ambition until you see the victory. You can expect stumbling blocks while you march. Your service in the U.S. Army will give you courage, strength and determination to redress your grievances.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing, as a 44 year Emergency Management retiree all I can do now is read, listen and share past experience’s. Although I can’t say I have experienced some of your challenges you have expressed I can relate. I found it quite difficult at times working with folks form the nuclear industry, the “NRC gang” from the nuclear power plant side,(the industrial nuclear folks were great to work with, for example the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant)) it was pretty much a closed group if you weren’t trained, educated and had power plant background, What I can say is I was finally accepted by this group when I showed up at the Callaway Nuclear Power Plant one day as the State Representative, they had long faces at first but when they found out about my “nuke” background we all became good friends and working professionals., felt good, finally. But with that said I really enjoy following your comments on FB and now your PhD journey. Best of luck, keep writing and continue to let know how your journey if going.


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