Voices in Education

Coping with Racial Trauma in Doctoral Study
Let us introduce you to John. He was the first in his family to graduate from college and came from a low-income background. John’s advisors, a White couple, recruited him into his graduate program. They promised him four years of full funding and touted the fact that he would be the first Vietnamese American to graduate from their doctoral institution. After John’s arrival, his advisors proactively mentored one of his White peers and gave her many opportunities to conduct research and publish, but did not offer John the same assistance. He was forced to seek out these opportunities on his own with the help of other faculty. Two weeks before the end of the fall semester of his second year, his advisors ended their advising relationship and told him that they were going to cut off his funding immediately because they felt he was not passionate about research. As a result, John was left on his own to look for funding sources. At the time of this decision, he had already published five peer-reviewed journal articles.

This is one example of numerous racism-related encounters experienced by John and other participants in our study, which examines strategies for coping with racial trauma in doctoral programs. These encounters caused symptoms of racism-related stress and racial trauma such as depression, dissociation, anxiety, nausea, stomach cramps, headaches, rashes, and internalization of the racism. In addition to dealing with the daily stresses of doctoral studies, John had to cope with racism and racial trauma and figure out how to respond to it.

What did John do? He suppressed his reactions, remained cordial to his former advisors, and sought other prospective advisors. More specifically, John responded by seeking social support, seeking treatment, achieving as a form of resistance, advocating for peers of color, and reflecting on racism. He also sought medical attention for his rashes and therapy from a colleague pursuing her degree in mental health counseling.

In the end, John was able to find an advisor who could fully fund him. However, he had to complete additional coursework in order to receive this funding, which increased his time to degree. John continued working on his research and currently has over eleven peer-reviewed publications. While he has experienced additional racist encounters with his former advisors and others within his department, he has continued to draw from the coping strategies he has learned. He is starting his sixth year of doctoral studies and plans to defend his dissertation this fall.

With mental health issues in graduate students on the rise, college staff, in order to provide additional support, must better understand the challenges that may contribute to problems such as racism and racial trauma and the ways students can effectively cope with these challenges. The article Responding to Racism and Racial Trauma in Doctoral Study is one small step toward generating such an understanding. It provides insight into the psychological challenges that can result from racism-related encounters in doctoral studies and presents an inventory of different ways that doctoral students can and do respond to these situations.

About the Author: Kimberly A. Truong is a senior fellow in the higher education doctoral program at Northeastern University and an adjunct lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Samuel D. Museus is an assistant professor of educational administration at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  They are the authors of "Responding to Racism and Racial Trauma in Doctoral Study" (Harvard Educational Review, Summer 2012).