The Inquisition of a Family’s PhD Trailblazer….For Better or For Worse?

 By Bijean Ford, Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis ‘14

Art by Dex Riley



For current students and alumni alike, I’m sure we can all recall the grueling process of getting into grad school. We had an ambition, fulfilled our prerequisites, submitted our applications, successfully interviewed for our program slots, and here we are. We have come from so many different walks of life, and yet we are drawn together to converge on the same goal: completing our PhD. While those who know me realize how private I can be, I’d like to share some of my personal experience as a first-generation PhD student in my family; in particular, one who against societal odds happens to be black and male.

During my initial considerations to attend graduate school, my imagination ran a bit wild, trying to grasp what the training would entail. As prospects, we heard the typical clichés: “If you decide to pursue a PhD, you have to be somewhat crazy” or “If you come into this for the money, you’re in for a rude awakening.” Oh yes, this type of passive discouragement certainly casts doubt into the young-adult mind. But I took the plunge anyway, like a seemingly “crazy” person.

There are some, like myself, who are “trailblazers” on this path to the doctorate, while others may have had some of the wilderness cleared to better see the route that lies ahead. Regardless of how much perspective and preparation we may have, this pursuit of the highest-level degree in the land is one of the toughest experiences we will ever endure. At times I wonder why I put myself through this hell, while other times I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. This seesaw of emotions only scratches the surface of what it has been like for me during this journey.

“Almost didn’t make it, but I made it through” – Lil’ Uzi Vert

The application and interview process for the various programs within GDBBS is a nerve racking experience, more so for some than others. To refresh your minds on how competitive Emory’s graduate programs are, on average over the last five years, only 13% of all applicants to the GDBBS were admitted.  After all is said and done, during the offer period there are those who are offered first, those who are unfortunately denied, and a final tiny group of applicants who are placed on the waitlist of purgatory; I just so happened to land in purgatory, hoping for an offer to be passed down. Due to the fact that I’m writing this now in my fourth year of grad school, I obviously was blessed with an offer. But, I almost didn’t make it.

“I know the lord is thy shepherd, even though I am the black sheep” – CyHi the Prynce

No matter what my superiors and mentors say about my deserving to be here, this feeling of barely being good enough never seemed to go away. I constantly questioned my abilities; a disposition I had never experienced on this level. Most of my life I was a captain of a team, a standout scholar athlete, a musician, or a top performer of my class. But then, as I labored through my first two years of studies and training, my drive and dedication were questioned by my professors, while my doubts grew about myself. Why was this so hard?  Why was I struggling so much? Do I belong here? I came to realize down the line these were symptoms of what is recognized as “imposter syndrome”. 

Mentally I had to traverse a maze of mountains, as I felt like I struggled through every aspect of my graduate school experience, from completion of my course work, to finding a home lab through my rotations, to passing my qualification exams.  I dreaded every step of my program. Being a private person, I didn’t talk much about my issues with my peers. I’ve always felt people in general are more nosey about what you’re going through rather than actually willing to help. Moreover, I was so tired of feeling vulnerable and watched, that I tried to preserve what little pride I had. Not to mention, I was the only male in my program’s matriculating class, so incubating in a mostly female environment long-term was a challenge. It was a far cry from the male comradery I had grown accustomed to, during my days as an athlete. All this led me to be extremely selective of whom I spoke with about my issues at school. Of these selective individuals, I am indebted with gratitude to two outstanding mentors, Amanda James (IMSD administrator and mentor) and Shayla Shorter (Emory post-doc, peer, and mentor). They were, and still are, my academic allies who understand the total grad school experience, and can empathize with me and my personal background.

Graduate school has been a lonely time, and I never realized how important a sense of community meant to me until it was gone. I was apart from my mother and my girlfriend (now my fiancé), and my most resourceful outlet, my best friend David, all of whom lived in NC. David and I grew up together from elementary school days and have literally claimed each other as brothers. If I needed to laugh, he cracked the joke. If I needed to squeal (cry), he’d be there for me. If I simply wanted someone to talk to, that I could truly relate to, we made it happen; and it was fully reciprocated. However, I couldn’t help but think the graduate school experience couldn’t be this arduous for everyone, nor did it seem so. So, I took the opportunity to talk about graduate school experiences with fellow colleagues, to see if there were any parallels that could be drawn, and what could be learned and potentially changed.

“Domino, domino, only spot a few blacks the higher I go” – Jay-Z

                The lack of color within graduate school and pretty much all-around Emory University’s decadent displays, is impossible for me to ignore. Based on the 5 year average, around 9% of enrolled PhD students under the GDBBS are of my ethnic background, so experiencing the blackness of Atlanta has been relegated to off campus excursions, as time permitted (ummm, what time?). Limitless tapestries and framed pictures of prominent white men seem to lay claim to this prestigious university. In GDBBS, based on the same 5 year average, about 7% of enrollees are Asian and roughly 9% are Hispanic. In a recent survey responded to by 106 of my approximately 400 peers in the GDBBS, I uncovered some notable additional statistics. 72% of respondents were women and of those women, 71% were White, 13% Black, 9% Asian, and 5% Hispanic. Of the 26% of male respondents, 57% were White, 21% Black, 7% Asian, and 14% Hispanic. More notably, of all racial demographics, 100% of black students were first time PhDs, in their immediate family; in contrast, white students had the lowest percentage of first time PhDs in their immediate family. When it came down to being the first to attain a doctorate of any kind (MD, PharmD, DVM, PhD, etc.) in their immediate family, black men were the only demographic that answered yes 100%.  Black men and women also reported themselves as the highest rate of first time PhDs in their entire extended family. Lastly, all respondents who had children were first time PhD students, regardless of race (see table). 

1stGenPhD Chart1.jpg

Compound the whiteness, the lack of familiar culture, my loneliness, and my struggles through grad school, my imposter syndrome weighed heavily on me. I sat down with a good friend of mine, fourth year grad student Lisa Mills, to recollect our experiences as PhD trailblazers. She also felt this stealth attack of imposter syndrome. “It really felt like it detracted from the achievements,” she said. Originally from Philadelphia, Lisa worked in a hospital after college, while volunteering in an immunology laboratory. She excelled in the lab, learning her way around the bench to the point of landing publications and soon garnered unwavering support from her PI to pursue a PhD. “It wasn’t until I was 24 before I started to consider a PhD,” Lisa said. “I had never really thought about it before.” However, her curiosity and passion for science was always there. Before the age of eight she received an encouraging gift of a microscope from her mother. Aside from her mother being her biggest cheerleader, her spiritual reassurance has kept her grounded. “It feels like certain doors were closed intentionally to lead me here. I’m a true believer that the universe works in your favor when you apply yourself.” 

1stGenPhD Chart2.jpg

                Amongst Lisa's qualms was a lack of guidance on navigating academia. Along with needing to "prove why I'm here, as a woman of color," Lisa wished she had more instruction on how to pick a lab. Fortunately, Lisa found a supportive lab with a brilliant PI. She has had numerous opportunities to travel and present her work. But just as easily things for this PhD trailblazer could have gone wrong. The guidance Lisa carries with her didn't come from the academic world. “My parents always reminded me that education will take me far. And they were right.” I too can remember my own mother’s motto: “Silver and gold may fade away, but a good education will never decay.” That motivation is priceless.

“They can’t keep a good man down.  Always keep a smile when they want me to frown…”- Sizzla

                A lack of guidance is a common issue shared by not only students already in grad school, but also by those exploring how to enter academia. My colleague and racquetball partner, Luis Munoz, noted how he somewhat “fell into the field” of biomedical research, having to figure things out along the way, as a PhD trailblazer. Although he never had direction from anyone regarding where to start looking, his undergraduate program was extremely pivotal in opening doors for him.  It provided awareness of the experience he needed, such as summer research experiences and scientific societies.  “Without those resources, I wouldn’t know where to start, and I probably wouldn’t be here at Emory right now,” remarked Luis.

                When he feels lost or unsure, Luis relies on a network of peers as his primary source of support. However, he noted and was concerned by a lack of Hispanic representation in his new field. This motivated Luis to co-found Emory’s new SACNAS chapter – Society for advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. “As a proud Hispanic, I feel an obligation to reach back and help others from my community who may have interest in these same fields by increasing their awareness of opportunities we had so that they may confidently follow in our footsteps.” Luis’s ability to relate to people on many levels has allowed him to thrive and not feel “too out of place” in grad school. 

                Similarly, another driven and personable colleague, Sarah Connolly, helped start an organization called IgG to foster a community within immunology grad students, now extending its reach to other programs. “Grad school can be such a grind and the stress can take the fun out of the experience,” Sarah stated. Sarah’s goal is for IgG to provide a breath of fresh air into an experience that can be downright suffocating. IgG is an outlet for Sarah to reunite with friends and have productive discussions while engaging in fun activities. “We all have different needs, and our programs should be able to nurture those needs through the training process.” Sarah continued by pointing out that we all came from different backgrounds, and in spite of our similar interests that brought us together we would most likely diverge upon different career paths after completing our programs, and I completely agree. I want to believe our programs and PI’s have our best interests at heart, even if those interests don’t align completely with their own, because ultimately our community wants to contribute where we recognize a void, to make science, medicine, and public health even better.

“All’s my life, I’s had to fight…” – The Color Purple

                Holly Lewis epitomizes the exploratory nature of a PhD trailblazer, and sees how the landscape of science and medicine requires a transformation as well.  As an MD/PhD student, she views science and medicine through the same lens, and provides perspective on her road to medical/graduate school, noting some of the idiosyncrasies that could be reassessed overall. “All of us in science need to listen more to the communities that are impacted by our work.” She insists that, “We need to make them feel involved” and that “ultimately, it’s all about inclusivity and everyone contributing to the greater good.” There is an intersection where our work meets the people we are trying to help.  Being able to divulge the knowledge in a coherent and layperson-friendly way is paramount in making a connection. “You can science all day, but if you can’t human, what are you really doing?” challenged Holly.  As the leader of research- and community-outreach initiatives such as Sickle and Flow and Teddybear Hospital, Holly understands firsthand how important it is to link academic work to the greater public community.  In their own way, such programs bring professionals in touch with their target populations to make them more connected and more informed about the issues they all are confronting.

                However, for this to be most effective, we need people that are genuinely interested in these issues and possess the compassion to address them eloquently and patiently. “We need a diversity of experience and diversity of background.” Here, Holly refers to pipeline-like programs, such as the Emory Pipeline, designed to recruit folks into higher education who may not have mentors in their own families or communities.  She has been involved in a plethora of similar activities and communities leading up to and through her graduate school career, ranging from lifeguard training, to her involvement in the hip hop community, from lab work after undergrad, to her advocacy and support of the queer and transgender community, as she is a member herself. “In addition to my background in the humanities from undergrad, taking time after graduating, to go out into the workforce and ‘grow up’ really rounded me out as a person.” As a doctoral trailblazer in her family, the road up until this point has not always been smooth for Holly, but along the way she ran into and sought out the right people and they cared enough to invest in her, to help her succeed. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and appreciate the folks that helped show me the way.”

                “Wouldn’t you know, we been hurt, been down before…when our pride was low, lookin’ at the world like ’Where do we go?’…I’m at the preacher’s door, my knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow. But we gon’ be alright.” – Kendrick Lamar

                I’ve mentioned before that pursuing a PhD is one of the toughest experiences to endure in of itself, however, there are some other pressures and issues that inevitably become factors.  For instance, Holly brought up that the duality of her degree made her constantly have to prove she’s as much of a PhD as anyone else, as opposed to an “M.D. trying to be a PhD.”  Or as Luis and I mutually agreed, there is an abstract “playbook” to success. Being naïve to this can make clearance of grad school’s program qualification hurdles unnecessarily stressful.

 In addition, sometimes life interrupts our grad school plans, putting extra pressure on individuals with less of a support system. In my case, things would have been much easier for me if my familial situation were more “ideal” or “typical.” Unfortunately, I unexpectedly lost my father during a fairly routine hospital procedure my junior year of undergrad; he was my best friend and I miss him dearly.  Additionally, being Jamaican-born and an only-child, I had no other family that lived in North Carolina to help support my mother. She now lives with me and my fiancé, Alex, for the time being, and the stress of the transition has now subsided. She and my fiancé have grown more and more aware of my obligations to grad school and are extremely helpful whenever they can. They are my favorite women in the world and mean the universe to me.

These unseen challenges have added another dimension to my character and my experiences as a young man. I am aware of all the opinionated expectations, floating statistics, and sticky stigmas associated with being a black man in America, and I am encouraged to keep pushing and defying the odds. But I will not forget where I came from nor what I’ve been through.  Lisa also shares this perspective as a black woman of the same age. Buju Banton, a prominent reggae artist from Jamaica stated in one of his songs, “Circumstances make me what I am, everyone should understand.”  Amen.

Just because sacrifices must be made to be successful during this endeavor, does not mean I have to sacrifice my own happiness; at least not completely. Thankfully my PI and my program have been gracious enough to realize I am a human-being addressing circumstances in my life and growing as an individual. Regardless, as Lisa told me, you find yourself second and third guessing yourself if the sacrifices you made are worth it. We both left decent paying jobs to take a pay cut, and all the while falling behind our peers in regard to preparing for retirement. It all makes you feel like you’re playing catch up once you return to the job market, not just financially, but also as it pertains to starting a family.  The later you start, the louder that biological clock ticks. You certainly gain a respect for time.

                Undoubtedly, the respect that comes with obtaining a PhD is especially important to PhD trailblazers.  And the plan and hope is when we are done with this training, we make the most of that degree, and make it even more worth the time invested. Most importantly, it is incumbent upon us to pass down our knowledge to our respective community’s next generation so that we may nurture the change we want to see. “During grand rounds, at the hospital, there’s a natural tendency for younger trainees to sit towards the back of the room, and the most senior doctors sit up front,” says Holly. “It’s fascinating to me, to look around at the group I’m sitting with, to see so many women, people of color, and queer folks, coming up through the ranks. That’s the future.”

Edited by Amielle Moreno, Neuroscience '12