Racial Realities: Exploring the Experiences of Black Male Doctoral Candidates in “All But Dissertation” Status

Dr. Sharron Scott, Jennifer M Johnson
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 171-187

This qualitative study investigated the educational experiences of Black male doctoral students that contributed to prolonged “All But Dissertation” (ABD) status.

Explorations of the enrollment and persistent patterns among Black/African American students has shed light on the disparate rates of graduate school completion. While previous scholarship has focused on Black men in doctoral programs, there has been less focus on the experiences of Black male doctoral students who, after successfully completing coursework, comprehensive examinations, and a dissertation proposal hearing, find themselves mired in “All But Dissertation” (ABD) status. The purpose of this research was to explore the intersections of race and gender in the educational experiences of Black male doctoral students that contribute to delayed terminal degree completion.

Utilizing Self-Efficacy Theory and Critical Race Theory, this phenomenological investigation examines the racialized experiences of three Black male doctoral candidates enrolled in diverse graduate programs. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to identify how race and gender intersects with faculty advising, mentoring, student behaviors, and the ways faculty members support or impede doctoral student progression during the dissertation phase.

This study contributes to research in three critical ways: (1) it expands our understanding of the experiences of doctoral students specifically between completing coursework and defending a dissertation; (2) it illustrates the types of racialized encounters experienced during graduate study that contribute to prolonged ABD status and program attrition; and (3) it offers strategies for campus administrators and faculty to consider to extend structures of support to promote degree attainment among Black male doctoral students.

This study’s findings indicate that racialized dynamics during doctoral education create environments that negatively impact doctoral student self-esteem and diminish motivation to complete doctoral studies. Through the narratives of Rico, Jeremy, and Kevin, three core themes emerged that illustrate the salience of race in the doctoral program experiences of Black males: (1) Underrepresented & Undervalued, (2) Challenging Transitions, and (3) Gendered Racism. First, each participant attended doctoral programs at predominantly White institutions, and all shared the commonality of being the only or one of a few Black male doctoral students in their program. Being underrepresented in the program led to challenges finding faculty members who valued their burgeoning research interests and were willing to support them through the dissertation process. Additionally, participants described challenging transitions at each stage of their doctoral program, which ultimately contributed to extending their time as students. Not only did they describe having different levels of preparedness to begin doctoral study, limited feedback from faculty through coursework and on dissertation proposal drafts prolonging their time as doctoral candidates. Finally, participants described their experiences navigating gendered racism, or racism that was attributed to their identity as Black men. Exasperated by their underrepresentation in the academy, participants talked about being surveilled on campus, having their intellect questioned, and the struggles associated with getting approval for their research.

The experiences highlighted by participants offer insights into the institutional policies and procedures that can be implemented to support Black men. Specifically, findings speak to the importance of diversity. Campuses should work to ensure there is structural diversity within programs, and that faculty can guide students through a diverse array of research interests and topics as well. Faculty should offer clear and consistent feedback on student writing at all stages of graduate education to better prepare students for the transition to writing a dissertation independently. Finally, as racism is endemic to education, administration should promote spaces where students of color can talk about their racially charged experiences navigating the academy.

This work would benefit from additional research exploring the experiences of doctoral candidates across diverse institutional contexts. This includes intentional exploration of experiences of students enrolled in online doctoral programs, executive doctoral programs, and other types of programs that have emerged.

All But Dissertation, doctoral candidates, African American Male
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