To say that timing was crappy would be an understatement, but almost three years later we are still together and very much in love.

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There have been days, weeks, where I have felt that it was all pointless. So much so that he did once leave in the middle of a party to work on his thesis. Some five hours later, he rang to see where I was at. I had ended up in bed very drunk and in no shape to hold a conversation.

There was no way to compete with the thesis.

A week as a PhD student

I have never grown fond of his Thesis. It took me months, almost a year before having a serious conversation with my boyfriend about his thesis. The number of journal articles that I have attempted to read in his field would top My reading of New Scientist and Nature News dramatically changed; I charged towards anything in nanotechnology first rather than reading pieces from my favourite columnists and reporters.

This conversation was the hardest. It is impossible to not look stupid. Looking stupid and asking the dumb questions have never been my thing. I have always been a high achieving student, but this thesis had managed to strip it away. To make matters worse the Thesis had the propensity to send its tendrils into other areas of the relationship. Dates would have to fit around what the Thesis wanted. Sometimes it was writing. Other times it was reading or worse still, sometimes it just demanded work. There were weeks where I was reduced to coffee dates of no more than 15 minutes.

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I grew to hate the Thesis. My boyfriend was a slave to it and I hardly saw him. My only hope was him finishing the damn thing. I know that this sounds like I was the only one who compromised and was a pushover. It is what it is.


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A few of my friends teased that I had an invisible boyfriend and dubbed him Casper as he never showed up to anything during his writing. It was especially helpful to have friends who had gone through the PhD machine. They assured me that the Thesis would stop interfering with my relationship. In the meantime, had I met his parents.

When the relationship with your PhD supervisor turns toxic

I have to say that moment was a lot less stressful than any of the times involving the Thesis. All the Thesis has ever done is remind me that I will never be able to share a special mental connection with my boyfriend. That is the hardest part that I have had to deal with. Corrections get done and a doctorate is gained.

Just like the horse whisperer – but with more pages

He assures me that he leaves it behind at the lab. And just to complicate matters further, I am about to introduce my Masters thesis to the mix this year. Parenting Through a PhD. It makes me think I should work on my thesis a lot more though. My college days reside in my memory as a generally wonderful time of self-discovery, activism and a willingness to have difficult conversations. My alma mater, University of Maryland Baltimore County, is where the seeds of my intellectual activism began to blossom.

Undergrad did not, however, prepare me for the reality of oppression in higher education. The funny thing is, when I contacted my two main undergrad advisors halfway through my first-year of grad school, neither professor was surprised that I had been smacked in the face by racism in academe. Whatever the reason for being surprised by the racism I experienced and observed in my graduate program, I say with some reticence that my time in grad school has provided me with some insights that may be useful to others.

For black prospective graduate students, I recommend, as a starting point, to be aware that racism is the norm in academe. Even if you are generally shielded from microaggressions, racism is deeply entrenched in the operation of graduate departments, universities, disciplines and professional organizations. It affects who and what gets funded, who and what gets published where, who gets hired and tenured, who gets admitted, who graduates, and so forth.

Weigh your options carefully. The supportive bubble of a program at a Historically Black College or University may come at the expense of your job prospects, yet the prestige of a top-ranked historically white college or university may come at the cost of your mental health and happiness.


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Do your homework on each program you are considering. Contact multiple current students to ask about their personal and professional experiences -- with coursework, with support from and availability of faculty, with funding opportunities, with publishing, with teaching, with the university in general, with the surrounding city and so on. If you are interested in studying race, ethnicity or immigration, ask whether that kind of work is supported by the faculty, reflected in the course work and funded.

You might do well to email them a few concrete questions and offer to talk to them by phone if they are available. Contact faculty members to ask similar questions. Take note not only of the number of black faculty members but also whether any are tenured associate or full professors. As you prepare to begin your graduate program, I recommend setting up your support network ahead of time.

My point is, do not organize your entire life around your graduate program. Navigating racism in a supposedly anti-racist or at least race-neutral environment is a messy affair. It is an awful catch that black scholars must choose between advancing their careers or advancing their communities. I am not sure that a happy medium exists, but I believe you can be successful on your terms and be able to sleep at night while making as few concessions as possible. The faculty advisers whom you select can either help or hinder your success and well-being.

Before you jump to making a list of names, I recommend that you identify your needs, as there are many. In the words of Kerry Ann Rockquemore, avoid the pitfall of attempting to find a mentor guru who will serve all of your needs; not only does such a person not exist, but it is perhaps unhealthy to rely on a single person for everything. You will probably have a main mentor who serves as your primary guide through department milestones and helps you to get a job.

Your own preferences and actual availability will determine whether those mentors are black or some other race. Black professors may be more supportive by virtue of their shared experiences with racism in the academy. But there is evidence that white male professors may lead to better job prospects in academe, perhaps owing to their wider, higher-status professional networks, cultural capital and other resources that are unequally distributed in the academy. Whatever you do, remember that graduate school is a means to an end.

It is not the rest of your life. To survive and thrive as a black intellectual, there will be times when you simply have to suck it up and do something that feels crappy or feels irrelevant to your goals. They can grant you a Ph. Eric Anthony Grollman is a black queer non-binary intellectual activist and a sociology professor at the University of Richmond.

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