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‘Is a PhD for Me?'

June 19, 2023
Aireale J. Rodgers speaking
Alumna Aireale J. Rodgers, a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, facilitated several sessions.

Most people have heard the term ‘PhD,’ and they know that getting one is an outstanding accomplishment. But few picture themselves on this journey – especially when they lack role models.

Connections, a day-long PhD preparation and community-building program for those historically underrepresented in higher education, was designed to demystify the process and clarify expectations. In each session, facilitators, graduate students, faculty, and more than a dozen aspiring doctoral students wrestled with questions like “Is a PhD for me?”

The workshop, which grew out of a Daniel I. Linzer Grant for Innovation in Diversity and Equity awarded to Claudia Haase, Quinn Mulroy, and Regina Logan and was supported by Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, drew students who are interested in doctoral programs related to human development, social policy, and similar fields.

Throughout the day, participants discussed everything from figuring out their “why” for pursuing a ‘PhD’ – which is shorthand for a Doctor of Philosophy – to the importance of finding the right program and advisor, navigating the application process, and financial considerations,

Alumna Aireale J. Rodgers (BS11, MS18), a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and graduate student Janella Benson, also at UW-Madison, facilitated several sessions and provided “The Tea on the Ph.D.” They fielded questions about research, academia, PhD programs, and finances, and provided tools for authentic engagement in the application process.

“We often think about the PhD as a mechanism for creating more just futures -- and a more just world,” said Rodgers, who earned her doctorate at the University of Southern California. “It’s one of the most creative and impactful fields that you can go into.”

Connections was co-organized by doctoral students and faculty in the School of Education and Social Policy’s Human Development and Social Policy Program; and Megan Redfearn, director of faculty and doctoral student affairs.

Graduate students Phoebe Lin, Shanequewa Love, Andrew Stein, Kanika Khanda, Jen Cowhy, and Tre Wells helped imagine, organize, and plan the program and shared their experiences during round table events and panels.

People from communities of color, who identify as LGBTQ+, or who come from first-generation, low-income backgrounds are vastly underrepresented in doctoral programs. According to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates report., 3% of doctoral degrees are earned by Black women.

“We need change in academia,” said Claudia Haase, one of the co-organizers. “Connections is one way in which we can create a different future, together.”

A PhD is a terminal degree -- as far as one can go, and those who pursue one should want to dive deeply into empirical research, Rodgers said.  “You’re moving from being a consumer to an active producer of knowledge,” she added. “It’s an opportunity to go really narrow, really deep into a topic.”

Rodgers, who received her undergraduate and master’s degree at Northwestern’s SESP, talked about how she chose the University of Southern California for her PhD in part because she was able to join a cohort of five other Black women. Her mom called the group “The Super Six.”

“Instead of thinking, ‘oh, I don’t have this yet,’ try to understand why they need you. Rodgers said. “You have a lot to offer to the institution."