Is a PhD For Me?

California High School is a large high school in San Ramon, California, which is a city that recently won the “Top American city to raise children” award. As someone who was raised there, I can understand why an outsider might think that the suburb of San Francisco deserves such an honor. The schools are excellent, there is no community that has less than 6 parks within walking distance from any one house. There is very little crime, and what crime there exists is the result of bored teenagers with nothing to do. However, what one may not notice is how committed the town is to producing young adults that know no failure, and are groomed to think that they are perfect and should seek out only the highest and most prestigious opportunities. Thus, as a product if this environment, I felt that not only should I aspire to take my education as far as it can go, but I also was a failure if I did not.

One would think that college would be the great equalizer, and that my mentality alone would not be enough to advance further towards the goal of achieving the highest degree I could, but surprisingly, it wasn’t. Not only was my “I deserve this and that” mentality accepted and sufficient, but it was also celebrated. Not only was I entitled and driven, but I was also African American, and fully aware of the advantages it gave me. Upon reflection, I understand that certain resources are put in place because most minorities did not grow up in the environment I did, and needed assistance in finding the drive, awareness, and resources they needed to succeed. I was one of the rare cases who not only had the drive and awareness, but to wherewithal to access what advantages my skin color gave me and use them to further my education. How could I have been so ahead of the minority curve? My mentor gave me the magic acronym that would be at times my savior and my downfall, and that word is PhD. I am African American, a STEM major, and now I wanted to pursue a PhD. Suddenly, the resource floodgates opened. I became funded, easily joined a lab, and presented research at conferences, all while being paid to do it. My mentor set me up to be the perfect PhD candidate, and if the resources were there, I kept saying whatever she wanted me to say to be pushed (relatively effort-free on my part) down this road to the promised land of a Doctorate degree.

The PhD whirlwind started during my sophomore year of college and before I knew it, I was a senior. At this point, I realized that I never actually put thought into whether I wanted a PhD or not. My professors were only interested in where I wanted to go to get the PhD, not whether I wanted it or not. However, something about graduation and looking at what it takes to obtain a PhD made me hit the proverbial panic button. Suddenly, the word I said to get me good favor amongst my professors, research opportunities when I wanted them, and funding when I needed started to make me feel ill when I thought about it. I went to one of my professors with my concerns, and that professor told me that I was just having cold academic feet and told me I should do a Masters while I came to my senses, which brings me to the present-day. I am a second year Masters student, one semester away from graduation, and I am more confused than ever. Sure, I applied to programs, because my mentors here at SFSU tell me repeatedly how great an applicant I am, and that it would be a mistake not to apply. With that advice, which I have heard in some form or another for the past 7 years, I applied to 10 schools, and have thus heard back positively from one. Spoiler alert: Everyone is thrilled, proud, and happy for you when you announced that you have reached the “goal”.

I should be happy and proud of myself for achieving this milestone as well, it was an arduous road. But sometimes I still hear that voice in my head that wonders how I got here and whether I should take this next step of academia. Why is a PhD for me? Is it because I am African American and there are so few who have PhDs? Is it because people have worked so hard to keep me on this path to academic supremacy? Will a PhD give me more of an edge in the job market than my Masters alone will? There are so many reasons people other than myself have fed me over the years to justify taking this step, and in some ways, I am grateful for their support and help. But other times I wish more attention was paid to what I want, and whether these steps were the most beneficial to me, and not just for those who share my skin color. I am not certain what the ending to this story is, just as I am not certain that I do not want a PhD. However, now that the craziness of the application process is over, and I have achieved the goal of which so many have invested time and energy, I look forward to spending these next few months in introspection. Its been a long time since I have taken a professional step in life that I solely because I wanted to, free of outside influence. I look forward to reconnecting with my inner voice. In the meantime, I want fellow minorities to know that there are plenty opportunities out there if help is needed, and people want to you to succeed. However, make sure you define what that success is on your own terms before it is too late.