Being the Black Sheep: Isolation in Academia
Before I entered my Ph.D. program, people often gave advice about finding a balance between school and life, tips to keep up with readings and seminars, and the obvious “make sure you’re mindful about who you select as your advisor.” What is often missing from these conversations about starting your first year is how isolating the academic world can feel at times. I wasn’t prepared to deal with feeling as if I was on this journey all alone. Being the only black student in my Ph.D. program caused me to feel a degree of isolation that made me reconsider my contributions to the field, my research trajectory, and if a Ph.D. was really worth it.
As I wrapped up my first year as a Ph.D. student, the feelings of fatigue and isolation were high. I questioned if being an academic was the right fit for me. Roughly three weeks after my semester concluded, I attended a three-day workshop at a well-respected university, with a focus on navigating the academy and conducting research on black populations. I had no idea how important black spaces are for academics until I attended this workshop. I went from being the only black student all of the time to being in a room full of budding black scholars from many different disciplines. This moment felt so good that it almost brought tears to my eyes. I felt as though I could make it through a career in academia, but only as long as there were spaces for us.
The drastic difference between my program demographics and the workshop made me realize the importance of cultivating community early on in your academic career. I wrote this post with the goal to share three lessons I learned about dealing with feelings of isolation in academia:
1. Find your tribe.
I know this may sound a bit cliché, but finding your community is so important. Beyond the benefits of networking, cultivating relationships with people who are from similar walks of life who are also pursuing the same academic career provides a level of emotional/mental support which can be very helpful throughout the graduate school process. Even in the midst of feeling isolated, I find comfort in online spaces or group chats that I have with my academic peers who just seem to get it without needing much of an explanation about why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling. It is nice to have people in your corner who have gone through the emotional and mental rollercoaster of a Ph.D. program.
2. Maintain relationships with people outside of academia.
Whenever I’m dealing with burnout, my spirit is often lifted by a conversation with my family members or friends who have no idea about what I do as a Ph.D. student. They are able to remind me to look at my career/academic trajectory as only a fraction of my identity. Relationships with people outside of academia remind me of why I study the population I study while also keeping me grounded. I’ve personally experienced how incredibly easy it is to lose sight of things that matter in life when dealing with the obligations of school, but maintaining relationships with folks from back home have made me feel extremely grateful to pressure my dream of becoming a professor.
3. Advocate for black spaces.
Black spaces in academia are important. Not only for the production of knowledge, but also because it allows for black scholars to support one another. If you have the ability to start a black graduate student club at your school, I encourage you to. It is up to us to hold our programs and universities responsible for providing us with the necessary resources to thrive both emotionally and academically. If we don’t advocate for the spaces we need and deserve then who will?
As I begin to prepare for my second year as a Ph.D. student, I feel an immense amount of gratitude for being able to find other budding black scholars to connect with and support throughout this journey in life. As a final note, the support and spaces that we provide for one another, both online and in real time, are valuable. Continue to make each other feel seen and supported.
About the Author
Breanna is currently a sociology Ph.D. student interested in race, identity, and immigration. Outside of the classroom, Breanna is also the founder of lifestyle and wellness site WhereSheBegins.com.