Black Girl Magicians and Deferred Dreams – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by an author who prefers to remain anonymous. She writes: “I am an African American woman from the Northeast who obtained a doctoral degree in STEM at a large public institution. After completing postdocs in the South and the Midwest, I returned to the Northeast to continue my job search.”

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I’m writing this essay from the dining room table of my mother’s home.  Well, I guess it’s my home too now since I moved back here nearly a year ago.  That’s right. After many years of sacrifices, near poverty wages, hard work, and many professional accomplishments, I’m back home.

So I’m one of those so-called, highly coveted unicorns.  I’m a Black woman scientist with a PhD. My story is a bit of a circuitous one.  After earning my BA and MS in the northeast, I moved south to begin my doctoral studies.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the right fit and it wasn’t the right time. And more unfortunately, I internalized my failure.  It was the first time I had ever failed to complete something this big and this important. I was devastated. I eventually moved back home, licked my wounds, worked for a bit, and tried again.  This time, I got into a university a little closer to home. It was a tough ride, but because I was able to find the support I never had at my previous institution, I was able to survive and became the first Black person to graduate from my PhD program.  It was the ultimate comeback story!

After graduation, I moved to the Midwest to begin a postdoc. Just 2 weeks before and 2 hours away from Michael Brown’s untimely death at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, MO. Welcome to the Show-Me state! After 2 years of isolation and many lessons learned, I was able to move back to the east coast and do a 2nd postdoc, this one more fulfilling than the previous one. 

But a funny thing happened on the way to tenure-track. I realized I was burned out.  I had been running on fear and fumes since I graduated (maybe earlier) and the last thing I needed was to start the race all over again.  But this postdoc allowed me to live in a location more suitable to my needs, it gave the potential for more opportunities to build a personal life, and it was closer to family and friends, all things that I realized I needed most during my time in the Midwest.  It also provided a much needed paycheck, so I pulled myself together and moved forward. It was a productive experience. I attended conferences, published several papers, became heavily involved in campus activity, tried my best to network and explore the many research and administrative options that were within my reach.  But I was still burned out. And I was tired.  

And as much as I did and as hard as I worked, it never felt like it was enough.  I knew that my postdoc was only a temporary position and I would need to find another job soon.  I tried y’all. I really tried. I sent out applications. I made phone calls. I told my network that I was on the job market.  I even got a few interviews. I identified a few gaps in my CV and filled those. But it wasn’t enough. My mind couldn’t take over anymore.  My body was calling the shots. And it was telling me to take a break. My health, both physical and mental, were deteriorating. There were times I couldn’t get out of bed, much less adequately plan for my future.  And although there was a small part of me that wanted to give in and stop fighting the urge to rest, there was an overwhelming part of me that knew that unemployment was not optional. I had bills to pay and a career to maintain. 

Thank goodness I was childless, so I didn’t have the added responsibility of taking providing for others. But I was single. I didn’t have a spouse to emotionally or financially depend on for support. I was alone and I felt alone.  Who would have sympathy for the Black Girl Magician? The one who looked like she had it all together. The educated one – WELL educated one. The one whose identity was intertwined with her work. The one who believed that hard work would eventually pay off. 

Well, it turns out, I didn’t have long to find out because the decision was made for me. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to secure a job before my postdoc ran out. The only sensible choice was to come home. At the time, my mom was sick and needed help around the house, so I figured it was good timing.  We could help each other. But what do you call a break with no rest? How can you relax when you have no money? How do you heal from the trauma of academia and racism and sexism and depression and poverty and isolation and feelings of inadequacy because the chance you took on pursuing your dream seems to have blown up in your face?  

The researcher in me understands that I am not an anomaly.  We are still producing more PhDs than there are jobs available.  And although postdocs are considered standard for most STEM disciplines, it extends the period of overwork and underpay most grad students experience, forcing most postdocs to postpone the fruits of their education and experience.  And after all is said and done, there’s still no guarantee that a postdoc will lead to a good paying job. Yet we continue to encourage women and people of color to pursue an education in STEM. But what’s the cost? How many more Black women do we have to invest in and encourage and pull into academic and research careers in STEM only for them to be divested, discouraged, and pushed out?  What are we doing to them? What is being done to us?  Why do we continue to persuade women of color to stay in environments that are not healthy or supportive of them personally and professionally?  We point out individuals as role models, but are they exceptions or the rule?  

I am reminded of the opening lines of “Harlem” by the great African-American poet Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”  Or maybe it results in several months of unemployment, bill collectors, crippling depression and paralyzing anxiety, and returning to their childhood home surrounded by people who couldn’t possibly understand the hell you just went through.  Because we’re not just talking about raisins or dreams. We’re talking about real lives. Black lives. Black lives that were convinced that academia and STEM would be their ticket out of poverty, only to find out that it’s still a crapshoot.  This is not what I signed up for. And I don’t think I can encourage other Black women to continue to sign up for it either. Not until the system cares more about the wellbeing and security of Black women than they it does about their cheap and anonymous labor.  

So what happens to a dream deferred?  I don’t know. It feels more like a nightmare at the moment.

About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

Comments

Black Girl Magicians and Deferred Dreams – WOC Guest Post — 2 Comments

  1. Very touched by this article. I had my own super burn out i humanities phd track. I moved to San Francisco and transitioned to post academic healthcare work. Technology is booming here and Stem background is prized. Many jobs in start ups or r&d. Many possibilities and lots of heart here.

  2. In your post you wrote, “How do you heal from the trauma of academia and racism and sexism and depression and poverty and isolation and feelings of inadequacy because the chance you took on pursuing your dream seems to have blown up in your face?”

    Thanks so much for writing this post. After reading it, I feel less alone, less crazy, and less doubtful about what I’ve experienced at my institution. Your voice is important, and I hope you keep writing about your experience and sharing it with others, because so many of us are battling the similar issues in isolation. I also respect and understand that you need time to regroup after everything you’ve been through, but your words really hit home for me, so I hope that if possible, you’ll keep writing about it.

    I wish women of color in academia could all come together and form a network of support. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

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