June 30, 2020

“Am I going crazy?!” A Critical Race Analysis of Doctoral Education [Article]

Across disciplines and career stages, Black and Latino/a scholars (among others) continue to be severely underrepresented in academia. This is true at the level of graduate training. As a recent neuroscience-specific example, of the 1,037 doctorate recipients in 2018, only 74 were Hispanic or Latino and 36 were Black or African American [1]*. These numbers reflect both low initial enrollment as well as significant attrition of these scholars from PhD programs. A study published in 2015 by the Council of Graduate Schools [2, 3] found that only 44% of Black and Latino PhD students in STEM fields earned a doctorate within seven years. Of the remaining students, 36% had left their programs and 20% were still enrolled in their doctoral programs at seven years without having earned a degree. 

To better understand the cultural forces of doctoral education that may lead to the attrition of Black and Latino/a PhD students, the authors of this 2011 article [4] conducted and analyzed interviews with a total of twenty-two Black or Latino/a doctoral students (from largely non-STEM disciplines). The researchers identify a unifying social narrative, which they name the “Am I going crazy?!” narrative, that captures how these students experience graduate education culture. According to this narrative, Black and Latino/a students’ experiences of graduate education culture are uniquely shaped both by the fact that race has greater salience for students in interactions with their graduate advisors and by the fact that these students experience racial microaggressions and macroaggressions throughout their training. Consequently, students disengage (i.e. they engage in self-censorship), question their belonging and worth, and struggle to fully adopt the norms of their academic disciplines and programs. To cope with these negative effects, students rely upon peer support networks.

Takeaways & action items for our community

  • Everyone should learn more about microaggressions and reflect on their own behavior to identify and correct past mistakes. 
  • Peer support networks like our own Underrepresented Scholars in Neuroscience are critical resources to members of our community from underrepresented groups. We should ensure that adequate funding and administrative support are provided for these groups. We also need to prioritize efforts to recruit scholars from underrepresented groups (at all career stages) so that peer networks are possible.

Key Terminology

Microaggressions: Commonplace verbal or behavioral indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults.

Racial Macroaggressions: Large-scale, systems-related stressors that are widespread, sometimes becoming highly publicized, race-related, traumatic events. 


[1] National Science Foundation Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2018.

[2] Doctoral Initiative on Minority Attrition and Completion. Council of Graduate Schools, 2015.

[3] Jaschik, Scott. ”Missing Minority Ph.D.s.” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 3, 2014. 

[4] Ryan Evely Gildersleeve , Natasha N. Croom & Philip L. Vasquez (2011) “Am I going crazy?!”: A Critical Race Analysis of Doctoral Education, Equity & Excellence in Education, 44:1, 93-114, DOI: 10.1080/10665684.2011.539472 

*Different variants of racial and ethnic descriptions are included in order to match (are thereby accurately reflect) the corresponding citations.