The formation of scholars: Understanding graduate socialization through the lens of oppression


I am sitting at home, and the students in my class are neatly positioned in 2x2 inch squares on a screen. Already this semester is different from our long summer days of doctoral student residency where we sat in our poorly ventilated seminar room, navigating a table of notebooks, printed research articles, and the occasional spilled coffee. Instead, we are in our homes and apartments interacting through a camera and a screen that resembles the opening of The Brady Bunch (a reference many of the younger doctoral students don’t even know).

Despite this new method of engagement, familiar and recurring feelings arise for these new students: imposter syndrome; wondering if the program made the right choice of “letting them in”; afraid that being a doctoral student will pull them away from their communities and widen the gap between their educational achievements and those of their family members. They worry about learning a new set of vocabulary which includes words like epistemology and critical discourse and everyone’s favorite word to say aloud, phenomenology.'

Part of our first semester seminar is making doctoral student socialization explicit. We peel away the layers of the hidden curriculum—the unofficial and unintended lessons that occur—and make explicit the norms, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs about doctoral study. We engage in class research projects not only about what they are learning but also how they are learning. I encourage these new doctoral students to be not only recipients of socialization, but also to support bidirectional socialization whereby the program, department, and even the study of higher education might be differently informed because of their experiences and practices.

Though engaging in doctoral studies can be exciting, productive, and transformative, existing published literature has also highlighted that these experiences can also be unbearable and traumatic. Some of these experiences are rooted in identity and in generation status. As doctoral students seek to make sense of these experiences, I have found the framework of oppression to help shift individuals from approaching doctoral studies simply as one they need to endure, to identifying both the systemic and individual aspects of oppression that are at play.

Looking at oppression as operating through multiple, interlocking levels is a powerful tool for interrogating the doctoral student experience. This lens, often referred to as the four “I”s framework, can help us see how oppression is perpetuated in different contexts. Examining how oppression is maintained through (1) ideology, (2) institutional practices, (3) interpersonal interactions, and is also (4) internalized by individuals can clarify both why and how oppression is occurring in any given context, including that of doctoral studies. Sometimes, the consequences of oppression are more visible at one level and the ways in which it is supported by different layers of oppression can be obscured. For example, it is much easier to see how differential treatment of students by a faculty member is problematic than it is to understand the system of beliefs (ideology) in doctoral education that supports such behaviors.

Using the four “I”s framework to uncover the oppressive elements of doctoral socialization can be a powerful exercise. It can guide departments looking to improve the doctoral student experience by dismantling oppression that permeates doctoral education.

At the ideological level, departments can ask: “What beliefs exist about doctoral education?” This can be followed by questioning “What rules, policies, or structures are in place that support those beliefs?” For example, your doctoral program may reward students for producing publications and other products that are only circulated within academia, and provide little to no support for students who wish to work with communities. An underlying ideological assumption of such practices is that doctoral education is about serving academia, and not the communities in which we are embedded. What might doctoral socialization within a program that values communities look and feel like?

“Because of the rules, policies, and structures in doctoral education, how do people treat each other?” The institutional layer often bolsters oppressive interpersonal interactions, and asking this third question can clarify why some people in your program end up being tokenized, feel alienated, feel taken advantage of, feel disrespected. Lastly, it is important to understand that oppression can be internalized, impacting individuals’ sense of self. Internalized oppression is the voice that berates us even when without someone explicitly telling us. Many students suffer psychologically during doctoral education, beleaguered by guilt and shame around their competence as scholars. What are the ideological, institutional, and interpersonal mechanisms that drive doctoral students to internalize the notion that they need to always be working in order to “prove” themselves? Why do so many brilliant doctoral students have imposter syndrome?

Asking these questions about doctoral education both as students and as administrators, faculty, and other members of the academic community can help build a more positive process of formation for scholars. The next semester will still be deeply affected by the 2020 pandemic, yet such moments of precarity can sharpen our ability to look around us with a fresh perspective. We urge scholars across the academic timeline to examine their sites of socialization, so that a more positive, affirming and validating doctoral education process can be built for new scholars.

Resources: Adapted from Bell, J. (2012). The four “I’s” of oppression. YouthBuild USA.

Sara Suzuki, M.S., is a doctoral student in the Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology program at Boston College. Her research interests are in critical consciousness and sociopolitical development among youth of color. She uses quantitative and qualitative approaches to examine various ways that young people analyze oppressive elements of society and engage in social justice actions to transform society.

Liza A. Talusan, PhD., is a scholar-practitioner with over 22 years of experience in PreK-8; PreK-12; higher education and graduate education. She is currently an Associate Instructor at the University of Massachusetts Boston in the Master in Education and the Doctoral Program in Higher Education. Her scholarship focuses on the socialization of doctoral students; race and ethnicity; and access and equity in education.

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