Perception of Age in Doctoral Studies
It was during my first gathering with women who looked like me and were in doctoral programs where I had the most impactful experience as a doctoral student thus far. Sitting down with the women gave me this sense of belonging coupled with a sense of hunger - it was lunchtime. We were in the cafe facing one another as circular set-ups do to ensure that we knew we were equal and in this experience together. At this table were doctoral women who were near the end of their academic experience and women who were just getting a taste of being back in the classroom. Years of age separated us but what united us was one person audacious enough to say that a community was needed here for black women in the journey.
I attended the lunch with an unparalleled enthusiasm to hear about their research interests and learn how I could support them. However, I am currently wondering if this is the space for me. As a higher education practitioner, I focus a lot on space and what we contribute to those spaces to make others feel welcome. One by one women began to share their research questions and the dissertation process. My time was coming near as the women responded one after another. As I listened with intention and excitement, my time came to share what my research focus was. It was then she asked, “What Master’s program are you in?” followed by visible curiosity. I quickly scanned the space as two women colleagues I knew acknowledged that I, like everyone else, was a doctoral student.
At first glance, this can seem meaningless. It can seem like this person had misjudged the space or perhaps they did not pay much mind to this being an intentional space for doctoral women. All of this can be true. And yet at that moment, I wanted to give a deep sigh of despair at what had become my normal in my professional and academic career. As a Black woman, I always must be mindful of my “Black don’t crack” syndrome. It is a disorder that afflicts many melanated women reducing chances of wrinkles and ensuring you maintain the fountain of youth. I have always known that I look younger than I am. My intelligence and sheer presence in a space has been questioned overtly by parents, colleagues, higher-ups, and students. I am accustomed to comments that are meant to investigate my purpose in a space. So what I can offer is a short and ever-growing list of questions or comments that can make it challenging for a younger-looking person to feel included in a space.
“How old are you?”
This is at the top of the list because you will rarely find people who visibly look as if they are of a socially acceptable age (to fulfill whatever intended role) to be asked this. It is a question loaded with curiosity and came be deemed an insult to the person receiving the question. This is especially true when the question is investigative of something that does not connect to the role.
Also in this arena is a person wishing to congratulate you. You may hear, “You look so young to be the RD/in a doctoral program! How old are you?” While this can be a lovely comment to some, people who appear younger than they are can find this insulting because of the undertone that exist in conflating age with doctoral studies preparedness.
"What year are you?"
Working and studying on a college campus, it is common for age or academic year to be a determiner of how people treat you. While it is fair to make an argument that all students should be treated with regard for their inherent dignity, asking this question forces someone to feel as if they are being categorized into the undergraduate student status and unable to move beyond that. Instead, you can ask “What’s your role at the university?” or “How are you affiliated with the college?” This takes away the concern of potentially mislabeling a person and allows space for them to share their own story.
"You look too young to be doing such an important job!"
Including people is about affirming who they are and what they contribute to a space. In this comment, there is less focus on what they contribute and more focus on how their age should play a role in their ability to perform. It decreases their feeling of acceptance in a space because the focus has now been placed on their looks, and how you perceive them. Every job is important and what a person brings to the job is more than their looks. We have grown more accustomed to avoiding one form of ageism and would not dare say "You look too old to be still working!"
In this reflection is room for researchers to look at how multiple marginalizations - age, race, gender - impact Black doctoral women. While this may not be the most pervasive form of isolating individuals, it is what has characterized my first year as a doctoral student. I will always remember this moment like the many others, when I felt that I was not welcome into a space. I want to empower other women in academia to love themselves and honor the traditions of visual youth that has been gifted to us. It should be a point of pride and yet can make us feel overlooked in higher education. Additionally, I would ask women to address these situations as they occur to ensure colleagues understand that their intentions do not always mirror the impact of harm done to another person. And when all else fails, thank those colleagues who step up and remind others that you are a doctoral student to and well worth being here today, tomorrow, and in the future.