Sep 12, 2000 | Article

by Denise Barnes

Shireen Lewis has climbed the fractious ivory tower. Now, she’s demystifying the dreaded dissertation process for women of color who want to achieve doctoral status. Ms. Lewis, who holds a doctorate of philosophy in French literature from Duke University, founded SisterMentors Dissertation Support Groups for Women of Color, a nonprofit project, three years ago.

She has a new take on the otherwise solitary seven- to 10-year doctoral process – with its dissertation, a scholarly exposition on a specific subject, complete with footnotes and bibliography and usually as daunting as Tolstoy’s epic “War and Peace.”

In 1997, Ms. Lewis was just one chapter away from finishing her tome. She did not feel elated or even relieved. Other emotions had seeped into her psyche. “I was experiencing extreme alienation and isolation while writing my dissertation,” says Ms. Lewis, a native of Trinidad. “I decided there must be other women of color doctoral candidates who were having the same experience.”

With a little help from friends Faye Williams and Cassandra Burton of Sisterspace and Books in Northwest, the first meeting of SisterMentors convened at the bookstore on Sept. 27, 1997. Five doctoral candidates attended, Ms. Lewis says.

Three years later, the mentoring group has helped 10 women get their doctorates in different disciplines. “That’s a track record,” Ms. Lewis says, smiling.

The group of 15 doctoral candidates meets once a month to review individual goals (both long- and short-term) and discuss one another’s work. Its interactive structure is similar to a college classroom setting. Ms. Lewis’ method has proved so successful that there’s a waiting list of doctoral candidates eager to get on board.

“Being a part of a network of doctoral candidates is extremely empowering to women. What really pushes us is seeing others graduate. Once people see progress being made, it’s a huge motivator for them,” Ms. Lewis says.

“We break down the big dissertation into small pieces, which makes it more manageable. Maybe a person has to read two books or write five to 10 pages. Well, when you look back in three months, you see how much you’ve accomplished,” she says.

There’s no charge for the service, Ms. Lewis says. “We’re blessed to have a nurturing, non-competitive community of women who respect each other. And, we’re working together to support each other through the dissertation process.

“Studies show that 50 percent of people [both men and women] who begin a doctorate drop out at the dissertation-writing stage. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s higher for women of color,” Ms. Lewis says.

Kangbai Konate joined SisterMentors last year. She says the supportive environment and positive group dynamic keep her spirits up and her eye on the prize. Ms. Konate is able, one chapter at a time, to tackle her dissertation on “The Use and the Place of Africa in the African-American Process of Self-Identification.” The Adams Morgan resident hopes to get her doctorate in sociology next year from the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris.

Women of color lag in doctorates

In 1973, the National Science Foundation in Arlington started compiling data on the numbers of doctoral recipients by race and gender, according to Shireen Lewis, founder of SisterMentors Dissertation Support Groups for Women of Color. The total number of doctorates awarded in 1973 was 33,755 (nationwide). That includes women and men.

Of that number, black women accounted for 0.5 percent, Hispanic women 0.13 percent, Asian or Pacific Islands women 0.6 percent; and American Indian or Alaskan women 0.006.

Twenty-five years later, based on data for 1998, when 42,683 doctorates were awarded, the percentages read as follows: black women, 2.5 percent; Hispanic women, 1.9 percent; Asian or Pacific Islands women, 5.9 percent; and American Indian or Alaskan women, 0.2 percent.

“It’s a great experience for me. This is a place where we exchange our experiences and we share our victories. But, more importantly, it’s a place where we can share our pains and problems,” Ms. Konate, 34, says.

“It’s interesting to know we are not alone, and that makes a difference. When I joined, I was not writing my dissertation anymore. I was tired, and it’s a painful process. You’re alone in front of your computer, and even if you don’t want to write, you’ve got a deadline even if it is three years away,” she says.

Mona Malik agrees.

Ms. Malik, who lives in Gaithersburg, joined SisterMentors three months ago. Already, she’s got a new attitude. “This group works for me. Shireen plays a major role – not only in terms of the group, but individually. She’s a minority role model, given her accomplishments, with a law degree and a doctorate. She meets with us individually to talk about the emotional stumbling blocks involved in the process,” Ms. Malik says.

Ms. Malik, 32, encountered initial difficulty in working toward her doctorate in clinical psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

“I was really floundering and very unmotivated. I was feeling very alienated . . . everything rests on your shoulders. There’s an opportunity now to interact and get support from a pool of doctoral candidates that share a minority status, which enhances your ability to relate,” Ms. Malik says.

Family and friends understand what it takes to get a medical degree or a law degree, but they don’t understand the doctoral process, Ms. Lewis says. That’s why she encourages women to explain their goals to their loved ones.

It usually takes seven to 10 years to get a doctorate, according to Ms. Lewis. Unlike a college setting, where students have specific assignments, papers and tests, the doctoral process doesn’t have any structure in place – candidates are not physically on college campuses. Plus, everyday life gets in the way of scholarship.

“Women have full-time jobs, families, relationships, but you’re still responsible for writing 250 to 400 pages that must be acceptable scholarship,” Ms. Lewis says. “You don’t have to be Einstein, but you must satisfy the chairman of your committee and three to four other committee members,” she says.

That’s no easy task with a full-time job and no one to turn to for guidance or direction, Ms. Lewis says.

Ms. Lewis cites two primary reasons why getting a doctorate is difficult for women of color: lack of money and the lack of support from their advisers. “That’s basically the reason I founded this group,” she says. “Finding a job means there’s less time to write, and you need blocks of time. And professors aren’t rewarded for helping doctoral candidates make it to the finish line. There’s no incentive,” Ms. Lewis says.

Where advisers fall short, SisterMentors steps up to the plate.

“The message the academy sends to everyone is that you are a lonely, isolated scholar. Nobody ever encourages you to work with others – with a team dynamic. It’s looked at as a very individual process – either you can cut it, or you can’t,” Ms. Lewis says.

“The message my group is sending is that it does not have to be an individual process. When you get together and form a community of scholars, we can all reach out to each other. The end result is the same: We individually get the Ph.D., but during the process, we come together in the true sense of a community,” Ms. Lewis says.

When she talks to members of her group, she says, ” ‘Community is not a noun, it’s a verb.’ That means that we continually work at creating and maintaining a sense of community.

“I hope these women take this model that we have organized around the Ph.D. and extend it to other areas of their lives. Organize on grass-root levels in their communities and around issues they care about. Help others to succeed,” Ms. Lewis says.

For more information about SisterMentors Dissertation Support Groups, send an email to

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