by Shireen K. Lewis, Ph.D.
In September 1997 I founded a dissertation support group at Sisterspace and Books, a Washington, D.C. bookstore, to introduce a new paradigm of mentoring and support for women doctoral candidates of color. I started this group because I, like many others, felt increased isolation and alienation while writing my dissertation.
When people ask about the impact of our dissertation support group, I tell them the following story: I had just started the group when a new woman came to one of our meetings.
Paula had been working on her dissertation for seven years but was feeling hopeless and helpless. She was a single parent with two children whose college years overlapped with her own doctoral study. During seven years of work, she had replicated and added data to a significant study and changed the chair of her committee twice, but she could not find the strength to continue.
Today, Paula has completed her doctorate and is an associate professor and chair of a department at a historically black college. How did she do it? Paula’s route to success reflects what the group is all about: mentoring each other.
The first night the group convinced Paula that she could get her doctorate despite initial setbacks. We mentored Paula over the next few months through the completion and successful defense of her dissertation. Paula also mentored us, based on her own experiences as a doctoral candidate.
The central idea of our group is each woman’s commitment to mentoring the others in a noncompetitive and nurturing environment. We help each other by reading each other’s proposals and dissertation chapters, giving constructive criticism, and advising how to navigate the doctoral process.
Statistics show that 50 percent of doctoral candidates drop out at the dissertation-writing stage. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the drop-out rate for women doctoral candidates of color is even higher. But our success rate is high.
Three women from our group received doctorates in 1998. Another three were successful in 1999. We have grown to 18 women, have formed two additional groups, and have a waiting list of women who want to join us.
In December 1999 we celebrated the success of our newest and sixth Ph.D. who defended her dissertation a few weeks ago. It was a great way to usher in the new millennium.