What My “White” PhD Advisor Taught Me About Identity

PhD advisors determine your fate and I am not being sarcastic. I like to equate academia to a small southern town where everyone knows everyone, but most importantly everyone gossips, which means you never want to be the topic of what many may consider a negative conversation. There’s one thing you’ll hear me say a million times, choose your PhD advisor wisely. I was blessed with an amazing advisor and even to this day, he is one of my biggest supporters. To be honest we were an unlikely pair: a young black woman from Alabama and a middle-aged white man from the middle of nowhere Missouri. But with all our differences, we found a common ground that has been the foundation to a wonderful relationship. During my time in grad school, there were so many race and gender issues coming to light in America and around the world that some days were too much to deal with and even though I was the only minority in my research group I never felt alone. This was because they weren’t just my group mates, they were allies and most importantly they were woke to what was happening in America and didn’t shy away from conversations surrounding the topic.

There was a time when I was exhausted with code switching aka not being myself. Moving from the South where there were a ton of black people to Ann Arbor where there were a handful of black people was frustrating. I think my advisor knew I was struggling and needed someone to talk to and that led to a long conversation about identity and what that meant. I admit I was shocked. What does a privileged white man know about identity and when does he have to think about it? The truth was he didn’t and he didn’t pretend to, but he knew the importance of everyone’s voice being heard and most importantly he encouraged me to be myself. Sometimes we get in a headspace where we don’t want to use our voice because we are frustrated with always having to prove ourselves, but my advisor challenged me to truly understand why my voice was important and to be proud of how my identity influenced that voice. He reflected on times where his groups were only successful because he made sure that everyone contributed to the mission and he encouraged that same philosophy in his research group at Michigan. He also understood that with all that was going in America, it was exhausting for me as a black woman and that I had a right to be angry. He made it clear from that moment that he was an ally and that I never needed to be afraid to be myself. To this day we can discuss politics in the South, Trump, race relations, gender issues, etc. FYI, if you’re a student at Michigan, my advisor gives a lecture in his class about identity in academia and industry (comment if you want more information).

Us after a long week at the synchrotron!

The freedom to be ourselves in the workplace leads to productivity. After that conversation, I was the best researcher and leader I had ever been during my time at Michigan. It allowed me to break down my own barrier and learn more about the people around me and my own strength. I am not saying that I don’t code switch because I do, but what I learned was that I am the best version of me when I am authentic. All the anxiety that I carry everyday disappears and I am able to really focus on my passions and my purpose.

From  Aeriel, With Love


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