Pursuing the Doctoral Degree: A Symbolic Interpretation of First-Generation African American/Black and Hispanic Doctoral Students

There is a national concern for the successful completion of the doctoral degree in graduate programs that needs attention because approximately half of doctoral students earn the degree and the other half of doctoral students do not attain the degree. Furthermore, the completion rate for a doctoral degree is much lower for African Americans/Blacks and Hispanics whom are largely represented as first-generation. First-generation African Americans/Blacks and Hispanics have been reported as less likely to pursue a doctoral degree, and their experiences in the doctoral program have been less documented. The literature review reviews characteristics of recipients and non-recipients of the doctoral degree, enrollment status in graduate school, and experiences of those enrollees. Seen in this light, first-generation African Americans/Blacks and Hispanics–documented as less likely to enroll in graduate school and even less likely to be recipients of the doctoral degree–are viewed as being disadvantaged by virtue of the characteristics they hold upon entering the program, which influences the doctoral experience. However, this dissertation set forth to view this population’s experience influenced by specific interactions emphasizing their racial/ethnic and first-generation identities. The theories of symbolic interactionism, resilience and practice assisted in conceptualizing the participants’ doctoral experiences. The study was a qualitative narrative inquiry in which experiences turned into stories were told by four first-generation African Americans/Blacks and Hispanics pursuing their doctoral degree in Education. As seen through their eyes, participants interpreted their experiences from a symbolic interactionism perspective related to the interrelationships between their own behavior and the educational environment. In other words, participants analyzed how interactions that occurred in a particular place and time shaped their experience as first-generation doctoral students of color. The author’s interest was not to compare African Americans/Blacks with Hispanics in pursuit of the doctoral degree. Rather, the interest rested with getting to know shared and divergent experiences among the participants to understand their journey in pursuit of the doctoral degree.