The Ebony Tower’s Scholar Spotlight is dedicated to highlighting the impactful work and unique experiences of early career scholars of color. The column also focuses on providing current and future graduate students with insight and encouragement from those who have successfully navigated the long and winding road to earning a doctoral degree. This week, we would like to shine the spotlight on Dr. Alyssa J. Elmore, who earned her PhD in Educational Policy and Leadership from Ohio State University. Before earning her doctorate, Dr. Elmore earned her Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Georgia State University and taught elementary school in Atlanta Georgia. In addition to discussing her research, which focuses on the educational experiences of Black girls, Dr. Elmore opens up about her struggles in graduate school and provides five pearls of wisdom to help graduates students earn a PhD without losing their souls.
The Ebony Tower: What inspired you to initially pursue a PhD and stick with it?
Dr. Alyssa Elmore: Earning my PhD has been a lifelong goal. I cannot identify when it became that goal but I remember telling a friend in high school that I would be a doctor by the time I was thirty. I also said the same in college and after I graduated. My father instilled in me the importance of education early on and consistently reinforced this message as I grew older. I have always loved reading, writing, and learning and was drawn to these courses in high school and college. I attended Spelman College, where I majored in History with a concentration in African American and U.S. History. It was here that I began learning about Black women and Black feminist scholars, activists and community members who had essentially been rendered invisible within historical discourse. That experience was invaluable and provided the foundation for my future work. Upon graduating from Spelman, I taught elementary school for three years through a program called Teach for America. During my last year teaching, I was taking a Social Foundations of Education course in my Master’s program and was fascinated. My intellectual curiosity was piqued and I realized then that I wanted to combine my love for history and research with my passion for education and social justice. I ultimately decided to begin a doctoral program in Cultural Foundations of Education.
I persevered because I had a huge amount of support from family and friends. I also prayed and relied on my faith and had an amazing therapist on campus. I had to dig deep at several points to remember why I started. I was following my dream and refused to give up even though I had “I don’t need a PhD to be great… I’m already great” moments many, many, many times.
The Ebony Tower: Tell us a little bit about your research…
Dr. Alyssa Elmore: The overall theme of my work seeks to address the invisibility of Black women and girls in educational research. My dissertation is a qualitative study that explores the educational experiences of Black girls in high school. More specifically, my research focuses on how Black girls in high school navigate their personal, social and educational worlds to construct their attitudes and perceptions about education, their lives, and their success as students. Literature contends that adolescents are socialized primarily in the home while social institutions, namely schools, serve as secondary sites where socialization occurs. Contemporary research has extended this conceptualization to include peer groups and the media. Education does not occur in a vacuum; it is a social institution that mirrors society as a whole. Black girls and women in the United States face multiple forms of oppression and I wanted to explore this through the lens of education. I conducted individual and group interviews with seven participants and centered my investigation upon the four areas of socialization as they related to the girls’ educational experiences. I used grounded theory for analysis and determined that the participants’ narratives revealed the significant role of family, resilience in the face of residual trauma, resistance to cultural stereotypes, and the significance of peer relationships and the media in their everyday lives. Furthermore, the data reflected the participants’ needs in schools as they pertained to social and emotional support and a curriculum that represents them as Black girls.
I struggled with being so close to my research at times. By close, I mean that I am a Black woman conducting research with Black girls whose experiences mirrored my own in some instances. Some of the responses from my participants triggered aspects of unresolved trauma that I had from my middle school years. I was extremely stressed out during the interview phase and noticed that I coped as my middle-school self. It was pretty fascinating and I made sure to write about it in my dissertation’s methodology chapter.
The Ebony Tower: Graduate students are often pressured to pursue a career in academia. How did you respond to that pressure and how did you decide on your current career path?
Dr. Alyssa Elmore: The pressure to pursue an academic career was extremely strong. Attaining a tenure-track position is the cultural norm and general expectation as a graduate student at an R1 university. I entered my program considering career paths outside of academia such as non-profit and state/federal policy work and kept those goals at the forefront. I was vocal about that in the beginning but once I learned departmental politics, I kept my goals private. Once I was on the job market, I looked at non-profit positions and academic positions. I did not see many academic job postings in my area of expertise. I was also looking for a job in a specific geographic location for personal reasons and that made the academic job-hunt extremely difficult. I made it to the final interview stage for several non-profit roles, only to not be selected. Having a PhD while searching for non-academic roles in education is tricky because you have a highly specific skillset and have to market yourself in a way that is attractive to companies – i.e. How do you drive results? I ultimately decided to go back into the K-12 classroom as a college counselor. While teaching undergraduate pre-service teachers in my doctoral program, I noticed that many of my students of color struggled in certain academic and social areas. My goal in my current role is to take that insight and apply it to support students before they begin college. I am particularly concerned with preparing them culturally and my doctoral work has given me the professional experience to do this. I do ultimately intend to transition back into academia.
The Ebony Tower: What are some challenges you faced while pursuing your doctorate?
Dr. Alyssa Elmore: I had several challenges. For one, I struggled tremendously with isolation. Geographically, I was about six or more hours away from all of my loved ones. I made great friends who were also in grad school but everyone was just as busy. Once I advanced to candidacy and was no longer taking classes, I grew more and more isolated. Writing my dissertation was even worse. I was lucky if I got out and got air a couple of times per week. I should say that I was on an extremely tight timeline because of funding and this did not allow for much flexibility. In any event, I was extremely unhappy because of the isolation and it showed.
I also had an issue with self-advocacy with faculty. In the end, I formed great relationships with my advisor and dissertation committee but I had to learn to navigate the power politics and advocate for my own success.
Upon reflecting, I can now see that one of my biggest struggles was with confidence. Imposter syndrome is very real. I questioned my abilities and second-guessed my writing, my ideas, and my ability to articulate arguments in class. It was extremely exhausting but the major win with this came when I walked into my defense feeling 100% prepared and confident in my work, abilities and myself.
The Ebony Tower: Do you have any words of wisdom for current or potential graduate students?
Dr. Alyssa Elmore: I’ll share five pearls of wisdom for current or future PhD students:
- Find. Your. Why. Reflect deeply on that. That’s what will keep you going on those days when you’re ready to throw in the towel.
- Remember – you’re an adult. It’s your process and your academic journey. Yes, you will have to navigate politics, but do not let anyone take away your control or your power.
- Find your support system and use them. Don’t walk this journey alone if you don’t have to. You might think the people in your life are sick of hearing you cry, scream, vent, etc. – and they might just be – but at the end of the day, they are extremely proud of you and want to do their part to see you through.
- Self care, self care, and more self care.
- Get a therapist. This is a non-negotiable.
- Find your joy! Find a way to live and do what makes you happy.
- Take it one day at a time. One hour at a time if you need to. You will get there.
- You don’t owe your institution your life. When I was extremely stressed out and would call home crying, my father reminded me that I couldn’t let this kill me because if I died, I would be mourned and then the university would go on the very next day, business as usual. As I was in the final stages of writing, one of my good friends and fellow doctoral colleagues died unexpectedly. We cried and we mourned but the university went on running, business as usual. It took the duration of my entire program for my father’s point to hit home. ::hand claps after every word:: you. don’t. owe. your. institution. your. life. You work incredibly hard and owe it to yourself to find what makes you happy.
The Ebony Tower: We are creating an Ebony Tower reading list. What are you currently reading/What should we add to the list?
Dr. Alyssa Elmore: I used the time after graduation to focus on personal and professional growth. Certain aspects of academia were toxic to my spirit and I needed to focus on rebuilding my emotional wellness and strengthening my mental health. I also wanted to explore my professional goals during my job hunt. My book list suggestions are centered upon these themes and are as follows:
- Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
- Brene Brown, Rising Strong
- Elaine Meryl Brown, Marsha Haygood, and Rhonda Joy Mclean, The Little Black Book of Success: Laws of Leadership for Black Women
- Lois P. Frankel, Nice Girls Still Don’t Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers
- Jeff Goins, The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do
- Bill Hendricks, The Person Called You: Why You’re Here, Why You Matter & What You Should Do With Your Life
- bell hooks, Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery
- Debrena Jackson Gandy, All the Joy You can Stand: 101 Sacred Principles for Making Joy Real In Your Life
- Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person
- Jen Sincero, You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life