This chapter will describe the research design and methodology used to understand the experiences of Black women who have earned their Ph.D. in social work. The first part of this chapter will provide an explanation and rationale for the use of qualitative phenomenological research methods as well as discuss constructs that provide context when describing the phenomenon including describing the sampling, approach, size, and composition. The second half of this chapter will discuss the data collection and analysis of the steps taken to demonstrate trustworthiness. Lastly, this chapter will close with a discussion regarding the ethical considerations when engaging in research involving human subjects.
Study Design and Research Method
This section will describe the use of qualitative research design and phenomenological research method which captures the lived experience of study participants. It will also discuss bracketing and the constructs used for the study.
Qualitative research methods. As part of a marginalized group, Black women’s experiences are often framed around the intersection of racism, sexism, and classism (Pierce, 2011). Qualitative methods provide an opportunity to explore how some social work doctoral programs provide support for Black women, and whether or not the supports offered was beneficial for the participants in this study. Qualitative research is holistic, inductive, and naturalistic (Patton, 1980). It is supported by the constructivist paradigm and portrays the world where reality is socially created by the participants in social settings (Glesne, 1999). Qualitative research deals with multiple, ideas and realities that are complex, in which the goal is to understand and interpret how various participants in a social setting construct the world around them (Glesne, 1999). As noted in an earlier chapter, Black women’s experiences are often overlooked or combined with Black men or all women (Collins, 2000 and Castro, Garcia, Cavazos Jr. & Castro, 2011). This often minimizes the experiences that Black women have as a double minority because combining their experiences with black men or all women do not fully acknowledge the Black woman’s intersecting identities. Qualitative research provides Black women the space to discuss their perceptions of their experiences.
Quantitative research is systematic and standardized and seeks to explain and predict. Although quantitative research has its benefits, it was not the best fit for the focus of this study because the goal was to understand the experiences of these women as opposed to explaining or predicting them. A quantitative study focused on numbers and variables would be void of emotions and back stories which would not provide space for this marginalized group to share their experiences.
Phenomenology.Phenomenological research methods were used for this study because they are well suited to study the lived experiences of Black women who earn a Ph.D. in social work. Phenomenology is an inductive, subjective, and descriptive method that “seeks to explore, describe, and analyze the meanings of individual lived experiences” (Patton, 2002, p.104); as well as understanding the perception of the experience (Munhall, 2012). It is used to describe rather than explain the meaning for several individuals of their lived experiences of a phenomenon (Creswell, 2007). This method also leads to a more ethnically sensitive epistemology and ontology of practice (Adams & van Manen, 2008).
Case study and Narrative inquiry were both considered as methodologies for this study but were found not to be the best fit. Case studies focus on issues explored through one or more cases within a bounded system (Creswell, 2007). Case studies draw on a researchers ability to extract depth and meaning in context. The bounded system is explored over time through detailed, in-depth data collection from multiple sources of information and reports provide a case description and case-based themes (Creswell, 2007; Padgett, 2008). Phenomenology was chosen over case study because the focus was the lived experience of the event, instead of the event itself.
Narrative inquiry is a diverse set of methods that are interested in how something is said as well as what is said (Padgett, 2008). The focus is on the stories both written and spoken, lived and told by individuals over time (Creswell, 2007). Narrative inquiry believes that storytelling is essential to understanding people lives and that all people construct narratives as a process in constructing and reconstructing identities (Marshall & Rossman, 2011). Stories are gathered from letters, journals, diaries, observations, interviews, photos, memory boxes, etc. This method is best used when capturing stories or lived experiences of one or a small number of people (Creswell, 2007). This methodology was not chosen for this study because it focused on the lived experiences of a larger number of people, their perception of their experience, and the essence of their experience.
Phenomenology comes from the work of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty (Creswell, 1998; Lewis & Saehler, 2010). There are varying perspectives of phenomenology, but the philosophical assumptions rest on the common thread of the study of lived experiences of people, the view that these experiences are a conscious one, and the development of the descriptions of the essences of the experiences (van Manen, 1990).
Giorgi (1997) identifies three steps in phenomenological research methods: (1) description, (2) reduction, and (3) search for essences. A phenomenological description is intended to mirror and express the participant’s conscious experience (Sadala & Adorno, 2002). Reduction is the practice of suspending the researcher’s knowledge about the phenomenon being researched to understand the phenomenon from the participants’ perspective (Giorgi, 1997). A form of reduction is bracketing (epoche), in which the researcher suspends their judgment and experiences to take a fresh perspective of the phenomenon under examination (Creswell, 2007; Lewis & Staehler, 2010). The search for essence or finding common themes is achieved with the textural and structural descriptions developed by the researcher (Creswell, 2007).
Bracketing. Bracketing allows the researcher to analyze the lived experiences of participants without allowing their own personal or theoretical concepts to get in the way of how the phenomenon is being explained by participants (Sadala & Adorno, 2002) Researchers are allowed to enter the life-world of participants when they utilize bracketing (Beech, 1999). Bracketing can be understood in two ways, one refers to the bracketing attitude of the researcher and the other refers to the bracketing of participants (Mortari & Tarozzi, 2010).
There are three phases of bracketing, (1) abstract formulation features include the theoretical framework and orientations standpoint; (2) research praxis, and (3) reintegration (Gearing, 2004). The abstract formulation provides clarity as to the study’s design and type of bracketing to be used in the study. The research praxis provides the foundation and focus of the bracketing strategy and determining what internal and external suppositions are to be bracketed out if any (Gearing, 2004). The researcher should define the start point, duration, and end point of bracketing as well as how rigid, specific, or porous the bracketing boundaries are to be in suspending suppositions.
Finally, the researcher must reintegrate the bracketing back into the research (Gearing, 2004). Gearing (2004) identifies six types of bracketing, (1) ideal, (2) descriptive, (3) existential), (4) analytical, (5) reflexive, and (6) pragmatic. Reflexive bracketing was used in this study based on its fit for this study. Reflexive bracketing’s focus is to be transparent and overt about the researchers’ personal values, background, and cultural beliefs (Gearing, 2004). I will describe how reflexive bracketing was used to increase trustworthiness later in this chapter.
Constructs.The following are discussions of the key concepts in this research.
Race– Race has been used historically and currently as a powerful force in Western thought, behavior and is deeply embedded in the structure of social institutions (Parham, Ajamu, White, 2011; Daniel, 2002). It is intertwined with a society’s distribution of wealth, power, privilege, and prestige, and therefore with inequality (Parham, Ajamu, & White, 2011). Race has been defined differently over the years. Historically, psychologist, sociologist, and other scientist have defined race as a matter of biology and genetics (Omi & Winant, 1994). At other times in history, religious explanations were given, believing that people with Black skin were descendants of Ham. Noah cursed Ham’s son because Ham saw Noah naked and was cursed along with his descendants to be servants of servants (Daniel, 2002). There are others who believed that there is no such thing as race and view it as a disastrous legacy of the past 500 years of human history and recommend that the concept of race is discarded altogether (Parham, Ajamu, & White, 2011). Finally, there are others who believe that race is a social construct with no scientific basis.
For the purpose of this study, race is defined as a social construct that is often determined by a person’s human features such as skin color and physical features such as the shape of nose, mouth, eyes, the texture of hair, etc. One’s perceived race determines the type and quality of access to health care, housing, employment, and education in American society.
Gender– The division of the sexes is a biological fact, not an event in human history (De Beauvoir, S., 1953). Gender is a social construct in which different sexes (female and male) are viewed and treated by society (APA, 2015). Historically there has been an almost universal worldview that men and women naturally possess distinct characteristics. These beliefs are derived from classic thought, Christian ideology, and contemporary science and medicine (Emsley, Hitchcock, & Shoemaker, 2017). Differences were noted in physical makeup and different qualities and virtues. Men have most often been viewed as the stronger sex and thought to be intelligent, courageous, and determined (De Beauvoir, S., 1953; Emsley, Hitchcock, & Shoemaker, 2017). While women were often thought to be governed by their emotions and their virtues and including chastity, modesty, compassion, and piety (Emsley, Hitchcock, & Shoemaker, 2017). These expectations governed perceived virtues and weaknesses in all aspects of life including marriage, family, education, work, faith, and politics. While some of these views have changed and women have been given more freedoms, females continue to battle the implicit and explicit behaviors expected of them by society.
The World Health Organization defines gender as:
The socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed. While most people are born either male or female, they are taught appropriate norms and behaviors – including how they should interact with others of the same or opposite sex within households, communities and workplaces. Gender, equity, and human rights (World Health Organization (WHO), n.d.).
For the purpose of this study, gender is defined as a social construct which impacts the behaviorally, social, and cultural aspects of being female.
This study looks specifically at Black women. Traditionally speaking, Black women would include any woman who is from Africa or whose ancestors came from Africa. For this study, participants self-identified as a Black woman. The term Black was adopted following the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and is used to describe African Americans and is tied to the consciousness in the United States (Ellis, 2001). This term was chosen because it is more inclusive than African American. African American would have limited who could have participated in this study, by excluding women born outside of the United States of America who do not identify as African American. Black women include not only American born women with roots in the African diaspora, but also women from various Caribbean Islands and South America.
Sampling Approach and Description
This section will provide an outline of the inclusion criteria for eligible participants, provide a detailed account of the steps taken during the recruitment process, and will close with a description of the sample obtained for this study.
Inclusion Criteria. For the purpose of this study, participants had to meet the criteria to participate in this study:
- Self-identifying as a Black woman- Giving women the opportunity to choose how they identify is a means of acknowledging their right to identify themselves instead of having someone else do it for them. Interested participants were asked on the recruitment flyer (Appendix A) if they identified as Black and it was assumed that if they responded that they met the requirement.
- Be 18 years of age or older- In order for one to obtain a Ph.D. in social work, the majority of programs require that one has obtained a bachelor and a master’s degree. Although it is highly unlikely, it is possible that one could be 18 years or younger at this level of education. This criterion was included for IRB purposes, to show that this study would not include children.
- Speak English- It was important that participants spoke English as the researcher does not speak any other languages. It would have been expensive to pay for a translator and meanings can be lost or misinterpreted through translation. Participant’s ability to speak English was determined by how well they communicated with me.
- Live in the United States of America- The majority of Social Work Ph.D. programs are located within the United States of America. Interviewing participants in the United States reduced the chances of encountering a language barrier and also provided more access to this specific population for this study. Participants were asked where they on the demographic questionnaire.
- Obtained their Ph.D. in social work within the past 5 years. This time frame was chosen after discussions with my advisor and reviewing the literature. Participants were asked this question on the demographic questionnaire (Appendix B).
Recruitment. Participants were recruited by sending the recruitment flyer (Appendix A) through emails to social work organizations such as The Graduate Association of Doctoral Education (G.A.D.E.), The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), and the Nassau/Suffolk Association of Black Social Workers. Recruitment flyers were also posted to social media websites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and shared with faculty members in the social work department at Adelphi University. A faculty member from Adelphi offered to post the recruitment flyer to three additional listservs with my approval including The Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors; Association for Community Organization and Social Administration; Council on the Role and Status of Women in Social Work Education and Social Work Policy. All email and advertisements posted included a brief description of the study and the researcher’s email and telephone contact information.
When respondents emailed me about their interest in the study, I discussed the purpose of the study (Appendix C), confidentiality agreement (Appendix D), and confirmed that they met the inclusion criteria. If they met inclusion criteria and agreed to participate in the study, I requested an address to mail them a copy of the confidentiality agreement. Agreements were mailed with a self -addressed stamped envelope included so that they could return it to the researcher. Once a signed copy of the confidentiality agreement was received, respondents were contacted to set up a date and time for their interview. Participants who lived in New York City and Long Island, New York were given the option of a face to face interview. Skype was offered as a second option for anyone who did not live in New York City or Long Island, NY. Some participants requested phone interviews due to their schedules during the time that they would be available to participate.
Contact was made with thirty-six (36) potential participants. Due to the number of listservs used, there was no way of knowing exactly how each respondent found out about the study. However, six of the participants were recruited for the study by faculty/staff at Adelphi University. Of the thirty-six respondents, twenty went on to participate in the study. Fourteen of the respondents did not meet the criteria. Seven of them had graduated over five years ago, six of them were current doctoral students, and one had earned her Ph.D. in education. Two respondents who had agreed to participate never returned their informed consent nor scheduled an interview.
Although national organizations shared the recruitment flyer with potential participant’s nationwide, participants primarily earned their doctorates from universities in the Northeast, Midwest, and South Regions of the U.S. When this trend was noticed, the recruitment flyer was sent directly to directors of social work Ph.D. programs on the West Coast, along with a brief description of the study and my contact information.
Of the twenty participants, I had a previous professional relationship with one of the participants as we participated in a writing group together. Of the remaining nineteen participants four of them were peers to members of my committee.
Sampling Approach. In order to understand the specific experiences of Black women who had earned their Ph.D. in social work, a specifically targeted sample was needed. Participants were recruited using a purposive sample of individuals over the age of 18 who self-identified as Black women who had earned their Ph.D. in Social in the past five years. The five-year time frame was based on consultation with my chair and current literature. Due to the small number of people earning a Ph.D. yearly and the small percentage of Black women earning their Ph.D. in social work, and anything over five years could affect how participants remembered their experience due to time away from the process. Due to the small number of women in this population, snowball sampling was also used to recruit participants for this study. All interested respondents were asked to share the recruitment flyer with their networks. Women recruited through the snowball sampling were screened during the initial email correspondence to make sure that they met the inclusion criteria.
Sampling Size and Composition. Twenty (20) Black women who have earned their Ph.D. in Social Work participated in this study. The researcher was also interviewed by a colleague and current Ph.D. student as a participant in this study. At the start of each interview, a demographic data sheet (Appendix B) was completed with the participants. The information collected included age, hometown, city and state of current residence, marital status, first-generation college student status, name of undergraduate, graduate (both masters and Ph.D.) institution, major in undergraduate, graduate (both masters and Ph.D.) level, the year they started their Ph.D. program, the year they defended their dissertation proposal (if required), the year they defended their dissertation and the year they completed their doctoral program. This provided background information that was used to help frame the experiences of participants and offered context for information shared during the interview, opportunities to ask follow-up questions, as well as an opening to exploring possible themes that emerged. The descriptive statistics and remaining data obtained is located in the Findings Chapter where the significance is better contextualized. It is also important to note that after the interviews began, many participants were concerned about being identified if certain descriptive information was shared due to being one of a few Black women to have earned a Ph.D. at their institution. The methods used in the following sections were used to address these issues.
Qualitative studies run a significant risk of breaching confidentiality in reporting the results of a study (Padgett, 2008). Great care was taken to change inconsequential facts and certain information excluded to minimize the risk of someone being able to identify participants in this study (Padgett, 2008). Pseudonyms were used to help prevent breaches of confidentiality. The researcher used the names of black women social worker and activist, who made a difference at the local, state, federal, national and international level. The stories of these women can be found at the Black Past website (Social Workers, 2017).
This section will describe the use of semi-structured interviewing as part of the data collection process, and close with a discussion of the obstacles that came up in the process. Semi-structured, in-depth interviews were used to gain information on participant’s perceptions of factors that allowed them to be successful in earning their doctorate. Semi-structured interviewing was well suited for this study because it allowed the researcher to elicit the participant’s story (Starks & Trinidad, 2007). Questions included on the interview guide (Appendix E) were developed from previous literature and through conversations with my dissertation chair. Semi-structured interviews provided open-ended questions structured around the study’s categories of informational needs (Padgett, 2008). The interview structure also allowed for the interviewer to probe with follow up questions as needed.
Data was collected through face-to-face, Skype, and phone interviews. Utilizing Skype as an interview method gave the researcher access to participants who live all across the U.S. Saumure and Given (n.d.) study found that Skype interviews were effective, easy to use, and provided the participants with a feeling of closeness to the researcher. Many of the participants were comfortable doing Skype interviews which allowed the researcher to see the participants and pick up on nonverbal cues that are missed in phone interviews. Interviews were scheduled in advance and took place in a private setting that was comfortable for the participant (Padgett, 2008). Five of the participants agreed to face to face meetings at a location of their choosing. Of those five only two of them were able to keep their appointments. This is a busy population and times didn’t always work out so the data collection method was changed from face to face to skype or phone.
I conducted all of the interviews myself because I was familiar with the topic, it was cost efficient and allowed me to become emerged in the data. Being that I am a Black woman who is pursuing a Ph.D. in social work, I have an intimate relationship with their experience (Marshall & Rossman, 2011). All interviews were tape-recorded to allow the researcher to focus on what was being said instead of trying to write out the entire interview. Audio recordings also captured things such as tone of voice, laughter, sighs, and sarcasm that can be missed without the recording (Padgett, 2008). Interviews ranged from 30 to 90 minutes.
Obstacles to Data Collection. One of the biggest obstacles to data collection was using the internet to conduct interviews. In the middle of some of the interviews, the internet signal was dropped. Participants were understanding when this happened and one of them reminded me that this was an obstacle to utilizing the internet in research. Participants gave me their phone number(s) as a back-up in the event we were unable to reconnect through Skype.
Many participants expressed concerns about remaining anonymous, due to the small cohort of Black women with a Ph.D. in social work. Participants made it clear that they would speak openly and honestly but requested that I be discrete in sharing certain information about names of universities, and faculty members. Many were also concerned that talking about their experience could have a negative effect on their professional relationships both inside and outside of academia.
As a person who self-identifies as a Black woman and a current social work doctoral candidate, it was difficult to suspend my role at times as participants described situations that were similar to my own, especially as it related to the dissertation process. It was helpful for me to journal and process with others afterward. Although having some of my own struggles come up during interviews was a challenge for me, I found that it also helped me build rapport with participants. There was a sense of sisterhood that came through the interviews with participants in the way that we spoke to each other. Although we didn’t know each other, we shared a common experience of being Black women who had gone through a social work Ph.D. program. Not only that but, the dynamics of our families being that many of us were the caretakers in the physical, emotional, and financial sense. As well as the weight of being the first to pursue a Ph.D. in our families. There were many laughs from finding the humor in ugly situations and the sharing of joyful experiences during this progress. The majority of the participants were friendly and asked questions about where I was in my process, and offered encouragement telling me that I was almost there, to press forward and that my study was important. Some offered advice on how to move forward after completing my interviews and shared resources with me. While others offered their support and encouraged me to call them if I needed assistance with my data analysis, help with preparing for the job market, or a listening ear if I needed to vent. Their encouragement and support were invaluable to me. While I have friends and colleagues in Ph.D. programs in other fields of study, I don’t know any Black women who had recently graduated or who was working on their dissertation.
Black women are not monolithic. Though we had some things in common, we had our differences as well. Some of the participants were married, and some of them had children. While money was a factor for majority of participants and myself. There were a few participants who had substantial aid packages that covered tuition and provided them with a stipend. Another noticeable difference was the type of support received from dissertation advisors. Many participants discussed the lack of support from their dissertation advisor, while a few discussed receiving the support, guidance, and encouragement that they needed from their advisors.
Another challenge I came across while doing data collection was that I found myself identifying or defining a participant’s experience to them. For example, when someone talked about a professor noting how smart they were or how well-spoken they were as a Black woman, I tended to identify it as micro-aggression. Many participants agreed and said things such as “yes, that’s what that is” or “what does that mean exactly.” I processed my concerns with my colleague and was able to reframe from identifying participants experiences. My hope in doing this was to allow the participants to identify and describe their experiences from their perspective.
This section will describe how the data obtained through the interview process was managed followed by an exploration of how the data was then coded and separated into themes. Lastly, this section will also describe efforts taken to increase credibility and trustworthiness.
Data Analysis.Each interview was audiotaped and transcribed. I choose to transcribe all of the interviews because it gave me the opportunity to fill in unclear passages and to insert explanations or clarifications (Padgett, 2008). Completing my own transcriptions was also cost efficient but though time-consuming. The amount of time I spent with the data was increased by listening to each transcription multiple times to make sure that I did not miss any information. Through this process, I became more familiar with participant voices and was allowed the opportunity to hear the transcription with a new perspective after starting my code book.
I transcribed the first two interviews directly from the tape recorder and the remaining eighteen were transcribed utilizing the Transcribe software (https://transcribe.wreally.com/). This software allowed me to upload each audio interview and it provides a text editor that simplifies the playback options (pause, play, fast-forward, rewind, and timestamp) while transcribing the interview in one place instead of going between your tape recorder and a word document. Transcribe allowed me to cut down on the amount of time that it took to transcribe the remaining interviews. The audio worked off my local browser and I never had to send the interviews to a third party, thus maintaining participants’ confidentiality. The software also allowed me to export the text to a Word document, making it easier to keep up with all the transcriptions. The software has a diction option but I choose not to utilize it due to time constraints.
After the interviews were transcribed, I reviewed them for accuracy and then changed and participants’ names so that they would not be easily identified. All participants were given a pseudonym of a historical Black female social worker/advocate in order to fully disguise participants (Padgett, 2008). Each participant was then sent their corresponding transcription and was asked to review it for accuracy and clarity. They were also encouraged to make any changes using notes in Microsoft Word.
After the interviews were transcribed, the analysis was conducted by the researcher without using any software. The process of analysis was time-consuming, taking months to complete. It was also challenging and required a lot of organization and support from my committee and fellow researchers. Conducting the analysis allowed me the opportunity to gain coding experience, interpret the data, and identify words or phrases that are not used in the English dictionary (Bright & Connor, 2007). In addition, software can be expensive, and time-consuming to learn how to appropriately use the software (Padgett, 2008). I started with some predetermined categories for data coding, though some of the codes changed during analysis (Marshall & Rossman, 2011, Miles & Huberman, 1994). Each phase of the data analysis entailed the following: data reduction, where collected data was brought into manageable chunks, and interpretation, by bringing meaning and insight to the words and acts of the participants in the study (Marshall & Rossman, 2011). I started with first level coding by coding each transcription sentence-by-sentence, which included single terms (Miles & Huberman, 1994). There were 201 codes following the first cycle of coding. Some examples of codes include; self-confidence, perseverance, support, sacrifice, shock, financial capital, distraction, insecure, balance, power, financial security, overwhelmed, ownership, dual role, and safe space. Next, I engaged in second level coding, also known as pattern coding in which the codes were combined into smaller number sets (Miles & Huberman, 1994). In order to do this, codes were organized under categories and color-coded on large sheets of drawing paper and posted on the wall. Codes that were redundant were eliminated while others with the same meanings were combined. Themes were developed from the categories that came forth from the data and were constant in all the interviews. Overall, five themes were identified and codes were reduced to 56. Codes were reviewed again and eliminated based on the number of times it was mentioned; this produced five themes, twenty-five (25) secondary themes, and twenty-two (22) subthemes.
In keeping with the nature of phenomenological research, a synopsis of each study participant’s experiences, examination of the context and setting of these experiences, and a condensation or summary of major themes with associated excerpts from the interview was developed. (Padgett, 2008).
Credibility and Ethical Considerations. This section will describe the steps I took to enhance the credibility and trustworthiness of this study. This study utilized the following strategies for rigor: peer debriefing and support; member checking; and reflectivity.
Credibility.In order to achieve rigor in a qualitative research study, a researcher must maintain credibility, protect data from contamination, and establish trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is a word that can be used, to sum up credibility, transferability, audibility, and conformability (Padgett, 2008). Trustworthiness deals with how one can determine the trust that we have in research (Marshall, & Rossman, 2011). Threats to trustworthiness include reactivity, researcher biases, and respondent bias (Padgett, 2008).
Reactivity is the chance that the researcher’s presence might have a distorting effect on the participants’ beliefs and behaviors. Researcher biases can emerge when observations and interpretations are clouded by the researcher’s preconceptions and personal opinions. Respondent bias can happen when the respondent withholds information or even lies to protect their privacy or to avoid revealing unpleasant truths (Padgett, 2008).
These threats to trustworthiness are present in all research studies, but there are many ways to build confidence and rigor (Padgett, 2008). Strategies for rigor include prolonged engagement, triangulation, peer debriefing/ support, member checking, negative case analysis, and audit trail (Marshall & Rossman, 2011; Padgett, 2008). This study utilized triangulation, peer debriefing and support with my chair and one of my readers who both have qualitative research experience; member checking by seeking verification of preliminary findings with participants to make sure the researcher captured their story the way they told it; and reflexivity in which I explored my personal bias by being self-reflective throughout the research study.
Peer debriefing and support. I have two individuals who I know personally that did not meet the inclusion criteria for the study but were individuals who identified as Black women and were current doctoral students in education. They provided guidance on the development of interview questions and were also people I could talk to during times when I needed to discuss the research process. These individuals were not included as study participants.
During the progression of this study, I had several opportunities to share my experiences with colleagues and friends that helped me with my own understanding and analysis of the material. The support was both formal and informal. An example of a formal support came from a colleague who was completing a qualitative dissertation and shared examples of her codebook and reflective journal with me. I discussed codes with her and she helped me to think about other ways of identifying experiences. She also talked to me about her process in her program and the struggles that I encountered during my own process. This helped me to journal about my experiences. Many people asked me about my study and, in an effort to explain my study, it helped me to clarify my thoughts and ideas.
Member checking. This included sharing data and interpretations with participants (Marshall & Rossman, 2011). Each participant was mailed the transcription of their interview and was asked to review it for accuracy. Only four participants responded to the email and all agreed with the content of the interview except one participant who offered the correct spelling of a professor’s name.
Reflexivity. Reflexivity is the ability to examine one’s self while acknowledging one’s subjectivity (Padgett, 2008). Reflexivity occurred through journaling about the research process, making notes of my thoughts as I read through interviews, advisement from my chair and committee members, as well as talking to trusted doctoral student colleagues and friends about my thoughts and experiences.
Being a Black woman that is working on her Ph.D. in Social work gave me a different perspective while conducting this study. My personal experiences, as well as stories that I had heard of other Black women Ph.D. students, shaped my beliefs about the struggles and successes of Black women in social work Ph.D. programs and their ability to complete their Ph.D. I believed that while all Ph.D. students experience isolation and loneliness, that Black women’s experience of this was heightened due to their intersecting identity of being Black and a female. I also believed that Black women fared better when they had a Black mentor/chair/advisor if they had one at all. I anticipated that participants who had a substantial amount of funding to cover their tuition, books, and fees would not be concerned about money.
It would have been difficult to hide the fact that I too was a Black woman working on her Ph.D. in social work, so I openly shared this with participants. During the interviews, when I was asked specific questions about my personal experience, I was concerned that I was oversharing. When I shared my experience it often led participants to remember examples of situations or to further elaborate on details about events they had previously spoken about. Many of the participants offered encouragement and support to me by letting me know that this was important work.
Due to my experience being so closely related to this study, I was encouraged by my advisor and committee members to be interviewed for the study as well. The results of my interview are not included in the results section but will be discussed here to address and help explain some of the challenges I encountered while conducting interviews.
I identify as a heterosexual, Black, Christian, Southern woman and that came across in my interview. It highlighted for me how I was similar to some of the participants and different from others. While many of the participants identified as Christians, some of the participants spoke of Spirituality and the Ancestors. One participant shared that she belonged to a spiritual group and discussed some of their practices. Another participant shared that she was married to a woman.
Upon hearing this information, I was initially taken aback. I took notes about my initial thoughts and feelings and was forced to acknowledge that I had a bias. After the interview, I processed my thoughts with a colleague. I was able to think about how her wife and the other participant’s religious practice impacted their experience. It also revealed to me how researchers (people in positions of power) often omit or try to invalidate these truths because they make them uncomfortable. I was reminded of the purpose of this study and was able to suspend my personal thoughts and beliefs and accept that each of these women’s stories was theirs and did not need my approval.
As a social work professional and researcher, I came into this study expecting that each person who volunteered to participate in the study would be welcoming to the interview process. This was not always the case. One participant was curt in their response to demographic questions being asked and also had an unflattering view of the social work profession. I had a negative emotional response to this participant and recall wanting to end the interview as soon as possible. Due to those feelings, I didn’t ask many follow up questions of this participant. Again, I processed my thoughts and feelings with a colleague and journaled about the experience. In this process, I realized that her response highlighted the level of concern that participants had about remaining anonymous and challenged my own views of how the social work profession addresses racism.
After completing my interviews, I found it interesting that the issue of duality came across for me as well as many of the participants in the study. Many of the participants stated that the places where they found support were also the places where they were meet with challenges. For example, family members can be a tremendous support in the process but also be the source of stress and frustration. For me, this was true in many aspects of my life, both personal and educational.
Another challenge that came up for myself and some of the participants was the disappointment in not being supported by Black women and other women of color. Many participants took these experiences as lessons learned and reminders that not everyone who looks like you will support you and that you must take your support from wherever it may come no matter the race, gender, class, or status.
Ethical Considerations.This study was conducted in accordance with Adelphi University’s policies regarding the ethical and legal conduct of research involving human subjects, and approval from the university’s Institutional Review Board (Appendix F) was obtained before beginning data collection (#081015). Participants signed an informed consent form before participating in this study. All participants were informed that their participation was voluntary and that they could quit the study at any time with no consequences. As stated previously, all respondents were de-identified to ensure confidentiality. All respondents were members of a small group of black women who have earned their Ph.D. in social work, therefore the names of the universities they attended were excluded. Instead, the institutions were generalized by the region and University auspices.
All data collection sheets, transcripts and any other information regarding participants were stored in a locked file cabinet to maintain confidentiality. All audio interviews have also been password protected on my personal computer. Due to limited funding, no monetary incentives were used, but participants had the opportunity to review their interviews and will receive a copy of the study before it is published.
Summary of the Research Methods
This chapter reviewed the research design and methods used to understand the lived experiences of Black women who earned their Ph.D. in social work. It specifically looked at how phenomenology guided the framework of the study so that the lived experiences and individual truths of participants could be represented. This chapter also reviewed the process of recruitment based on the inclusion criteria, and the final sampling size and composition. The chapter discussed the use of qualitative research methods as a method appropriate to the subject and data being obtained, how the data was collected and analyzed was also examined. Finally, this chapter explored how credibility and trustworthiness were attained, and what the ethical considerations were in completing this study. The following chapter will present the study findings on the participants’ experiences regarding earning their Ph.D. in social work.