Getting a Ph.D in the Social Sciences

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“So, Armand, what are you doing now?”

“I’m in grad school right now. I’m getting my Ph.D.”

“That’s fantastic! You’re going to be a doctor! Are you going to be an optometrist, pediatrician — ”

“Oh no… I’m, uh, getting my Ph.D. in Sociology.”

It’s usually at this time in a family gathering or a social event that I get a vacant stare and an “oh… that’s good,” followed by a “what are you going to do with that?”

To be a Filipino in academia, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, is to constantly face the question:

“Why are you here?”

I get this question from those outside academia about why I picked a career that they presume won’t bring me any financial success. Inside academia, I am often the only Filipino in a given setting, meaning I have to prove why studying Filipinos is important. But… if it was all bad I wouldn’t continue down this path. Being an academic, and a Filipino academic is a rewarding experience that makes the journey to get a Ph.D. worth it.

Choosing a Major in the Social Sciences

For myself, and many children in Filipino families, I grew up with the expectation that I would take on one of three occupations: lawyer, nurse, or doctor. Although I ultimately will receive a doctorate in Sociology, it’s not exactly the type of doctor that parents expect you to become.

Photo Credit: https://twitter.com/legogradstudent

When I entered college, I gravitated towards organizations and majors that dealt with topics of inequality. As such, rather than seek out a major and a career plan in the physical sciences, natural sciences, or medicine, I opted for the Social Sciences and Humanities. At first, I considered being a History major. When I mentioned it to my dad, his reply was:

“No. You won’t get a job if you’re in History.”

Feeling a bit deflated, I kept taking my General Education courses and eventually found myself fascinated with my Intro to Sociology course. We were talking about gender, race, class, and how these affected our daily lives. From mundane everyday experiences to big, life-changing events, I learned of the social dynamics in play throughout our lives. It was with these courses that I learned to articulate the feelings and experiences I saw throughout my life. I loved it.

The difficult thing wasn’t picking the major, but justifying it to other people. At best, Sociology has an ambiguous, science-y kind of ring. People just went along with it and assumed it’s like Psychology. Others considered it a “soft science” major that disseminated useless information compared to a major in the natural or physical sciences. But from almost everyone I met, I generally got this question:

“Can you even get a job with that?”

And for many students that pursued a major in a Social Science or Humanities-related major, their connection to the discipline pretty much ended when they graduated. Knowing theoretical concepts, such as Emile Durkheim’s analysis of the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, starts to lose relevance in everyday life. It turns out most employers aren’t looking for someone who knows 19th-century theorists’ views on a topic. But, different from many others, leaving my undergrad with a major in Sociology represented the beginning of my journey as an academic.

Yes, You Can Get a Job with a Major in the Social Sciences

One of the things that struck me in my classes and everyday life in general, was how invisible it felt like Filipinos were. Despite one out of five Asian-Americans being Filipino, most people think that we are such a small group. Even amongst Filipinos, I don’t think it’s really understood just how big of a population we are. As a country, the Philippines has a population of approximately 105 million. That’s larger than every single Western European country. In the U.S., there are almost 4 million Filipino-Americans. That’s more than the entire population of Puerto Rico. Yet, it can be difficult to find any information on Filipino-Americans. For years, I was involved in Filipino community organizations and often found it difficult to find any data on us. This precise reason pushed me to want to become an academic. If I could research the Filipino, I could use the information I learned to help fellow Filipinos and other groups learn more about ourselves. Plus, I could dedicate my life to learning more about the world around me, which I loved to do anyways.

As I came to find out though, my main motivation to make up for this lack of information on Filipinos also served as one of the chief obstacles for me. One of the contributing reasons for the lack of information on the community is that there simply aren’t a lot of academics researching Filipinos, especially in the social sciences. When combined with the relative invisibility of the community in the country, there isn’t really a demand to learn more about Filipinos. I came to understand this in my very first meeting with a Filipino sociologist. Being among the few Filipino sociologists, I listened intently as he told me, “No one gives a shit about Filipinos. If you want to make it in academia, you’re going to need to work twice as hard as other people to prove why your work is important.”

As difficult as determining a research topic is, it’s even harder when you account for all the things you need to apply to graduate school. You need several things to apply:

  1. Letters of Recommendation;
  2. solid GRE scores;
  3. a good GPA (suggested that it’s above 3.5 for the top programs);
  4. a Statement of Purpose where you outline your research plan; and
  5. money — the application fees ranged from $80 to $110 apiece. I did all this, collected all my materials, and applied to a total of eleven schools.

Whenever you’re on Facebook seeing the success stories of people getting into grad school, they tend to leave out the heartbreaking rejections. Out of the eleven schools, I got rejected from NINE of them. The schools don’t even do you the pleasure of rejecting you outright. They always start their email with: “Please log-in to see the results of your application.” Imagine getting your hopes up NINE TIMES, typing in your log-in info, waiting for the results to load, and…. you’re rejected. But, you only need to get into one. I was fortunate to get into two, eventually deciding on my current program at UCSD.

At the time, I was elated just to start pursuing my Ph.D. I dreamed about starting a program and getting in felt like an end point. But once it started, I got a dose of reality real quick. As I came to find out, moving up the educational ladder can make you feel inferior to the people around you. When I started my program, I found myself questioning if I was as intelligent as my peers. I would obsess over the tiniest of details. Every email sent to a Professor had to be looked over repeatedly and consisted of multiple drafts. Every comment I said in class had to be perfect. I would literally wake up in the middle of the night and plan out what I was going to say in a seminar the next day.

Eventually though, I began to develop my research. I found that the skills I learned in community organizations during my undergraduate years were well-suited for my work in academia. I knew how to plan out my time, I knew the conditions for Filipino-Americans throughout Southern California, and most of all, I had access to a group that had been studied relatively little. While the focus is often on immigrants in the U.S., the children of immigrants aka the second-generation, are often overlooked. However, having been involved in organizations made up of mainly second-generation Filipino-Americans, I had access to an understudied group.

Most importantly for me in grad school, I developed a support network made up of professors, fellow grad students, and those outside of my department. I really cannot stress the importance of having a support system; no one just works hard by themselves and achieves success. Everyone taps into a support network when coming up with a research topic, writing an article/book, learning how to teach effectively, and doing basically anything in their professional lives. It was with the support of this group of people that I started to achieve some level of success in the form of publications, awards, grants, and fellowships.

Photo Credit: Angie Chung

The Reality of Being an Academic

I’m not gonna lie. Getting a Ph.D. is hard.

First off, during grad school, you get paid very little.

Considering that you may spend your 20’s and even 30’s in a five to seven-year program (or eight, nine, ten…) earning way less money than if you went straight into the job market can be difficult.

Second, as you advance up the educational ladder, you will often be the only Filipino in any place — whether it be the classroom, a conference, or just the department’s social outings.

When I found out I was accepted into my current program, the graduate coordinator mentioned that in all of his fifteen years, no Filipino had ever been in the program — either as faculty or as a graduate student. This doesn’t just affect you socially. It means that other people will question the importance of your research as they have had little exposure to Filipinos, as a people and as a research topic.

Third, a lot of times, you’re working in isolation.

Since most of what academics do consists of reading and writing, there are a lot of times where you’re on your own. As an academic, there is a lot of not necessarily “free time”, but open parts of a day where you have to determine the structure of your day.

Fourth, my research is often accused of being “me-search.”

This basically refers to a scholar that just conducted research on an issue so directly connected to one’s personal life that: 1) a researcher cannot be perfectly objective in their analyses, 2) their research is really just a reflection of their own personal life, and 3) it is of lesser quality than other “mainstream” research. The challenge with this criticism is that it’s only really said to people of color, women, LGBTQ+, immigrants, etc. (All social identities that may or may not overlap.) For example, if I, a second-generation Filipino-American that has only been to the Philippines twice, were studying the Philippines’ political system I could be accused of doing “me-search” because I’m too close to the subject. Whereas if a white person from Iowa decided to study the U.S. political system, it’s “objective research.” While going to grad school is tough enough as it is, it’s tougher when you feel like your entire presence and acumen as a researcher is in question from day one. Even worse, it feels like your voice is being actively suppressed by your fellow scholars.

Finally, the academic job market is rough.

If you get a Ph.D. in a Social Science, you’ll be expected to become a Professor. But, this is difficult as there are limited job openings and it’s not like there are new universities popping up all over the place for you to get hired at. Just like any workplace, there are informal rules that you learn as you go along to become competitive. In the case of academia, you have to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals. This is really important and is constantly ingrained in grad students’ heads. I can still remember my first graduate seminar, seeing the Professor walk in, and jot on the board the common adage in academia: “PUBLISH OR PERISH.”

Why are you an Academic then?

Being a Filipino academic comes with a number of challenges. But it also comes with a number of great things that make me persist down this path. To be an academic means that you get to pursue an occupation where you constantly get to study and learn more about the world around you. Pursuing a Ph.D. represents an opportunity to unearth information that connects you to a scholarly conversation hundreds of years in the making. Specifically, being a Filipino academic allows you to research the community you come from and share information that otherwise might not have been learned. It also means that you can serve as a teacher and a mentor for generations after you. While the path of pursuing a Ph.D. is difficult, it is one that I have no regrets going down.

As for my own research, I decided before I started that I wanted to study groups that have often been ignored in society. For myself, and many children of immigrants, it can be difficult to find one’s place in the U.S., especially when our legitimacy as being “American” is constantly in question. On the other hand, the U.S. is often times the only home we’ve ever known. The ancestral home country can seem so distant, especially when you can’t speak the language or freely travel back. My research focuses on these experiences, particularly how second-generation Filipino and Mexican-Americans make sense of their place in the U.S. and the home of their parents. In addition, my next project looks to examine the experiences of undocumented youth, aka the Dreamers, particularly amidst the tumultuous political climate of today.

My journey to become a Professor is still underway. I’m still in the process of acquiring my Ph.D. and it has definitely been a difficult path. It has also been fulfilling because I’ve been able to pursue my lifelong passion of learning more about the world around me.


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