Rombald green texture

Why we must support black doctors in nursing and public health

21st October 2021

Author: Pamela Felder-Small, Ph.D., Founder Black Doctorates Matter

Pamela Felder-Small

Now more than ever before there is a need to increase representation of Black nurses and public health doctors.

National dialogue on efforts to support historically marginalised doctoral students pursuing STEM-related careers calls for additional research on strategies for recruitment and retention. The fields of public health and nursing are examples where this population of students is in need of culturally focused strategies to facilitate navigation through and beyond barriers towards academic success, degree completion, and transition into career pathways. Cultural wealth models provide guidance on how historically marginalised students can transcend these barriers to improve rates of degree completion, as well as provide a basis for enhancing programmatic developments and institutional diversity efforts.

Over the last decade policymakers and scholars have facilitated a national conversation on the academic pathways, experiences, and processes designed to recruit and retain historically marginalised doctoral students (Council of Graduate Schools and Educational Testing Service, 2012; Griffin & Muniz, 2015). An underlying goal of this work is to provide evidence on the ways systemic exclusionary practices have created barriers to academic success, degree completion, and transition into career pathways for African Americans.

Many scholars have responded to this call through scholarship for deeper understanding on a broad range of issues to include: focusing on racial and cultural identity characteristics of students and perspectives of their experiences (Barker, 2016; Felder & Freeman, 2016; Gildersleeve, Croom, & Vasquez, 2011; McGaskey, Freeman, Guyton, Richmond, Guyton; 2016; Phelps-Ward & DeAngelo, 2016); and their academic  socialisation (Antony, 2002; Perez, Robbins, Harris, & Montgomery, 2019; Twale, Weidman & Bethea, 2016; Worthington, 2012).

Increasing knowledge about the experiences of these students can serve to improve recruitment and retention efforts to prepare them or requisite skills needed to meet disciplinary and industry career requirements (Okahana, Allum, Felder, Tull, 2016).

For many African American doctoral students, progress towards degree completion is a challenging pathway. Previous research about African American degree attainment examines the educational pipeline where degree completion rates at preceding educational levels and lack of diverse faculty support are primary causes for the slow progression of completion rates in the United States (Nettles & Millett, 2006; Willie, Grady, & Hope, 1991).

According to the National Science Foundation Survey of Earned Doctorates on degree recipients, by subfield of study, citizenship status, ethnicity, and race reported for 2020 there were 2,588 health sciences doctoral degrees conferred. Slightly less than 10% of these degrees is represented by Blacks/African Americans.

Within the subfield of health sciences, Black/African Americans in nursing and public health have the highest representation among historically marginalised doctoral degree recipients, 43 and 81, respectively. Yet, when compared to their white counterparts, Blacks/African Americans represent significantly less degree attainment than whites, 526 and 124, in the same subfields. The representation of Blacks/African Americans demonstrates promise for career opportunities in these fields.  However, comparatively, significant marginalization remains among doctoral degrees conferred for Blacks/African Americans in these fields and this imposes potential risk on degree attainment and the development of future nursing and public health practitioners/scholars.

Second, policy guidance from the Council of Graduate Schools (Okahana, study of marginalised  doctoral students in STEM fields addresses this potential risk by identifying causes for attrition and factors significant to degree completion.  This work suggests additional study is needed to further examine the experiences of historically marginalised groups in specific disciplines, as well as, the critical nuances shaping their motivation for academic and career success.

Third, research on diversity in higher education is expanding to advance initiatives that promote inclusion and equity (Worthington, 2012). Scholars committed to advocacy and social justice work to draw connections within the literature among sources that lack representation of the historically marginalised communities and ideologies aimed at addressing racial and cultural inequities.  They highlight a commitment to social justice and advocacy in doctoral education research, and within nursing and public health fields, are needed to further inform scholarship and practice on the affects of the pandemic.

As the world continues to be affected by pandemics that illuminate racial injustice, the perspectives of Black Nurses and Public Health will be critically important to how historically marginalised communities are served. Their perspectives serve to increase awareness of how African Americans have been historically misrepresented in doctoral education research and how this misrepresentation contributes to what is widely known in nursing and public health arenas as social determinants of health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines social determinants of health as: "The social determinants of health (SDH) are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life." Similarly, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states SDH represents the conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.

Increased representation of African American scholars in the fields of nursing and public health is critical to influencing forces and systems shaping the educational and socioeconomic conditions of historically marginalised communities.


Antony, J. S. (2002). Reexamining doctoral student socialization and professional development: Moving beyond the congruence and assimilation orientation. Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, 349-380.

Barker, Marco J.  Western Journal of Black Studies, suppl. Special Issue: Exploring Doctoral Student Socialization and the African American Experience; Pullman Vol. 40, Iss. 2,  (Summer 2016): 126-140.

Felder, Pamela P; Freeman, Sydney, Jr.  Western Journal of Black Studies, suppl. Special Issue: Exploring Doctoral Student Socialization and the African American Experience; Pullman Vol. 40, Iss. 2,  (Summer 2016): 77-79.

McGaskey, F., Freeman, Jr. S., Guyton, C., Richmond, D. & Guyton, C. W. (2016). The social support networks of black males in higher education administration doctoral programs: An exploratory study. Western Journal of Black Studies. 40(2), 141-158.

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). 2020. Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2019. NSF 21-308. Alexandria, VA: National Science Foundation.

Nettles, M. T., & Millett, C. M. (2006). Three magic letters: Getting to Ph.D. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Okahana, H., Allum, J., Felder, P.P., & Tull, R.G. (2016). Implications for practice and research from Doctoral Initiative on Minority Attrition and Completion (CGS Data Sources PLUS #16-01). Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

Perez, R. J., Robbins, C. K., Harris, L. W., Jr., & Montgomery, C. (2020). Exploring graduate students’ socialization to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 13(2), 133–145.

Phelps-Ward, Robin; DeAngelo, Linda.  Western Journal of Black Studies, suppl. Special Issue: Exploring Doctoral Student Socialization and the African American Experience; Pullman Vol. 40, Iss. 2,  (Summer 2016): 111-125.

Ryan Evely Gildersleeve, Natasha N. Croom & Philip L. Vasquez (2011) “Am I going crazy?!”: A Critical Race Analysis of Doctoral Education, Equity & Excellence in Education, 44:1, 93-114, DOI: 10.1080

Twale, D., Weidman, J., & Bethea, K., (2016). Conceptualizing the socialization of graduate students of color, Revisiting the Weidman, Twale, & Stein Framework.  The Western Journal of Black Studies, 40(2), 80–94

Worthington, R. L. (2012). Advancing scholarship for the diversity imperative in higher education: An editorial [Editorial]. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5(1), 1–7.