“No Ways Tired”: Exploring the Lived Experiences of African American Women Who Pursue Their PhD After the Age of 50: An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Sandra L. Guzman Foster


Darlene Carbajal


Jacqueline Flemmings


Research Focus. Historically, African Americans are an underrepresented group in higher education. Since the groundbreaking court decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), African American women have fought to have their voices heard and their presence validated on their own terms, particularly in higher education (Collins, 2009). African American women are often unseen in colleges and universities (Zamani, 2003). In recent years, research has revealed great strides in African American enrollment at every level of higher education. According to NCES (2018), African Americans are more likely to receive doctorates at the age 41 or older and African American women represented 66% of all African American doctorate degrees earned. Although there is a significant increase of African American women returning to pursue a PhD after 50, their lived experience is under-researched and largely unknown.

The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the lived experiences of African American women who pursue their PhD after the age of 50 at a 4-year, faith-based institution of higher education in the southwestern region of the U.S. Black Feminist Thought (BFT) and intersectionality provided the appropriate framing to help understand the complexities of negotiating multiple intersecting identities as the women navigate agency within their academic environment. BFT specifically speaks to the importance of giving voice to the African American women who are often unseen, unheard, and undervalued as legitimate theorists and producers of knowledge (Collins, 2009). Intersectionality provided insight on the complexities of the multiple and intersecting identities of race, gender, and age. A few concepts from endarkened feminism contributed to the historical space that honors the wisdom and spirituality of women of the African diaspora, and the adult stages of human development added insight and deeper understanding of how age plays a significant role in the life shifts of older, African American in pursuit of their PhD later in life.

Research Methods. A qualitative study was an appropriate fit to gain greater understanding of African American women who chose to participate in this advanced academic endeavor at this time in their lives. Creswell and Creswell (2018) asserted that a qualitative approach is useful “if a concept or phenomenon needs to be explored and understood because little research has been done on it or because it involves an understudied sample” (p. 19). I used purposeful sampling to identify four participants who self-identified as an African American woman, at least 50 years old, born and raised primarily in the U.S., and currently pursuing their PhD or completed their PhD within the past five years at the time of this study. To gain a rich, detailed, first-person account of how each participant makes sense of their experiences and the meaning they ascribe to them, I utilized Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) to collect and analyze data. Data collection consisted of two separate, in-depth, semi-structured interviews via Zoom web-conferencing, a pre-interview demographic questionnaire, artifact sharing, observation, field notes, memo writing, and researcher journaling. As my goal was to become immersed in each participant’s unique lived experiences, and in conjunction with IPA’s recommendation for novice researchers, I chose to manually transcribe the audio recording of the eight interviews. I continued the manual process throughout the analysis. Using IPA’s 6-step guidelines to analyze the data resulted in the emergence of 7 superordinate themes and 20 subthemes.

Research Results/Findings. Despite challenges, setbacks and tensions they encounter along their academic journey, findings revealed that African American women aged 50 and over are intentional, determined, and committed to completing their PhD program. Findings included areas concerning the importance of having a strong support network, sense of belongingness, wholeness, mentorship and collaboration, being change agents and positive role models. Findings also revealed the significance of exercising their spiritual faith, leaving an educational legacy, providing a potential roadmap for others to follow and honoring the power in and of the PhD process. In addition, based on their personal lived experiences, participants shared perspectives on how the institution might improve on current support structures going forward, particularly for its older, female African American PhD students.

Conclusions From Research. Extant literature suggests that when non-Historically Black Colleges and Universities strive to understand the underlying complexities experienced by older, female African American students, it opens opportunities to provide support that helps enable their academic success. Conducting this qualitative research study from the perspective of the women who are experiencing the phenomenon greatly expands and enhances academic literature. This study adds to the limited body of research specific to this subpopulation, contributes to a greater understanding of their lived experiences as PhD students and expands the knowledge base on how this subpopulation constructs meaning associated with those experiences in academic spaces. Findings from this study could potentially assist university efforts in facilitating the success of this subgroup as well as contribute to recruitment and enrollment strategies specific to this growing subpopulation.

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