Dr. Karsonya Whitehead

General information

Teaching Institution: University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore, Maryland

Field of Study: Sociolinguistics

Dr. Karsonya (Kaye) Wise Whitehead is assistant professor of Communication and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland; the founding executive director of The Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture; a K-12 master teacher in African-American History; an award-winning curriculum writer, lesson plan developer and middle school teacher; and a three-time New York Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker. She completed her Ph.D. in 2009 at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). 

What made you want to pursue a Ph.D.? 

After having worked as a documentary filmmaker and a television producer for 10 years and a school teacher for four years, I was finally ready to go back to school and work on my doctoral degree. It was always a long-term goal for me, though I did not know how I was going to accomplish it. I was a wife, a mother of two young boys, and I worked full time outside of the home. I was not sure that I could balance the demands required by each of the areas. I realized after I turned 35 years old that if I did not enter into a Ph.D. program before I turned 40, I might not ever have the chance to do it.

Why did you choose your particular area of study? 

I wanted to focus in history, and I wanted to attend UMBC, but they did not have a Ph.D. program in history. I was extremely disappointed because, I had my Bachelors of Arts degree in history. However, after receiving some council from some scholars in the field, they pointed out to me that since my work and research experiences crossed multiple fields (education, history and communications) I should think about entering into an interdisciplinary program. I looked at UMBC’s language literacy and culture program, and I found that I was able to combine historical sociolinguistics, history and Africana studies.

What were some of the challenges that you faced while working on your Ph.D.? 

During my first year in the doctoral program, I was teaching five classes a day while also working 10 hours a week as a research assistant, I had two boys under seven years old, I was a full time student and was also a wife. The largest problem was trying to find a balance for all of the parts of my life. It was probably the most difficult year of my program. I cried all of the time because I was unable to find a way to catch up with myself. At the same time, I could not conceive of a way to make it easier for myself because I was unable to give anything up. I was growing so much as a doctoral student that I could not imagine leaving the program, and I needed my job. I was determined to find a way to make it work.

How did you persevere through those obstacles? 

I sometimes ask myself that same question when I looked back at everything that was happening in my life. I just knew that I wanted to be a doctor, and that I wanted to be more than what I was. I wanted to ask myself the hard questions, find a way to immerse in research and make contributions to the field. So, I kept going. I would work all day, come home to be a wife and mother, go to class in the early evening, come back home and put my kids to bed, study, and then work as a research assistant. I was exhausted all of the day. I was sick and losing weight, but I had never been happier about my own personal growth and development. In my mind, I was doing it! I was a doctoral student on her way to getting a Ph.D.

What has been the impact of the SREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program on your doctoral journey? 

I remember when I decided to apply for the SREB program, and I spoke to my advisor about my intentions. She was supportive but she did note that SREB only gave one award out in the state of Maryland. I promptly replied, “Well, God knows that I only need one.” The day I received the call that I had been awarded the SREB Doctoral Scholars award, I had just finished teaching three very difficult groups of middle school students. 

I was sitting in my classroom trying to finish a paper for class. The moment I heard of my acceptance, I laid my head on my desk and started crying. I was so tired, and I felt that I had been given a life line. I saw it as a sign that I was on the right path and that I was going to be able to make it through my program. In a sense, I felt that I would be able to start my life all over again. I believe that life comes in waves and phases, and I was coming to the end of a phase. When we moved from New York in 2003, I had quit my job as a documentary filmmaker and had become a school teacher. During my fourth year, I had enrolled in a doctoral program, and now I was ready to quit so that I could become a full-time teacher. 

Another benefit that I realized was that this program was going to give me a chance to be a better mother. I could now work to balance my schedule between classes and my sons. I wanted to be fully present in their lives as they were really beginning to move into sports and after-school programs. I resigned my position at the end of the school year and started DSP full time in the summer of 2006. Since I was able to go to school and research full time, I was able to complete my doctoral program in less than three years, graduating with my Ph.D. in 2009! In 2008, I had already been contacted by Loyola University Maryland. Due to my background and research area, they offered me a tenure track position starting in fall 2009. Additionally, my dissertation was well received in the field, and I received my first book contract in 2012. My first book, Notes From a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis was published in 2014. I am now in my sixth year, and I have just submitted my tenure dossier.

What advice do you have for those who are just starting out or who are now in the middle of their doctoral program? 

My advice for students who are just starting out: I entered into my doctoral program very clear about my research focus and my dissertation topic. This really helped me to stay focused and to begin working on my dissertation while I was still taking my classes. My advice for students who are just entering their doctoral program is to work with their advisors and start to decide what they want to work on while they are in their programs. 

I always see the dissertation as a stepping stone that can be used to lift you up into the field that you will essentially stand on for the next 20 years. Think deeply about the work you want to do, and then decide whether you can do it for the next 20 years. Consider these questions: Does it hold your interest? Are you excited about the work? Do you feel you have something to say? Is this your vocation or calling? 

If you are in the middle, make sure you are on the right track, and if you are not, then turn around and move in the direction you need to go in. This is the most exciting time in your life when you have people who are focused on helping you to hone your research, find your voice in the field, and finish your program. Take advantage of it! Find opportunities to publish, co-publish, co-present and attend conferences as much as possible. 

Advice for students who are planning to go on the market: What I value most about my colleagues is the feeling of collegiality and community. Loyola is a good fit for me and for my family. I like the way the school values both teaching and scholarship. For students who are considering becoming a university professor, I would advise them to:

  • Find a campus where they can see themselves working at every day for the next 20+ years.
  • Find a department where they have a connection with the other professors (they will be your campus family and you will need them to support your annual reviews, your tenure package, your teaching…)
  • Find a university whose mission fits with the way that you see the world; if you want to focus solely on research then look only at R1 universities and if you want to focus on both your teaching and your research – look for places like Loyola.

What are your plans now as a Program Graduate, and what are some of the things you have been involved in since graduating? 

My primary goal is to attain tenure! I have been awarded, provided my tenure bid goes well, a full-year sabbatical where I plan to work on my fourth book: Notes from a Slave Ship: The 1749 Diary of William Chancellor and my first encyclopedia 50 Key Events That Shaped African American History.