Dr. Niambi Carter Talks about Her Path to Becoming a Professor at Howard University

Dr. Niambi Carter is Associate Professor of Political Science at Howard University.  Her book American While Black: African Americans, Immigration, and the Limits of Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2019) explores public opinion with respect to immigration.  Her latest project explores U.S. Haitian refugee policy in order to understand the current “refugee crisis” at the southern border.  Her work has appeared in Political Psychology, Politics, Groups and Identities, and the Journal of African American Studies.

What energizes you about your career at Howard University?

 I love the history of this place. The people who have walked through this campus from Ralph Bunche to Toni Morrison to Sen. Harris — I’m always in awe. There is an energy at Howard University that is palpable.  And, of course, the students.  They’re constantly teaching me something and I am so excited to see how they think about the world and how they’re going to make the world better. I see them and I know that the world will be a much better place when they are in the position to lead.  I also work with some fantastic women who are on top of their respective games. Drs. Dawuni, Grant, and Middlemass are doing awesome work both on and off campus and I am fortunate to be able to work with them.

What did you study in graduate school? Can you say a little bit about your research?

I studied American politics with an emphasis on race and ethnic politics in the U.S. — particularly Black public opinion and political behavior. Paula McClain, my advisor and Howard University alumnus, put me on a project examining Black-Latino relations in Durham, NC and that set me on this path.

My current research looks at Black public opinion on immigration and argues that Black people use immigration as a way to critique their own exclusion in the American body politic. My book American While Black: African Americans, Immigration and Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2019) takes a historical and contemporary look at this issue to try and offer a more nuanced understanding of Black opinion on this issue.

My next project investigates American refugee policy, also dubbed the “crisis at the southern border,” through the lens of U.S. Haitian refugee policy through the 1970s-1990s.  From my vantage point, you cannot understand what is happening now unless you understand what happened to Haitians then.

Why and when did you choose to pursue a career as a professor and scholar?

 I knew I wanted to be a professor in middle school when I saw A Different World. In some ways, that fictional show gave me a model of what my real professional life looks like today.  I certainly would not be here if it were not for that show giving me a way to envision myself in a future I could not see and had not seen until that point. It was also helmed by Debbie Allen, a notable Howard alum.

In what ways did your doctoral training and mentors prepare you for your career?

I’ve had a number of great mentors throughout my career and I’m very thankful.  Of course, Dr. Paula McClain was one of the greatest.  She not only trained me well in the discipline of political science, but she also gave me some important soft skills that I still use to this day for how to engage at conferences or during job interviews. Her guidance showed me what it means to be a graduate advisor and mentor and I hope to do the same with my own graduate students.  Dr. Shayla Nunnally is another mentor who has not only been my co-author but a true friend. She gave me my first business suit for attendance at APSA when I was a broke graduate student. Dr. Khalilah Brown-Dean has shown me how to navigate difficult professional situations with a grace that I do not possess naturally. Dr. Lorrie Frasure of UCLA  has been an amazing colleague. Dr. Frasure brought me into the Collaborative Multiracial Post-election Survey (CMPS) and allowed me to share that space with a graduate student.  She has shown me how to write grants and provided a space for me to bring younger scholars into the fold.  I’m unsure how she does it all but she has truly been a great mentor.

Academia can be a difficult profession. It is not for the faint of heart. But when you find your people, hang on to them, lean on them, and be sure to give to them as they have given to you. 

Lastly, I cannot forget my colleagues Dr. Keneshia Grant and Dr. Keesha Middlemass. They are not only brilliant but two of the most giving and hardworking colleagues I know.  From sharing teaching tips and assignments to providing pointers on my writing ideas to sharing sources for interviews–they are just amazingly giving people and I am so privileged to have them in my department and to be able to interact with them regularly.  In short, there are too many people to name here, but I am humbled and almost embarrassed by the people who have mentored and continue to mentor me in the profession.

Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career in academia?

Academia can be a difficult profession. It is not for the faint of heart. But when you find your people, hang on to them, lean on them, and be sure to give to them as they have given to you.  It is also immensely rewarding. If or when you cannot think of anything else you’d rather do then you know you’re in the right place.  Of course, I’ve thought of leaving at different points and going to count visitors at the zoo, but that always passes. This profession gives us so much, just remember to take time for yourself and your loved ones. Be kind to others and use whatever power or resources you have to make sure the world of political science becomes larger, not smaller.

APSA’s Career Paths series explores the wide range of career trajectories that political science PhDs can take and provides specific career advice for graduate students entering the job market, as well as other political scientists at all career levels who are looking for new career opportunities. Individuals interested in contributing to the series should email Dr. Tanya Schwarz, APSA’s Director of Teaching & Learning, tschwarz@apsanet.org

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