UW News

January 9, 2019

Minority Ph.D. students in STEM fare better with clear expectations, acceptance

Women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields are more likely to advance professionally, publish more research and secure postdoctoral and faculty positions if their institutional culture is welcoming and sets clear expectations, according to a study of hundreds of Ph.D. students at four top-tier California research universities.

Mark Richard, incoming provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UW.

Mark Richards, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UW.Courtesy photo

University of Washington Provost Mark Richards, the study’s senior author, and a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) sought to understand how gender, race and ethnicity impact graduate students’ success in math, physical sciences, computer sciences and engineering, as measured by publication rates in academic journals.

The findings, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that doctoral scholars in STEM fields are more likely to publish if enrolled in well-structured graduate programs that lay out clear, unbiased expectations for assessing students and supporting their careers.

“Our study strongly indicates that the onus should not fall on minority students to make changes to succeed in STEM settings,” said Aaron Fisher, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study. “Institutional changes that make students feel welcome and provide clear guidelines and standards for performance are optimal ways to ensure the success of all students.”

“An important implication of this research, as reflected in several papers our group has published recently, is that essential interventions that promote the success of underrepresented minority and women PhD students in STEM fall mainly in the realm of academic culture, and do not necessarily require the investment of major resources. These interventions benefit all students, along with students who have been traditionally underrepresented in the STEM fields,” said Richards, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of earth and planetary science who became provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UW in July.

The interventions identified in the study are especially relevant to the success of black graduate students, who are publishing at lower rates than their peers, Fisher said.

While white, Asian and underrepresented minority males and females in STEM fields recruited for the study at the four campuses were found to have published at roughly equivalent rates, black graduate students were nearly three times less likely to have published a paper in an academic journal.

However, when accounting for black students’ perceptions of departmental structure and sense of preparedness and belonging, the statistical model used in the study shows that this racial disparity may be due in large part to negative experiences associated with being a minority in otherwise white settings.

“African Americans have been communicating for decades about the difficulties and discomforts of being black in white-majority settings, and our data represent a clear example of empirical support for that narrative,” Fisher said. “It’s not so much that being black results in fewer publications, but that the experience of being black in a university setting presents challenges and obstacles that white students are either not facing, or facing to a lesser degree.”

Among the new efforts underway under Berkeley’s leadership is the Research Exchange, a national consortium of nine universities made up of the four California Alliance campuses as well as Georgia Tech; Harvard; the University of Michigan; the University of Texas, Austin; and the UW. The Research Exchange facilitates inter-institutional visits for advanced underrepresented graduate students from these nine top-tier institutions to expand their visibility and experience when applying for elite postdoctoral and faculty positions.

The UW has long been committed to increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields and was one of the original National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant recipients that developed a host of interventions to make the campus climate more welcoming for both students and faculty from these groups.

“Provost Richards’ commitment to diversifying the STEM study body, faculty, and workforce – and his deep belief that diversity is critical to excellence – was something that last year’s provost search committee saw as an important strength,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “We expect that under his academic leadership the UW will continue to be a leader in this regard.”

The newly published study was conducted through the UC Berkeley-led California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), a partnership of UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford and Caltech that seeks to boost the ranks of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields among the graduate students, postdocs, and faculty at research universities.

Previous research published by UC Berkeley members of the alliance, which was launched in 2014 with a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, found that underrepresented minorities publish in academic journals at significantly lower rates than their majority counterparts, placing them at a disadvantage in competing for postdoctoral and faculty positions.

“Publishing in academic journals is a key predictor of future success in academia, which is why our research is so concerned with this often-neglected indicator,” Richards said.

In addition to Fisher and Richards, co-authors of the paper are Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Colette Patt, Ira Young and Andrew Eppig of UC Berkeley; Robin Garrell of UCLA; Douglas Rees of Caltech; and Tenea Nelson of Stanford University.

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