UW News

February 19, 2021

UW partners in new postdoctoral program to diversify the science and engineering faculty at America’s research universities

UW News


Suzzallo Library at the University of WashingtonPamela Dore/University of Washington

At our nation’s research universities, including the University of Washington, underrepresented minorities make up less than 6% of the faculty across non-medical science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. This severe underrepresentation among faculty has persisted for decades and comes, in part, from a lack of diversity among the doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars in these fields who elect to pursue faculty positions.

In turn, the lack of diverse science and engineering faculty discourages students of color from pursuing degrees in these fields — a negative feedback loop that has proven difficult to break.

With the help of new grants from the National Science Foundation and the Washington Research Foundation, UW is attempting to address this problem by combining efforts across an alliance of top research universities.

“The time has come for change,” said UW Provost Mark Richards. “Not years from now, but in the immediate future.”

The newly formed Research University Alliance joins UW with eight other leading research institutions, including University of California, Berkeley; California Institute of Technology; University of California, Los Angeles; Stanford University; University of Michigan; Harvard University; Georgia Institute of Technology and University of Texas at Austin.

Based on a well-tested precursor, the California Alliance, the larger Research University Alliance is working at many levels to redefine how doctoral students are mentored into the postdoctoral ranks, and how postdoctoral scholars are hired and mentored into faculty positions.

The Research University Alliance funds exchange visits across all of the nine partnering institutions, matching students and postdocs with faculty hosts in their area of research. Visits allow these early career scientists to share their work and ideas, learn new techniques and approaches, engage in collaborative discussions and innovation, and broaden their career opportunities. Annual retreats bringing all exchange participants together and professional development programming are also major components of the work of the alliance.


Mark Richards, Joy Williamson-Lott, Julia ParrishUniversity of Washington

A key component of this effort — connecting underrepresented minority senior doctoral students with postdoctoral opportunities across the alliance — will be led by UW, under the co-direction of College of Environment Associate Dean Julia Parrish, Graduate School Dean Joy Williamson-Lott and Provost Richards.

The statistics are concerning. Just 8.5% of doctoral students in these science and engineering departments identified as underrepresented minorities, significantly lower than the demographics of the U.S. But these numbers are halved at the postdoc and faculty levels — to just 3.9% of postdoctoral researchers and faculty.

“That loss is a crucial starting point,” Parrish said.

Unlike the hiring process for faculty, which usually involves advertising open positions, the hiring of postdoctoral researchers has relied more on word-of-mouth networks among academics.

“Put simply, we are looking to establish a new network at the graduate and postdoc level that doesn’t depend on who you already know or are connected to, but is instead dependent on the excellent, interesting, edgy work that they do,” said Parrish. This new system will vastly improve upon the old networks.

As part of the alliance, the UW is creating a web portal for postdocs and senior graduate students to showcase their work, and for participating university partners to post postdoctoral positions.

“In many fields, postdocs are vital positions to hold before becoming faculty or before becoming an entrepreneur,” said Williamson-Lott. “It’s an incredibly important space. And so we want to force that space open to allow more people to be able to enter it, and compete in it, and then benefit from it.”

The Washington Research Foundation is dedicated to the diversification of science, Richards said, and the Washington state-based organization’s funding, $50,000 per year for the next four years, will be paired with the NSF/AGEP funds and funds from the Colleges of Engineering, Arts & Sciences, and Environment, and the Applied Physics Laboratory to allow UW to join with other institutions and meet the goal to attract more diverse candidates to the postdoc ranks and the professoriate.

“I’m glad to be part of an institution that values diversity, pursues it aggressively and refuses to stand still, and wants to be part of the solution rather than the problem,” Williamson-Lott said. “It speaks very highly for our institution to participate in this.”

For more information, contact Parrish at jparrish@uw.edu.