‘Black and Hispanic female PhDs’ need science mentors

US study finds biomedical PhDs from certain ethnic minorities are less likely to understand the ‘hidden’ rules of succeeding in science

December 1, 2016
A black female scientist working in a lab
Source: iStock

Young female scientists from ethnic minorities require more mentors to help them understand the “unwritten and unofficial” rules of getting ahead in academia, says a US study.

As part of a longitudinal study into perspectives of under-represented minorities, some 60 students at the start of a biomedical PhD were interviewed by researchers at Northwestern University to assess their understanding of academic careers.

Of the 60 students, about one-third were black, Latino or Native American and one-quarter were the first in their family to attend college.

However, these students – particularly women, who accounted for half of interviewees – are far more likely to have a poor grasp of how to advance in academia, the study observes.

In fact, all the students with “undeveloped perspectives on the scientific career” were either ethnic minority women or first-generation college graduates, according to the paper by Northwestern academics Christine V. Wood and Richard McGee with consultant Patricia B. Campbell, which was published in the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering in November.

For instance, one female African American PhD student explained how she wanted to enter academia “when I want to retire” from a higher-paying industry career, which the authors said “is not a standard or even plausible career path”.

This lack of insight into scientific careers may partly explain why black and Latina women remain so severely under-represented in biomedical science, the study, titled "An incredibly steep hill: how gender, race and class shape perspectives on academic careers among beginning biomedical PhD students”.

Only 2.6 per cent of PhDs awarded in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects go to African American women, despite this group representing 6 per cent of the US population, according to a National Science Foundation report published in 2010. Just 2.5 per cent of STEM PhDs went to Hispanic women, who make up almost 7 per cent of the US population, it added.

While the authors acknowledge that their sample size is small, the lack of accurate knowledge about academic careers in ethnic minority PhD students was “striking”, even among those whose parents were graduates.

These students “need access to and knowledge about the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended, lessons, values, and perspectives that make up the ‘hidden curriculum’ in graduate education, and more specifically biomedicine”, says the paper.

Current graduate students need “intensive mentors who are sensitive and attuned to environmental factors that affect student and faculty experiences” to help them “navigate potentially hostile and isolating environments” that may deter them from an academic career, it adds.

Specifically, students should be “guided to learn the factors to consider in laboratory selection, choice of project and advisor, details about the traditional ‘path’ to the academic career and the tenure track, and proper planning for careers outside of academia”, it adds.

The interviews also reveal how many ethnic minority PhD students worried that they are viewed as “‘outside’ of the norm of the standard scientific practitioner even at this early stage of scientific development”, even if they came from an affluent middle-class background.

“Having resources does not eliminate concerns about racial prejudice along the science trajectory,” the paper concludes.

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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