Minority PhDs ‘have higher aspirations in diverse departments’

Research finds that having just one scholar from an underrepresented group has a positive impact on academic goals of doctoral students in the same department

January 11, 2021
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Doctoral chemistry students from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to say they are highly committed to finishing their PhD and progressing in academia, particularly if they are in a department with at least one scholar from an underrepresented group, according to a study.

paper, based on the experiences and career plans of 1,375 students pursuing chemistry PhDs at top-ranked US universities, found that those who identified as being in a racial or ethnic group that is underrepresented in chemistry were significantly less likely than other students to report having sufficient financial support and a supportive relationship with advisers.

However, despite their more negative experiences during study, the research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that students from underrepresented minorities expressed greater commitment to finishing their degree and staying in the field than other students. 

When there was at least one faculty member within their department who also identified as being in a racial or ethnic group that is underrepresented in chemistry, they were more likely than any other students to aspire to complete a postdoc and become a professor in a research-oriented department. In contrast, underrepresented students in departments without any professors who themselves identified as an underrepresented minority were slightly less likely than other students to express this aspiration.

The study, “Equity for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM: Graduate experiences and career plans in chemistry”, conducted by academics at the University of Oregon, was based on 2013 survey data from the American Chemical Society.

The data found that, excluding other variables, students who had more supportive advisers were more likely to plan to finish their degree, stay in chemistry and aspire to a postdoctoral position and an academic career at a research-oriented university. However, the positive effect of an adviser on women’s commitment was muted in larger and more prestigious departments.

Overall, men were significantly more likely than women to express strong commitment to finishing their PhD, remaining in chemistry and aspiring to a professorship with an emphasis on research.

In the paper, the authors conclude that “graduate school experiences can mirror inequities in other areas of the society and potentially work against” diversity and inclusion. But they add that the findings show underrepresented minorities have “extraordinary individual courage and devotion to their science”.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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