Building Diversity in Ph.D. Programs

Posted By Eliana Osborn on January 22, 2016 at 9:38 am
Building Diversity in Ph.D. Programs

Compared to the 20 million students attending college this year, those working on doctorate degrees are a tiny fraction.  Some Ph.D. candidates go into industry, some stay in academia.  Either way, these students are at the top of their fields and become thought leaders with their specialized knowledge and extensive study.  1.8 million students will earn a bachelor’s degree in 2015-16, but only 179,000 will achieve a doctorate.

As of fall 2013, fully 84% of full-time professors at degree-granting institutions were white.  And campus protests over race and inequality are happening all over the country.  Even when student bodies reflect the diversity of the general populace, faculties remain overwhelmingly white.  Today’s Ph.D. students are the professors of the not-so-distant future.  Unless these programs are welcoming to candidates of all backgrounds, tomorrow’s college students will continue to be taught by a homogenous population.

Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “Students deserve to be taught by a professoriate that looks like them.  Diversity among students leads to more creativity, more openness, greater attention to diversity in society, research, and practice.  There are stacks of research that show this to be the case empirically.   The country is changing immensely and higher education just as quickly.  We must have a diverse professoriate that is prepared to teach our diverse nation.”

Diverse Ph.D. candidates increased, but retention is a challenge

The number of students enrolled in Ph.D. and other doctoral programs increased 12%, from approximately 330,000 to 369,000 between 1995 and 2003.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, minority students accounted for much of this growth.  “Collectively, the number of African-American, Latino, and Native American students seeking doctorates jumped 65%, and their share of total enrollment among domestic students rose from just 13% in 1996 to 21% in 2004.”  In math and science fields, minority numbers are significantly lower.  Other factors, like more women and more international students, are also responsible for program growth.

Even as more diverse candidates are entering doctoral programs, retention is a serious concern.  Many students leave without earning degrees, at higher rates than their white peers.  A lack of mentors, discomfort in a rarified academic culture and other factors are all reasons.  Some initiatives are in place to make the Ph.D. more welcoming for minority students.  The Ph.D. Project, for example, is a collaborative effort to increase the number of minority business school professors.

Ph.D. Project diversifies business school faculties

Boardrooms are slowly becoming more diverse in all sorts of industries and the Ph.D. Project helps successful businesspeople to move into leadership and teaching roles.

In turn, diversifying business school lecturers can open doors for minority students to choose this field.  The Ph.D. Project began in 1994 and reports that in 2013, the number of minority faculty in business schools has quadrupled.  Key components of the Project include:

  • a marketing program to attract minorities outside academia to become professors,
  • a peer- and mentor-based support system to guide them through the rigors of obtaining the doctoral degree needed to become a professor,
  • a professional development network to connect rising academics with employment openings, and to support them through early career experiences.

Schools With Diverse Doctoral Programs

According to Gasman, some doctoral programs are doing well at diversification.  The three most diverse schools are the University of Chicago, University of California-Berkeley, and New York University.  “Much more has to happen and enrollment is not always the issue, it’s retention, completion and then getting students into the professoriate.  There are intense microaggressions faced by Ph.D. students on a daily basis and that is amplified for students of color.  The best programs have close mentoring relationships, a respect for diversity-related topics and discussions, a diverse faculty, a stated commitment to reviewing student applications with an eye for diversity and not a preference for standard measures. Schools that look at the whole application and not just the GRE score. Once students are admitted, they must be nurtured, listened to, and supported by their advisor and, to be frank, the entire department.”

Research from Northwestern Medical finds success in increasing science doctorate diversity with a coaching program.  Students participated in a specific coaching plan called ‘The Academy for Future Science Faculty’ and reported significantly more career confidence.  All students used the traditional mentoring programs at their colleges, but only the extra coaching group grew in self-assurance, despite oftentimes being the only minority in their labs.

“For women and students from racial and ethnic minority groups, in particular, the program provided new role models and novel opportunities to have difficult conversations about diversity, difference and discrimination in science,” said first author Simon Williams, research assistant professor in medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

As more students desire to pursue a doctoral education, challenging perceptions about what an academic looks like will need to happen as well. Gasman says, “When people say that they cannot find students of color for their Ph.D. programs they are being dishonest.  They are out there, eager, and talented.  The issue is opening one’s mind to what a Ph.D. student looks like, how they came to the point of applying, and what they can offer. We need to bust traditional notions of qualified and traditional indicators of success.”  Only then will future college students see faculty who represent them, making it clear that their future is wide open.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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