Disadvantaged students come from disadvantaged universities


The future of research in the USA requires that we recruit the best possible scientists. As the country gets less and less white, we can’t afford to have fewer and fewer people seeing science as a valid career path. This should be self-evident.

When NSF and NIH throw money at the problem, the money mostly winds up in institutions that don’t have many underrepresented minority (URM) students. It’s no surprise, then, that we haven’t seen a substantial increase in the URM population of career scientists. At least, the increase is meager given the big emphasis over the years.

Most URM students who are brought into active research programs are the token few, who are already interested in research and are prepared to do it. Research institutions can advertise and recruit, and they’ll get research-focused students. So, a small number of prepared and focused URM students become a highly prized commodity among funded researchers. As the stakes get higher for URM students, then the small number of them who already want to do research become even more valuable.

To recruit new URM students into science, you have to recruit URM students into doing science. To increase the actual number of URM students who want to do science, you need to identify those who aren’t interested or ready to do science and make it happen for them. This happens some places, but it’s not the standard approach. Most programs take the easier route, to scrounge for the already-science-focused URM students instead of recruiting new students. It’s easier.

URM students disproportionately come from disadvantaged backgrounds. And disadvantaged students go to disadvantaged universities. Disadvantaged students aren’t to be found in the locations where world-class scientists are trained.  Let me emphasize this point again, because it’s huge:

Disadvantaged students enroll in disadvantaged universities. The URM students that we need to recruit are found in universities that are disconnected from big research training programs.

If you’re serious about recruiting new URM students into science, who otherwise wouldn’t be in science, then you need to build provide opportunities to students at disadvantaged universities. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Genuine recruitment requires serious relationships with students, in which they trust their professors. Students don’t need just an awesome science experience; they need to see science as a viable career path. Once my URM students want to become scientists, their biggest roadblocks are likely to be their own families. Rich experiences, personal relationships and friendships are what makes a difference.

I can tell my students that they have access to certain opportunities far more easily than non-URM students, because they’re a rare and valued commodity. I tell them they could spend a summer doing research in Svalbard, maybe go to Antarctica, or the rainforest, or live in Australia for several months doing climate change research. Or they can spend the summer working in a local NASA facility. And they’re not jumping on board or applying in droves. This is not the thing for which they went to college. What looks like amazing opportunities to me looks like a distraction, and a huge inconvenience, to many URM students. Moreover, many of them literally can’t afford to take a summer research experience with a full stipend, because they’d lose gainful employment in the process.

They’re underrepresented in the sciences for a reason. It’s not that they’re not capable of doing science, it’s that they’re not oriented towards doing it.

To make more URM scientists, you need to make more URM scientists. You’ve got to create them from non-scientists, from people who never saw themselves as scientists. These students aren’t at your research institution. They’re at the technical college. They’re at the regional state university. They’re at the community college. If you’re at a research institution, the exact students that you need to diversify the discipline are not to be found at your institution.

To truly reach out to and recruit new URM students from disadvantaged institutions, you need to directly deal with faculty members who work these students on a daily basis. Their disadvantaged institutions can’t be seen as a mere source of students, but need to be seen as partners in mentorship.

The faculty members at disadvantaged institutions don’t have the capacity for mentoring students like you find at research institutions. They spend more time in the classroom, they don’t have big labs, and they don’t have postdocs and grad students. Research institutions that want URM students from disadvantaged institutions need to be able to help create that capacity. They need to give resources to enable the faculty at URM-serving institutions provide the mentorship that is necessary to create scientists.

There are a variety of “bridges” programs that have been devised to connect up such disadvantaged institutions with research institutions with greater resources. This kind of program, in theory, is exactly what is needed to grow more URM scientists. However, in my limited experience I have found that these bridges have been constructed of poor quality and the foremen don’t pay attention to potholes on the disadvantaged sides of the bridges. When these partnerships are genuine, they work. The disadvantaged institution needs to get plenty of resources to make sure that the required mentorship can happen. This means time, supplies, and travel. And all three cost money. But the lead institution — the advantaged side of the bridge — is inclined to only fund the partner as much as absolutely necessary to keep the bridge from collapsing. And URMs students are not inclined to cross such a rickety bridge.

I hear far too often from people who are running research training programs, who have trouble getting their URM numbers high enough for themselves or their funding agencies. Either recruitment falls short, or retention, or long-term outcomes are inadequate.

For them, my prescription is simple: go to disadvantaged universities which are replete with capable science majors who may have an open disposition to research. Don’t just ask these universities to ship students to you, but build genuine relationships with the faculty and students at these universities to provide mentorship opportunities. This takes time, it takes effort, and it takes money. The good and important things, though, shouldn’t come easily.

14 thoughts on “Disadvantaged students come from disadvantaged universities

  1. Excellent post Dr. McGLynn,

    One part of the bridge a lot of times are postdocs and grad students going to those URMs and demonstrating that science is possible for them to do (and to underscore the point that scientists don’t look like any one kind of person). One of my big concerns is that as a lot of postdocs and graduate students these days do not see science as a viable career (science itself is incredible and I at least feel privileged to get to ask questions about how nature works). But a lot of us are extremely uncertain about our long term career prospects. I think that’s problematic for recruiting and educating new students in STEM (be they URM, women or young kids) which will make it even harder to increase their numbers if people currently in science can’t recommend it as a path. As long as someone is entering a Ph.D. program with eyes open about the career path and how uncertain it might be, I think it’s OK, but a lot of times, my feeling is a student now is better off being science literate but then not becoming a scientist themselves.

    • When grad students and post docs who are not from a disadvantaged and URM background imply that not having gone to grad school is a wiser choice, then recruitment is even more difficult. I try to place my students with people who understand the relative choices that my students face. I place them with people who understand what not having to grad school means for a person who wants to do science but has a BS from a middling university, from a first generation college background.

      Every one of my URM students will have better prospects with a PhD than without one. The alternatives for them with a BS in biology are far narrower, with a lower income and lower quality of life. Is a PhD for everyone? Of course not. But among my students, those who are motivated and capable WILL be better off having done it. I don’t often take kindly to a non-URM getting a PhD telling my students that a PhD might not be a good idea. On one side it could be seen as sage advice, but from the other, it’s the entitled majority acting as an excluding gatekeeper. Laying out the options and showing the odds is one thing, but straight-up advice against it is something else.

      • I do get that there are real problems in the academic job market, particularly in some fields. But I sometimes wonder if the “Don’t get a PhD” people have looked at the rest of the market recently.

        Law school grads in most specializations can’t get decent jobs either (and law school apps are plunging as a result). Physicians can get good jobs but they can also end up with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt (since they pay rather than getting paid during their post-bachelor’s education), while spending a few years in a low-paying residency before they can make serious money. My friend who is a nurse spent ages trying to get her first nursing job because everyone wanted experienced nurses, not new ones. A lot of people that I know in the trades have spent substantial time out of work in the last few years. The people who professionally do social justice work that I admire are mostly making under 50k a year, in a metro area where median household income is over 70k. There are a few fields that are exceptions, of course, but difficult job markets and poor salaries aren’t unique to academics, and depending on your background and your field, getting a PhD (which doesn’t even necessarily mean going into academia) can indeed be one of your best options.

  2. Hi Terry,
    Your post addresses something we’ve been tackling for years but I’m cautiously optimistic about the future. You’ve identified many of the problems and obstacles we face in recruiting URM students into non-medical STEM careers, including the biggest – no orientation towards such careers – but as with many problems of this nature, once identified the progress is slow at first. (Let’s just hope we’re on the start of an exponential curve.) As an example, our NSF-funded SCERP program (http://biology.fullerton.edu/scerp/) has grow to be a highly visible and modestly successful program on our campus, and because of it, there is far greater orientation now (last year we had 3X more applications than we could fund) than when it started 12 years ago (when I had to force one of my students to apply in order to fill a cohort of only 6). I think this represents the kind success programs like NSF-UMEB and NSF-URM can have regardless of the institution to which it’s funded. Furthermore, with institutional backing and a committed faculty (fortunately we have both) these programs can be parlayed into something bigger, as we have just recently done through CSU support. BUT THE KEYS, as you’ve emphasized in your post, are indeed, “rich experiences, personal relationships and friendships” that are made possible by supporting “resources to enable the faculty at URM-serving institutions to provide the mentorship that is necessary to create scientists”

    Another example of thinking globally and acting locally.

  3. I’ll just confirm this. I had many instances of people from other institutions approaching me, or my colleagues, with ideas about “partnering” with us. Almost invariably, the form of the partnership sort of boiled down to, “Send us your students!”

    There was good will behind it, but it was very much a one-way street. And I’m all for sending students elsewhere; the experience can be great. But I tired of the view of our institution as an underground railroad, shipping students to a better place.

  4. I’m excited to see these issues discussed more and more in popular media especially on someone’s blog I admire. My own career is in many ways a result of minority recruitment programs, so I obviously see the value. But I’ve only been a minority for the past ten years since I jumped on that ‘underground railroad to a better place’, I mean, left my predominantly minority hometown and went to college. Getting to high school, college, or even graduate school is one thing, but staying there is another, especially when culture can be at odds with a STEM career. I wouldn’t necessarily describe being a minority in STEM a better place, not yet anyways, especially since it makes me a minority back home now too. I worry that if retention programs aren’t married to recruitment programs (in addition to the mentoring support you mentioned), we’re just feeding that ol’ leaking pipe. Seeing your post keeps me optimistic. Adelante!

  5. As someone who has been intricately involved in, and committed to, addressing the under representation of ethnic minorities in academia, and particularly STEM, at all levels, i.e. students , faculty, and administration for many years, I want to add another component to this thread. That component is the paucity of URM faculty at all institutions and the effect that has in URM students entering and staying in the field. We, as academicians, should be totally embarrassed by these low numbers while, at the same time, recognizing the negative impact that this has on increasing the numbers of students choosing STEM. URM students really do want to “see folks that look like them” as well as “folks who can relate directly to their experiences” as they explore unfamiliar areas in STEM. At the same time, granted a person does not have to be a URM to mentor and guide URMs; in fact WEB Dubois in the “Miseducation of the Negro” discusses that it is the true commitment that one makes to a certain group or population that is most important. Unfortunately, that does mean making such a commitment that many non-URMs (and some URMs!) are not willing to make, as doing so does in turn diminish their “white privilege”. Based on the many years of addressing this underrepresentation, rather ineffectively, it is time that the Institutions from the top, i.e. President, to state that this is a priority criterion, just like outstanding research and excellent teaching as part of the hiring process. Far too often we sacrifice or fail to recognize, the importance of this component of the hiring criteria, when instead it should be considered equally important, and especially when referring to “disadvantaged institutions” where “best fit” is of critical importance. It is 2013 and the US demographics are rapidly changing. As such, it long overdue to “do the right thing”, which is not necessarily “the white thing”, so as to change the underrepresentation of minorities and the “face” of academia and STEM.

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