How to promote inclusivity in graduate fellowships?


Students who did their undergraduate work at elite universities are dominating access to federally funded graduate fellowships in the sciences. I pointed out this obvious fact at the beginning of this month, which to my surprise caught quite a bit of attention. I also got a lot of email (which I discuss here — it’s more interesting than you might expect).

A common response was: Okay, that’s the problem, what about solutions? Hence, this post. First, here are some facts that are are germane to the solutions.

  • Of course, students at elite institutions are applying for fellowships at higher rates than students from underfunded public university.
  • Notwithstanding differences in application rates, students from non-prestigious institutions experience substantial discrimination on the basis of their institutional affiliation. It is not uncommon for undergraduates to get dinged during the review of their graduate fellowship applications for not attending prestigious undergraduate institutions. Seriously. (And, of course, there are gender and ethnic biases in the selection of prospective graduate students. And underrepresented minorities are a lot more abundant in underfunded public universities.)
  • Students at underfunded public universities are not provided access to the same quantity of high-quality mentorship and research opportunities that are available to undergraduates at elite institutions. We are doing our best, but we don’t have the necessary resources are are vastly outnumbered by the number of students who wish to work with us.
  • The quality of education at underfunded public universities is not worse, and is probably better, than the education that undergraduates get at prestigious research institutions. (If you can’t swallow this idea, please read this piece about social capital and educational quality.)

In light of those facts, what are specific things that you can do to help fix the inequitable distribution of graduate fellowships to students who attend elite institutions as undergraduates? More generally, what can you do to help weaken the economic caste system in the sciences? Here is a list I have come up with. It’s not complete, and it can probably be fixed.

  1. Grant panels of all sorts need consistent representation of researchers working inside underfunded public institutions. I don’t have the data on this, but from my anecdotal conversations, the majority of panels are lacking in this kind of diversity. While it’s on NSF to make this change, we can make a difference by bringing this up when we are on panels. Those of us at underfunded public universities can request slots more frequently, and register to be considered as a GRFP panelist. If we don’t step up to join the process, then we can’t explain when we get excluded.

  2. Make sure that your Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs recruit applications from students from underfunded public universities. As I’ve explained, the disadvantaged students that need the experiences are to be found inside disadvantaged universities.

  3. Allocate the resources necessary to facilitate the change you want to see. You can’t just ask faculty members at underfunded public universities to farm students out to your laboratory in the summertime. Any kind of successful bridge program has a more meaningful connection in which the resources are available for quality mentorship and to see students through and beyond their summer experiences. If you need students just to check off the boxes for diversity, then this relationship doesn’t work on our side. We need to be able to provide quality support for our students after they come back, or it won’t help make real change. And that takes more than conversation. Underfunded public universities are underfunded — duh — and can’t provide what our students need without external support

  4. Implement institution-blind evaluation of summer research and graduate fellowship applicants.

  5. Work with your professional society to provide free undergraduate registration for professional conferences. This will help underfunded public universities bring as many students as those who attend from more elite institutions.

  6. Help your lab, and your department, deepen connections with faculty from underfunded public institutions. You can start by inviting them to give seminars in your departmental series. A lot of us give great talks filled with big new ideas and high quality impressive data. (I get about two invites per blue moon, even though I’ve heard I give a helluva good seminar.) I get that the typical reasons that people have for inviting seminar speakers don’t gel with the stereotype of faculty from underfunded public universities. But if you lose the stereotype, you can see how much is to be gained from having us visit. Not to mention, a lot of your grad students are looking at jobs at teaching-centered universities and by not inviting us on a regular basis, your students are really missing out on that form of social interaction.

  7. Look into your heart. Do you think that the scientists in underfunded public universities don’t belong in the research community as equals with colleagues from larger research institutions? Do you think our students truly deserve the same treatment when they are attempting to penetrate outside the underclass of underfunded public universities?

What else do you have to add to this list? Please add them in the comments.

I heard a relevant anecdote from this weekend. I went to the LA Times Festival of Books, and caught an interview with the soccer player, Robbie Rogers. When he came out 2.5 years ago, he was the first US major league athlete to do so while still playing. He was 25 at the time, and before then, he hadn’t told a single person, ever, that he was gay. He thought by coming out, he’d no longer be accepted in professional soccer. However, he received an extraordinarily welcome reception within the US, from his team (the LA Galaxy), and throughout the league.

One of the questions from the audience was: “When you came out, what was the biggest surprise? What didn’t you expect?” I didn’t record his response, so this is a paraphrase, but I think I’m guessing it’s close enough that he won’t complain:

People often say things that they don’t think about, or that they don’t mean. People say things because they’re trying to fit in to what is expected of them, to conform to the expected stereotype, even if that doesn’t represent their feelings. There were guys who said horrible things in the locker room about people like me. But as soon as my news got out, they contacted me, told me they wished me the best, they really wanted me to keep playing, and some asked me out to dinner.

Rogers’s story was about what it was like to come out as a gay athlete in America in 2012. But he also explained that his experience reflects challenges we all face from stereotypes, and that those challenges are better dealt with honesty, and embracing who we are rather than worrying what other people will think.

Students at universities like mine (and, also, the faculty) are victims of the stereotypes associated with underfunded public universities.

When I am among scientists who don’t know me well, I often hear shamefully horrible things about faculty and students at universities like mine. The backpedaling and excuse-making are predictable. “I have a friend from grad school who took a job at Southeastern State University and he’s doing great!” “We had one REU who started out at a community college last year and she was one of the best.” Yes, our universities have more challenges than yours that affects how we go about our business, but we are equally valid members of your community and it’s time that you accept not just us, but also our students. Our students did not wind up in these less-privileged institutions because they were subpar in high school. They ended up there because this was the only option that was available to them, or the only option that their social environment was able to provide.

Undergraduates from underfunded public universities are less welcome in the graduate programs of research institutions because of a false stereotype of their institution. And that is happening because we aren’t talking about it. In the short, run it’s easier to hide one’s humble origins from a non-prestigious university rather than discuss the great education that you got there. In the long run, I hope that honesty about the differences between wealthy and poor institutions will help train a more diverse and inclusive group of scientists for the next generation.

2 thoughts on “How to promote inclusivity in graduate fellowships?

  1. How about making reviewers blind to the applicant’s institution? Would be a problem with letters I suppose, but even they could be anonymized if there was a will to do so.

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