Recruiting underrepresented minority students


The last couple weeks have posed a challenge, as several people have contacted me (mostly out of the blue), asking me for ideas about specific steps they can take to improve the recruitment of minority students. This isn’t my field, but, I realize I’ve put myself in this position, because it’s a critical issue and I discuss it frequently. I’m just one of many who work in minority-serving institutions.

I realize that most of the suggestions I’ve given to people (but not advice) are generalized. If several folks are writing to me, I imagine there are many more of y’all out there who might be thinking the same thing but not writing. Hence this post. Just with my suggestions.

If you are really serious about minority recruitment (and I’m going to be judgey here, but really, you need to be), then you should know what literature says about effective minority recruitment practices. There is a substantial set of peer-reviewed literature about minority recruitment but (just like the scholarship on pedagogy in higher education,) many who have the greatest need for this information aren’t reading about it.

For starters, in my field, this Manual of Best Practices for Recruiting and Retaining Underrepresented Groups in Ecology and the Environmental Sciences, developed by the Organization for Tropical Studies, is spot on, even though it’s almost a decade old. Many things — unfortunately — haven’t changed.

I’m not writing this to tell you best practices. I’m writing this to encourage you to develop a mindset that might fundamentally change how you approach recruitment. You need to find what works for you, but since most diversity efforts aren’t working (evidenced by the lack of change despite investment), then whatever you’re doing can probably be improved. (But there are some places that do it well and they can serve as models.)

Fall is recruiting season. This is when summer research programs for undergraduates are ramping up to receive applications, when doctoral programs are courting students and when student are contacting PIs and their graduate programs. If you’re looking to increase minority representation in your program, then Fall is when your plans operationalize. If you’re running a graduate program, or a summer undergraduate research program, what do you plan to improve? Or are your numbers wholly satisfactory to you?

I’m not a fan of the pipeline metaphor, but breaking recruitment into stages makes sense. If you’re an outfit that wants to increase the proportion of minority students that are in your program, you need to:

  1. Identify the students you want
  2. Entice those students into applying
  3. Accept those students
  4. Invest in the success of these students

If you’re in a position like me — in an institution with minority undergraduates that deserve more opportunities than are provided to them — then the flip side of this coin is:

  1. Prepare my students to look like the kind of students that you want
  2. Train, support and encourage students into applying
  3. Build relationships with people in the hope they’ll accept my students
  4. Continue to mentor my students as they might not end up in a supportive place

This post is about the first point: What promising undergraduates researchers look like.

Why is it that minority scientists are so poorly represented in graduate programs?  If you think the answer is that they’re inadequately trained and prepared as undergraduates, I’m here to tell you that’s full of crap. Yeah, training can be better, but there are lot of people who have the potential to be awesome and are ready for grad school, as long as the grad school is ready to support them.

Graduate programs should recruit students with great research potential. It’s pretty clear that test scores (like the GRE) don’t predict success in a research career, and undergraduate GPA isn’t that predictive either. Okay, I get it that you don’t want to take a student into a graduate program if their performance as an undergraduate suggests they can’t hack it when things are higher stakes. And I agree. But what predicts grad school success? Here is a substantial argument how the GRE is just useless for predicting how someone will do in grad school after you take into account socioeconomic factors. (Here’s an annotated bibliography about the GRE as a predictor of graduate success from the Graduate Diversity Program at UC Berkeley.)

The populations of “low-income students” and “first-generation students” and “underrepresented minority students” are distinct, and it’s erroneous and counterproductive to conflate them. It also would be ignorant to fail to recognize that the socioeconomic disparities among STEM students at the university level intersect heavily with race and ethnicity. If an undergraduate institution serves one of these populations, it’s also probably serving those two other populations as well*.

Universities that are highly ranked — and are held in high regard by people who do recruitment — tend to have particularly low proportions of students who are members of underrepresented minorities. Even universities which have multi-billion dollar endowments, who say they invest really heavily into minority recruitment, just don’t have that many minorities. Prestigious institutions think they are scrambling for the “low-hanging fruit” of a low number of high-performing minority students** that are prepared for their level of rigor.

It is true that not that many students from underrepresented groups have assembled the social capital to access things like prestigious undergraduate institutions, REU programs, and research opportunities in high-performing labs. The ones that break this code are the ones that graduate programs want to enroll.

When you ask someone who is shopping around for PhD students, ask them what they think is the template for someone who is a good prospect. Setting aside grades and scores, here are other criteria: coming from a “good lab,” coming from a “good university,” having publications, presented at conferences, can converse in an engaged and informed manner about their research interests, has impressive writing statements, and impeccable letters of reference.

I don’t think those criteria are inherently unreasonable criteria on their face (aside from the “good university” thing, which is mostly a load of crap). But, and this is a big but:

When we use those criteria integratively, as we do nowadays, what we get is the status quo —  the continued underrepresentation of the groups that people say they want to include. Why is this? Because minorities disproportionally attend universities that are not “good universities,” which is a huge selection factor when people are shopping around for future academics. The pool is always going to skew towards white. Moreover, the pool is skewed towards the people who have access to opportunities that are designed to build the other criteria, which are the overrepresented students. (This is the phenomenon that some folks call privilege.)

If we are truly going to diversify, then we just can’t draw students from the population that has a lot of social capital. In other words, those are the students that navigated the system to get into “good” universities, and have impressive research opportunities, and have the experience that enables them to write cover letters that knock your socks off. We need to draw from the broader population, because the way we’re doing it now isn’t working, because the way people choose ends up in selections that skew white, and it also fails to even consider supporting many people who have the capacity to become amazing researchers.

A lot of the things that make undergraduates more competitive in the academic market are beyond their control, if they don’t have the money or the access to opportunity. I’m asking you to consider the notion that the academic talent — the capacity for research success — is not disproportionately located in prestigious universities.

Here is what I’m asking of you: Please reconsider your template for what constitutes a promising undergraduate.

I’m asking you to consider the notion that universities that you’ve never heard of before (like my own, California State University Dominguez Hills), have many students that can go on to grad school and become rockstars, if only they are provided the opportunity. I’m asking you to consider the notion that the reason that students end up in prestigious institutions is not because they have more academic talent, but because they have been provided opportunities for them to cultivate the demonstration of that talent in a manner that other members of the academic social class will recognize as talented.

I am convinced that I — and all of my fellow colleagues at less prestigious institutions — have a lot of students that can be amazing in grad school. But they’re not getting accepted at nearly the rate that they should be — or into institutions that can greatly benefit from having them. Because they don’t conform to the template that people use to accept graduate students.

What people then tell me — as they were so kind to mention in comments in my post about inequities in the distribution of NSF graduate fellowships — that this needs to be fixed by greater mentorship and investment at the K-12 and undergraduate levels. Um, thanks for that memo. Of course I realize that the problem is a shortage of opportunity and quality support. So what you’re saying they just need better opportunities? And until then, we’ll just accept that graduate programs continue to fail to recruit students from underrepresented groups? The wealthy and the white have been getting better opportunities in the US since its inception, and it’s still that way now. And we’re not going to change it if we just say, “Oh, well, that’s the way things are.” If you’re running an undergraduate research program or a graduate program, then you’re in a situation where you can actually change the distribution of opportunities. But to do it well, you’ll need to revise your template, because using the contemporary template, the inequities persist.

Yeah, the students who went to expensive prep schools and prestigious Ivies, liberal arts colleges and highly-ranked research institutions will always look better on paper than students who didn’t. If you think students coming from more prestigious institutions are inherently academically better and are prepared to become better researchers then a) you’re naive about how socioeconomic realities affect people, b) you would benefit from more direct experience about what happens on a day to day basis in regional state universities and c) you’re part of the problem perpetuating the inequities that we’re trying to fix.

I work very hard to get my students to present well to conform to the accepted template of ‘promising researcher.’ But I wish this were met by an equivalent effort by  people who should be recruiting our students, to learn how students without as much social capital can be amazing researchers even if they don’t seem to match up as well using conventional measures.

Okay, then, you must be wondering, How is it that you can measure research potential without using the standard template?

The answer is obvious, but the implementation takes a huge amount of investment: You know it when you see it. You know a student has research potential when you directly observe that research potential.

Let me explain with a personal example. There are several students who’ve worked with in me in recent years who are uh-MAY-zing. Spectacular. Massive rockstar potential. But let me tell you, if you saw their application — or if they sent you an initial query — you probably would disagree with me. Scores are meh, the grades are inconsistent, and they do not write with the polish or sophistication that you would expect. And they probably are demonstrating a lack of confidence.

What would it take for you to change your mind? Well, maybe a week, or a few months. All I know is that when people have worked alongside these students and actually get to know them as individuals, they’re willing to throw a lot of those classic indicators out the window and things change. When my students work at La Selva Biological Station, they’re sharing space with PhD students, postdocs, and PIs that come through. The ones who get to know these students have no doubt in their prospects for research success.

I’m not asking you to take a chance on students who are a higher risk. I’m asking you to rethink how you assess “student quality” and realize that if we recommend a talented research student to you, that they actually are not high risk. And if they don’t do well, it’s not because they don’t have the capacity to succeed, but because they didn’t receive adequate support (which happens to minority students in the primarily white institutions that invest in recruitment but not on the follow-through).

There are a lot of amazing students out there that can excel in your graduate program, but they’re not even applying because they realize they’re not being taken seriously. It’s not easy to get students from non-prestigious institutions to apply to prestigious far-away places (but that’s a whole ‘nother issue).

How can you access this pool of talented students who can increase the diversity of your program? Invest in relationships. With your time and your money. You can’t just email everybody you know at minority-serving institutions and ask them to send their best students to you. Because, trust me, people are doing this in droves. It doesn’t actually generate that many applications anyway. You actually need to woo people. You need to built trust. You need to let folks know that they will be wanted and supported.

How do you build that trust and that atmosphere of mutual respect? You build relationships with the institutions and the faculty that work in those institutions, who work with these students on a daily basis. This itself requires a lot of people to make a whole other mental leap and abandon another template. Because the norm, as I’ve experienced it, is that we’re not seen as peers. If folks can’t really consider the faculty as valued peers, then they’re not going to take their students as serious research prospects. If you really want to recruit underrepresented students beyond the relatively limited number that have worked their way into more prestigious institutions, then you’re going to have to take non-prestigious universities and their faculty seriously. And build relationships with us. Collaborate with us so much that you get to know our students. Bring us into the fold.

In the ten years I’ve been teaching at a minority-serving institution, do you know how many people have ever contacted me and said, “Do you have any students to work in my lab this summer?” and then followed through by taking on and funding students in their lab? Here’s the answer: ONE. One person. Anybody with a disciplinary NSF grant could have done this by getting an REU supplement from their program director. But only one person has.

Do you know how many people write me and say, “Could your minority students apply to our REU program?” MORE THAN I COULD POSSIBLY RECALL.

There is a huge difference between the first approach and the second approach. The first request came from a colleague who knows and respects me and my judgment. The second kind of request comes from people who want to cook the books to have a more diverse pool, and maybe take students if they fit the traditional template.

The first approach resulted in an experience that was transformative. The second approach results in, well, nothing really. There are a lot of reasons for that, and if you’re familiar with the scholarship on recruiting underrepresented minority students, you probably have a handle on this.

I’d like to focus back on the folks who asked me for concrete suggestions about what they can do to genuinely increase diversity in their summer research programs and graduate programs. I hope this post provided some perspective that is useful. But I guess a bulleted list might be good too:

  • Don’t just ask people to apply, make sure that faculty specifically invite their peers at minority-serving institutions who have students who offer a good research fit.
  • If you’re trying to build up a campus that can offer participants in a summer-long research program, offering a one-week opportunity for “research recruits” can reduce the barrier to applications for a whole summer. Also, this can help build relationships with a particular campus.
  • Stop using test scores if you are still using them.
  • Lower your GPA minimum threshold. (Even students who are above the threshold can find it intimidating to apply if they aren’t well above it.)
  • Recruit from local campuses. Pick up the telephone, and call a colleague at that university in your city that you’ve never even thought of visiting.
  • Make sure that your graduate admissions committee has professor(s) who are first-generation college students who attended a community college or a non-prestigious regional public university.
  • When you’re inviting people for anything (seminars, workshops, symposia, panels, whatever), include institutional diversity as a criterion. If your “diversity” doesn’t include minority-serving institutions, then you’re missing an opportunity to build connections to people at institutions that serve the population you’re trying to recruit.
  • What else am I missing?



*HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) are an entirely different thing, though, with which I have scant experience.

** These folks have never heard of Billie Holiday? This is, literally, a horrifying metaphor for the recruitment of minority students.

16 thoughts on “Recruiting underrepresented minority students

  1. Thanks for this post. A related-ish question for you if you have any ideas: An undergrad approached me at ESA and we chatted for a half-hour or so. From our conversation, she seemed to be good grad school material to me — mainly, she was thoughtful, very motivated, and non-intimidated. I’m sure she’ll end up somewhere. But one thing she mentioned is that she’s at a no-name university in a rural place. She’s actually taken the time and expense to travel to State University and talk to professors there about enrolling as a grad student. But more than one told her she probably would have a hard time getting in given her university. This made me sick to hear. Any advice for someone like me, a postdoc who doesn’t have the resources to do things like hire summer folks or the position to recruit students, to help support diversity initiatives? How can I help undergrads I meet at ESA? Would it help to make introductions? Other ideas? Thanks.

  2. Another great post Terry. This point is basically in your post, but I’d suggest you add it to your bullet-ted list too: Spend money on your students/trainees from the earliest stages through advanced stages (because, often, many otherwise great students don’t have their own $$$ to spend). “Experience” is a tricky evaluation criterion because so often folks get experience by taking an un-paid or under-paid positions. And guess which students can afford to buy their way into that system? (Some of my students CVs/resumes are shorter because they are leaving out the fact that they are working retail or closing at fast food joints. This is not to pay for beer money, it’s to contribute to their household income – the vast majority live at home too)

  3. Chris, thanks very much for that comment (I didn’t even mention how busy students are working during the school year, which is a huge thing as you explain, that constrains opportunity.)

    Margaret, this is sad and unfortunate, thanks for sharing the tale. (and thank you for validating my point because I think a lot of people actually doubt how widespread this phenomenon really is). There are things that I think she can do to try to ameliorate the effects of discrimination against her based on her institution.

    I think it’s post-worthy for me to write ideas for what students can do, if they’re in a situation like this.

    What can we as individuals do, if we’re not in charge of running this stuff? Of course, In ESA, being a SEEDS mentor is one way of doing this (though how students get into the SEEDS program is murky to me, and some of the students I met this year weren’t planning to do a PhD in ecology). I guess, since you have an awesome new blog that is growing at a good clip, you could write a post with some kind of poll/response situation in which undergraduates who need support can be paired up with people who want to provide it. Students that don’t have robust support from their advisor are clearly in more need of support than those who have a helpful mentor on site, but still, exchanging emails with students who are looking for support in this process matters. Getting that intro email nailed just right for prospective advisors, application statement, and just identifying a clear way of expressing one’s own interest in a way that professors compelling is a lot of help. (Also, if you get to know a person well enough to write a rec letter, then that’s a huge thing, I think. A letter from a person with your background who isn’t connected to Northeastern Podunk State, probably would mean more to the PIs and grad committees than the letters from their own professors.)

    In the big long term, what you can do is build relationships with folks at these kinds of institutions and do research with them. In the process, you’d be getting to know their students. And this kind of relationship emerges organically. Most of the students in my lab looking at grad school are getting lots of input from PhD students that they’ve worked with (or alongside) in the course of their stuff, in addition to me. (And probably more/better from them than from me.)

    But yeah, it’s a systemic problem, and it’s hard to come up with individual actions that onlookers can do that’d make a difference. If anybody has some suggestions, please do chime in!

  4. This is a great post.
    But, on the other hand, I have been asking everyone I know in minority serving institutions (esp. HBCUs) if they can recommend students for research internships or grad school application to attend University of California, Merced. So far, in over 2 years of asking everyone I can think of, I got nothing (I have even contacted numerous people I don’t know hoping they can help connect me with potential applicants). In my field, the obvious problem is that the geosciences overall have the lowest representation of racial minorities of any STEM field. Hence, even those of us working to change that are having hard time … if you or anyone reading these posts have a connection for me for the areas of soil science, biogeochemistry, or closely related fields please let me know.

  5. Following up on Margaret’s comment: I had a similar experience a few weeks ago. I was talking to a professor from a prestigious American university, and he told me that my chances of getting into graduate school at said university are very low, because I come from a “non-traditional” path (i.e., small-time university from South America). He told that they are more likely to accept people coming from Caltech, Harvard, Princeton and such. He told me to not feel discouraged by this, though. Now, the funny part is that it is tough to not feel discouraged when things like application fees, the GRE subject test and words like that get in the way, even when I have 2 published articles (1 as first author), 4 successful research projects (2 abroad) and one of the most prestigious fellowships of my country under my belt.

  6. Thanks for this post! I came across it as I was searching online for ongoing efforts in recruiting minorities to PhD programs.
    As a minority myself, I have been bothered by the lack of minorities in graduate programs. I think part of the reason I dropped out of my PhD program was I felt very alone. In talking to some graduate programs, they all want to diversify their applicant pool but seem clueless as to what to do!
    Since my background is computer science, I decided to start a website where minorites could post their resumes and colleges could browse and engage with them directly. This seems to have the colleges excited but now in reading this post, I’m not sure it solves the problem entirely.
    It would seem that getting these students to interact with potential PhD advisors and having hands on research experience is most important. Access may not necessarily be the main issue.
    So I was thinking, what if we got a number of professors provide short (1month-3 month) long research projects that these minority students can participate in remotely? With all the virtual collaboration tools available these days, it shouldnt be too hard for a professor to collaborate with a student on a project in order to get to know the student and assess them as a potential grad student. They could join their weekly group meetings via skype and have checkins with the professor or even a PhD student or postdoc in the group. The project the student participated in may not end up as a paper but it has given room for interaction.
    We can use technology to facilitate matching and interaction between the professor and the student.

    Any thoughts on this idea?

  7. Late to the party, but this fits my experience so so well. I am first gen American, started at community college, transferred to a good public university and struggled but ultimately graduated with a 3.2 GPA and did OK on GREs. Had zero “social capital” (and had no idea what that was). I was lucky to have a TA (PhD student) who took me under her wing and had me volunteer in her lab a few hours a week and an excellent professor in my last quarter who informed me about internships and helped me secure one specifically targeting minority students (and it was paid!). Anyhow, after gaining a lot of experience though field jobs , I applied and was rejected from many PhD programs and ended up going to a small CSU, racking up student loans and working full time while getting my Master’s. I then applied to one of the better ecology programs with excellent letters of reference and was flatly denied. Again, luckily I had a greater supervisor at a govt agency who was very supportive and together we published a couple of manuscripts. I re-applied to that same ecology programs and was offered a multi-year fellowship (no TAing, no RAing). The only difference in my application was the publications. Now that I am in the program, I look around at a sea of white faces and most of them I have come to find out are straight out of undergrad, no pubs, very little experience, just great grades and test scores and a lot of social capital and opportunity (paid internships, semester at a field station, paid field methods courses, etc) . What a load of crap.

  8. Shout out to UC Berkeley’s Transfer To Excellence research internship program. I had a community college student working in my lab this summer, underrepresented minority, slightly older student who’s had to struggle to get where he is. He’s a brilliant guy who’s going to be a great scientist. I’m glad there was a way for him to get exposure to the world of academic research — not just the science skills but the social capital he’ll need to get further. And it was also great that he could interact with other URM students in the department, grad students who became his unofficial mentors. Representation matters. Funding for programs like this matters (it was NSF REU). As a privileged person who went to elite schools, it’s something I hadn’t thought much about until I had this student and now it’s a bigger priority for me. I’m only sorry that it’s such a small drop in the bucket.

  9. My university, and a lot of others it seems, are on a serious push to get their undergrads to finish within 4-5 years, and pressing them to take a high course load. “Take at least one class more than the minimum full time load! Sixteen credits or more is the target! Do whatever it takes to graduate in 4 or Finish In Five”- I’ve seen posters with such wording, that look like Soviet-era propaganda posters, in student union buildings. But for many students especially from underrepresented groups hoping for grad school, especially if they need to work, have health issues and/or have family care responsibilities, is this always good advice? As many of my advisees have told me, “if I do that, my GPA will almost certainly suffer, and it will hurt my chances at grad school.” It can also reduce a student’s opportunities to do undergraduate research or work in labs, which can be very helpful for intangible reasons well stated elsewhere in this post. I’ve seen students push to graduate as quickly as possible and have their GPA dip below the gatekeeping bar for their preferred grad school (that’s a whole other issue), and I’ve seen students push back, take a little longer to graduate, keep their grades up and/or have time for other experiences- and then get in to grad school and succeed amazingly.

  10. I agree with the sentiment implicit in “Could your minority students apply to our REU program?” It’s low cost, low commitment, and may have as a significant purpose cooking numbers. On the other hand, cold-calling can be a two-way street. Mentors can help by helping the student learn to research REU programs and identifying potential good matches among sponsors, followed by the mentor initiating contact prior to an application. I do it for my students and interns, and I’ve had it done to me, and I’ve been happy with both outcomes.
    P.S. Advertisement: Smithsonian NMNH NHRE probably averages 20-40% underrepresented students, with half of those from relatively no-name places (I’m totally guessing based on my impression as a mentor and reviewer).
    P.P.S., sadly, I’m not available 2017.

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