Bias in graduate admissions


Yesterday, I received an epic comment on a recent post of mine about minority recruitment. I want to share it:

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.

Why not go ahead and re-read those last two sentences, which I put in italics for emphasis. (I’ll wait.)

Let me tell you, and please, if you haven’t spent a lot of time at a non-prestigious regional state university, I’m asking you to trust me on this: This is the default.

This is so fucking common. This is what happens to our students all of the time. It makes me heartsick and it’s the daily reality for my students. And to think there are some people out there who don’t even believe it’s true. Especially people who are running graduate programs.

The bar for minority students at regional state universities is absurdly higher than the bar for white students attending universities with impressive reputations. This is caused by an amalgam of unconscious and conscious biases, fed by the illusion that students in more prestigious universities are there because of a meritocracy.

(Huh, the wikipedia page on Structural Inequality in Education is actually quite detailed, though a bit dry.)

I’ve been the beneficiary of these structural inequities. My parents were able to pay for me to attend a high school that was populated primarily by wealthy kids. (I was on a need-based scholarship, but that only paid maybe 20% of the cost.) This helped me land my way into a well-regarded small liberal arts college. Halfway through my senior year, I had an epiphany that I should go to grad school in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

I had a 3.1 GPA and no research experience at all. I did spend a lot of time in the lab of a mentor. I read a ton of journal articles, was narrowing down my interests, and the year after I graduated I made a full time job of hitting the pavement to contact professors who might be potential graduate advisors. I was hoping I could get into a Master’s program somewhere in California. I ended up getting into every MS program I applied to (a couple of which would have given me funding) and a few PhD programs. I was kinda stunned, because I didn’t think my record was good enough.

Students working with me now tend to have similar, or higher, GPAs. And tremendous research experience. And some with publications. And are highly conversant in their research interests. But there are a lot of things conspiring against their route to graduate school, and they aren’t accessing the prestigious labs and universities that would benefit from having them. The forces that facilitated my route into grad school are working against my own students.

Let me spell those out the advantages that led me into a graduate program, and compare them to most of the students who have been in my lab in the last several years.

  1. One of my summer jobs in college was working as a technician in a clinical immunology lab. How did I get that job? The student who had the job the year earlier set me up with it. He was a high school friend of mine, whose dad was a doctor. My students don’t have friends landing them decent-paying jobs in scientific environments. They are working retail, waiting tables, tending bar, or other things that don’t say “science” on a CV. A couple students have tutored on campus.
  2. I was able to spend all of my time applying to grad school. After I graduated, I lived rent-free at my parents’ house, and I did a few temp jobs here and there, but still had a set of (bad) wheels, food, and housing covered. My students don’t have that option at all. They can’t just drop everything to dot every i and cross every t while applying to grad school.
  3. The small liberal arts college I attended (Occidental) banks on its reputation for sending its students into top-notch professional and graduate programs. They had a trained person on payroll to help you with your applications and help you with your statements. I had a close professional relationship with several of my professors, which is really hard to develop at a regional state university if you don’t end up in someone’s research lab. Which isn’t as easy to stumble upon.
  4. I went to a private high school that had a lot of rich kids, and I learned how to fit in with higher-income people, and only figured this out better during college. There are so many subtle ways in which low-income folks have trouble fitting in with professors and graduate students. For an exhaustive list, check this out (and here’s the story about how this document came to exist. Be sure to check out the section on cultural and social capital.) The advantage of fitting in with middle-class folks is huge, especially when it comes to a campus visit. Which is, as you know, all about fit. My students have a ton of personal experience, but a lot of them aren’t comfortable making small talk with professors who they don’t know that well. Which is precisely how you get into grad school.
  5. When I wanted to get into some graduate programs, I was flown out a couple times. But I also took it upon myself to go on a big road trip, down to San Diego to Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and the Bay Area. I was able to do this because I found the money to rent the car, had the friends from my private college who could give me a place to crash, and I didn’t have a job to lose by taking the two weeks to go on this trip. If I suggested to my students that they take a 2-week road trip to Colorado and back while visiting prospective labs, they’d ask, “And how is this going to be paid for? And where will I stay? And do I just call up the professors I want to visit?”
  6. I’m white man. When applying to grad schools, professors are biased to give preference towards people like me. Few of my students are white, and the majority are women, so these are yet more things going against them.
  7. Institutional prestige. There isn’t any reason to think that the education offered at more expensive or more elite institutions is any better than less prestigious schools that don’t have broad name recognition. Students over at UCLA or up at USC aren’t learning more or better than students at CSU Dominguez Hills. But the identity of this institution is huge during the admissions process for grad school. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people judging students on the basis of where they went to college. I know of students applying for NSF graduate fellowships who have gotten dinged in reviews for attending a low-quality university. There was a twitter conversation at the time, and several folks reported this. It isn’t just a one-off thing. You know that my students are at a disadvantage purely because of where they are going to school. It’s no secret. This kind of institutional bias is baked into academia. Why is it unfair to judge a person on the basis of where they went to college? Because they got there because of the opportunities provided to them before that time. It has almost nothing to do with smarts, and clearly nothing to do with research potential.

Did I deserve to get into grad school? Well, maybe. I guess. But if that’s true, then there’s a lot of people who deserve to get in who aren’t getting in. Because they just didn’t have the structural advantages like I did.

I think these structural challenges are explained well by Michelle Obama, in the commencement address at Tuskegee University:

The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns.  They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day — the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser.  They don’t know that part of you.

Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world.  And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be.  We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.

And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day — those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough.

Yesterday on twitter, I shared a link to the comment at the top of this post, which made the rounds. I heard from a lot of folks who had similar experiences. And there are people out there working to make change and to educate. For example, check out the Unconscious Bias Project, out of UC Berkeley. This looks like a spectacular effort.

I think folks really underestimate the strength of this bias against students from regional public universities. I’m getting tired of being R1splained by folks on graduate admissions committees at PhD granting institutions who don’t really think of me as an academic peer. Who need to explain why they’re doing all they can, and now it’s my job to prepare my students better. The thing is, my students are prepared. They don’t have as much polish as middle-class white guys like myself who have been given advantages from the get-go, but they’re ready. But when do you do the side-by-side comparison, using the traditional template, the cumulate weight of biases and inequities kicks in, and first-gen and minority students get screwed over on a regular basis.

Do you have story about getting into grad school, or not getting into grad school, and how your background was an unfair impediment?

17 thoughts on “Bias in graduate admissions

  1. Admission to most grad schools is based almost exclusively on test scores and GPA. Claiming there is bias because you are culturally disadvantaged and therefore cannot compete is a culturally destructive argument. The real world is judged on performance. Should a student that performed better than you be passed over because of something beyond their control? The fair and simple answer is no. You should not want to take a spot away from a student that performed better than you because your circumstances. Apply to another school and show them what you can do.

  2. I am wondering where the nationwide trend for master’s position funding stands. At Texas A&M during my time as a graduate student, supportive funding for Master’s students was cut (no TAships or university sponsored fellowships for Master’s students). As far as I am aware, Masters students can now only be supported by PIs with external grants at Texas A&M. When I applied, I was admitted as a Master’s student and not a PhD student because I didn’t have R1 experience (I went to a non-prestigious liberal arts college). This is despite being told that my undergraduate research thesis was at the level of a Master’s student thesis. Without the diversity fellowship I received to attend Texas A&M as a Master’s student, I would not have been able to attend any graduate school whatsoever. I got rejected from all other programs including PhD programs that told me I seemed like a good candidate, but they would only accept me if I had a Masters. That particular institution did not have a Master’s program in the field of Ecology and Evolutionary biology. (In addition, the PI I was in contact with argued with the Dean about the inability to admit me…in front of me…..which was awkward…). I clearly dodged a bullet at Texas A&M which threw qualified Master’s level students under a bus. Is there any data to show that Master’s program play an important role in the pipeline for minority students to get PhDs? Are available Master’s positions declining?

    Additional note: 3/5 students in my lab at Texas A&M were supported by the Texas A&M Diversity Fellowship- 2PhDs and 1 MS (me). The two PhD students had no master degrees but had undergraduate research experiences at R1 or large state schools including REU experience.

  3. Another aspect of this is that some programs only admit students they feel will be competitive for external fellowships. It takes the pressure off limited TA spots and ups their status if they have X number of students with NSF or NIH support. The faculty try to mirror what they see in successful grad fellowship applications which is grades, high GREs, no MS, path straight from undergraduate. Extra spots tend to go to the really ‘promising’ students, i.e. the ones that look/sound/act like the faculty. So aspects of bias in upper echelons echo through the whole system, unfortunately.

  4. I’d rebut this, but I can’t because it’s merely an contradictory assertion with no evidence or substance. Do you have any research — as I’ve linked to — to claim there is no bias?

    If I read you correctly, you’re arguing that since white folks are richer and have access to more opportunities and then have higher scores and grades, they deserve more spots in grad school?

  5. I was a 3.02 GPA undergraduate (white male) who should not have been admitted into a PhD program. I was, due to social capital, and I’m grateful, but I feel bad because I definitely took someone else’s spot who deserved it far more than I did.

    Years later as a postdoc at fancypants-Ivy-school, it was unbelievable to me how poorly qualified the students there were. The undergraduates wrote lousy term papers and the graduate students, though brilliant, had virtually no professional skills, never presenting material at conferences, no papers, etc. On the other hand, they sure could talk the good talk and handled themselves socially better than anyone else over wine and cheese events. The graduate-admissions day, when prospective students come to campus, was entirely a social test, could these prospective students “fit in” with the elite (and rich) social tribe of the department. It was sickening. To make matters worse, it was common to hear expressions of sympathy that I had come from doing my PhD at a state school. Because there’s something wrong with Arizona State University, one of the largest schools and research institutions in the country? I can’t imagine what these folks would’ve thought if I’d come from another kind of regional institution.

  6. As ever, the problem seems to stem from what is ‘right’ for society vs what is ‘right’ for the individual. As a PI, I want to hire the best, most capable and most promising students. Since the procedure for hiring a graduate student is short and relatively impersonal, I have several things to go by. Did they succeed at their undergraduate institution (I do not have any preference towards what that school actually is)? Do they have solid letters of recommendation? Do they have evidence of their ability (publications, research experience, a manuscript or solid thesis they can send me that I can read)? Test scores are fine, but I’ve not found them to correlate highly with the performance of my students. However, my resources are finite- monetarily, specially and temporarily. I am not tenured yet and I cannot risk taking on a student who will not do well. I do not have an intentional bias against students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and I know that my selection criteria are flawed but I also cannot accept a student into my lab without some evidence that they will succeed. I dont mean- ‘are they polished and can they look professional amongst other professionals’? Im socially awkward and a little bit weird and I’ve done fine. I come from a lower class family and I have no idea what fork I am supposed to use for what course at fancy dinners or if you’re supposed to tip the attendant at a coat room at nice restaurants (are you!?- I do but I fear I’m insulting them). Im sure this means I am not accepting extraordinary students, but without a way to assess them, this will continue. Maybe after I have tenure I can gamble a bit more. Maybe someone can suggest additional ways to evaluate students that are less biased. Its something I would love to do, but its not something I’ve figured out how to do.

  7. What can you do to have a better selection procedure? Please read the post from a month ago with a list of specific suggestions.

  8. I think number 4 is probably the biggest factor. That you were acclimated to the culture. The more I have learned, and observed, racial arguments, complaints, and even complements, them more I have learned that it has nothing to do with Race at all… it is Culture and Socio-economic status. If you didn’t grow up around the types of people in power, then it will be awkward. And if your parents couldn’t afford to pay for summer tutoring and yes, ACT and SAT prep programs… then you were automatically at a disadvantage. I mean, if you remove ‘race’, how many of those students come from lower class backgrounds?

  9. Thank you for writing this post. While reading this post I felt like I was looking in the mirror. I know how it feels to be in this position (I’m a minority as well) and it is not right. I have so much research experience, leadership and recommendations, etc. and still get rejected for PhD Programs. Then I turn around and see people with the same or lower PhD app package get accepted. I’m tired of hearing I’m not good enough to go to “top” research programs. When these PhD Programs turn away these type of students they are missing out on students that will do well in their PhD program and successful! It’s a shame!

  10. Also, thank you for writing this! I disagree with the anonymous poster that the majority of grad schools admit based solely on GPA scores, but I can only share my experience. My publications and connections got me into my PhD program (my undergrad grades were less than stellar). I was able to volunteer and choose unpaid work that gave me experience because I had access to low interest loans, which further improved my CV and made me competitive.

  11. My entry into a PhD program was totally unfair. I shouldn’t have been so easily admitted. When I applied, I had exactly zero ecology background — no courses, no previous research, no publications, nothing. I had had exactly one biology course — ever. I had a little computer science research, but that is so very different, it probably shouldn’t have counted for much. What I did have was (1) a piece of paper with an Ivy League name written on it; (2) another piece of paper with a good GPA on it; and (3) another piece of paper with good GRE scores on it. And I had the worldview that “of course they’ll consider me” because I’d grown up in a privileged life; I knew how to talk to professors.

  12. I’m not sure what system you are suggesting would work better. Unfortunately, life isn’t fair. Everyone should be doing their best to find the most talented person for the job. Yes, we should be looking deeper than grades and test scores.

    Also, anecdotes don’t sway my opinion too much…but here is mine to compare to the one above. I grew up in the 1990-2000s. Divorced parents with 20-25k income most years. Both struggled with addiction. I worked hard to get into a top undergrad program. Got good grades. Studied for the GRE and did well. Accepted to several solid programs.

    Everyone faces different obstacles in life; some face way more than others. Who are we to try quantifying these hardships? As a white male, many assume I didn’t struggle. I may have been way worse off than a middle class minority student that had solid family support, but maybe not…I haven’t lived both lives to know. I’m not ready to try making these assumptions and making a mistake. For that reason, I encourage everyone to level the playing field with the metrics that are available while also considering the qualitative metrics related to references and interviews.

  13. Most recent anon, how about you read the post I linked to about with concrete suggestions? There are a lot of pieces of writing out there that explain how “just because you experienced hardship doesn’t mean you don’t benefit from white privilege” and I suggest that by reading a few of those you’ll have a better idea of where I’m coming from.

    Have you entertained the idea that the available metrics are, themselves, manifest of bias and are actually maintaining an uneven playing field. There are lots of data on this. This can get you started:

  14. Wow- thanks for posting my comment and spreading the word. Honestly, I felt a little guilty posting it-maybe it IS all in my head and I should shut up and be grateful for what I have been given. For those asking how they can help, just from my personal experience there were several people who reached out and provided opportunities that did eventually help me get into a PhD program. If you are a prof, postdoc, or grad students, offer opportunities in your lab for a few hours a week. I know that there is a time commitment to train, but there must be little tasks around the lab that would be helpful to pass off- my grad student mentor had me doing lit searches , feeding and caring for our lab animals, and coming to journal reading clubs between classes. Some of those were more helpful to her (animal husbandry tasks) and others to me (journal club), but we both benefited. Some students may have more time but they don’t know that they can just ask a prof/lab how they can help (I didn’t), so make an announcement in your classes about the opportunities at your school. Just that info can make a huge difference to people whose parents are not setting them up in internships or encouraging them to do a senior project. And lastly, publications apparently outweigh almost all other barriers to admittance, so if they have been working on something independently or very closely with your lab and the results are publishable- help them get it out! My MS from a CSU had, apparently, less weight than a BS from a better school, until I got that MS published.

  15. Sorry for the delayed response. This is the second most recent anon poster. Which link are you referring to with the concrete suggestions?

    I’m not disagreeing with the existence of white privilege. White privilege exists, but so does two-parent household privilege, community support privilege, socioeconomic privilege, and the list could go on and on. Are you ready to start going down that rabbit hole to determine how these things add up? What if we miss something and give a position to someone w/ slightly worse numbers b/c they have more privilege points, but we missed many of the privilege points for the person with better scores?

    I feel there is an issue here of judging individuals as a collective rather than judging each person on an individual basis. When you make comparisons on an individual basis, then it becomes much harder to develop rationale for choosing a less qualified person for a position. I will say that you can get a qualitative assessment of privilege from a person’s interview, but I even hesitate there b/c many people do not want to share those intimate details of their life in a professional setting.

    I’m not saying we should not consider an applicant’s background, but we should be careful and consider that each individual may have experienced many advantages and disadvantages. Some known and some unknown. I just worry that too much weight will be given to those disadvantages that are known from a person’s name and complexion for the pursuit of proportionate racial outcomes over equality.

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