EEB Mentor Match to help underrepresented students get graduate fellowships


I’ve griped about how undergraduates from wealthy private institutions and public research universities get the lion’s share of graduate fellowships. This happens for some obvious reasons of course, and I’m pleased to introduce a scheme that — with your help — can contribute to fixing this situation.

To get right to it: I’m teaming up with Meghan Duffy to pair up mentors with students from Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) to give them guidance and support as they put together their fellowship applications. (Meg has been the leader on this.)

To participate, see this post from Dynamic Ecology where she describes the project. There are three kinds of folks we’d like to hear from in the world of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and allied fields:

  • students who would like advice and mentorship to help apply for fellowships
  • faculty at MSIs who’d like to nominate students for an external mentor
  • volunteers to mentor (grad students, postdocs, and other other life history stages, particularly if you have experience with successful fellowship applications)

Again, if you’re looking for support or are ready to volunteer, check out Meg’s post on Dynamic Ecology with more specifics and the signup link. Or if you just want to learn more about this.

Let me answer some questions you might have, from the perspective of a faculty member at an MSI and why we’re doing this:

Why are we trying to pair students up with mentors, when these students already have capable faculty members at their own institutions? Of course folks like myself at MSIs are capable advising our own students. However, we are more under-resourced than you have probably imagined. (In my department, each tenure-track faculty member is doing academic advising for more than 50 students every semester, on top of a 4-course-per-semester base teaching load. And there’s the other stuff too, of course. This isn’t a rarity, just the normal state of affairs at many universities in the US.) While we’d love to sit down with everybody who is ready to apply for an NSF GRFP to work on their proposal, that’s something that we might be able to do for students in our own labs at best. Maybe. I know the students in my lab would greatly benefit from having support from a person who has more recently gone through the process. But I’m particularly concerned about the students I know who are amazing, but simply don’t have the guidance and lack the social capital to take the next steps. Which describes far more students in our major than we can mentor in this capacity.

What new or different things can a volunteer mentor provide? A lot MSIs are primarily undergraduate institutions, and there are often no grad students or postdocs around who can to provide the academic support and community that can really help undergrads make in into graduate programs. Tenured white professors have some constraints in their capacity to build the careers of URM (underrepresented minority) undergraduates in an MSI. An additional person who is ready to help develop ideas, read drafts, and provide moral support along the way can be a huge buttress to students who don’t have experience with the process. There are a lot of unwritten rules that keep students from fitting into scientific environments, and it’s difficult for first-gen and URM students to crack the social code. It often takes individualized support to provide the guidance towards an application that the reviewers will rank as competitive. In other words, URM students are probably in the greatest need of support but are more likely to be attending institutions where this support is hard to come by.

What effect are you hoping this program will have? This is simple: with tangible support, more talented students from marginalized groups and marginalized institutions will apply for fellowships with competitive applications. We just don’t have enough students from universities like mine applying, and that’s why (in part) they’re not getting funded. It’s important to ameliorate bias in the review process, but of course it’s a raw numbers game, and we can make science more equitable by increasing the number of applications coming from places like CSU Dominguez Hills and Central State University and Albany State University. (If you’ve worked closely with students in such an institution, then you’ll know that there are plenty of students who have the same research potential and talent as students in better funded universities. If you haven’t, then you’ll have to take my word for it, I guess.)

At my institution and beyond, my heart hurts when I see so many students who have everything it takes to build a competitive fellowship application, but they don’t have the enough support from a mentor to get a strong application together. If you have the experience that can be used to mentor a student who is looking for support, please considering being involved.

To read the Dynamic Ecology description about this program and to sign up, click here.

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