Graduate Students

Helping Minority Ph.D.'s in STEM: Something's Working

Natalie Battaglia

Samuel Attoh, dean of the Graduate School at Loyola U. Chicago, created dissertation boot camps for Ph.D. candidates and set aside grant funds specifically for students who are close to completing their degrees but who are running out of money.
April 14, 2015

Earning a Ph.D. in a STEM field is meant to be challenging, but data has shown it can be especially so for minority students. While universities have had some success in diversifying their STEM graduate ranks in recent years, completion rates for Ph.D. candidates who are African-American, Latino, Native American, or Alaska Native have lagged behind those of their white, Asian-American, and foreign counterparts.

A report released on Tuesday by the Council of Graduate Schools offers some good news: Seven-year Ph.D. completion rates for minority students at institutions surveyed rose by 5 percent from 1996 to 2005, the most recent cohort it examined. That means that something the universities are doing is working.

But what, and how, remains unclear.

The report, "The Doctoral Initiative on Minority Attrition and Completion," is based on data about Ph.D. students enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — or STEM — programs at 21 prominent research universities from 1992 to 2012. The council says the three-year study, which was paid for by the National Science Foundation, is the most comprehensive to date on times to degree, attrition, and completion rates for members of underrepresented minority groups. (The study does not compare minority students against other groups of students or against data from before 1992.)

While collecting a better data set was the study’s main goal, the report highlights key recommendations to improve completion rates and cut the time to degree based on interviews with minority graduate students. Those recommendations include providing interventions throughout the doctoral process, not just at the beginning, and building a culture of diversity and inclusion on campuses and within programs.

To be sure, universities have long focused on increasing the number of minority students in their graduate programs, and on making sure that new students acclimate to graduate education. Jeff R. Allum, director of research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools and one of the report’s authors, says that programs like pre-enrollment "boot camps" introduce minority students not only to doctoral-level research projects but also to university resources, potential faculty mentors, and peer networks. But after the first year, students often receive less formal intervention.

Samuel A. Attoh, dean of the graduate school at Loyola University Chicago, which participated in the study, stresses the importance of providing continuing support to minority students in a variety of ways. He puts great importance on getting them working with a mentor and helping ensure that they are financially well supported.

To meet the challenges that some students face further along in the degree process, Mr. Attoh created dissertation boot camps for Ph.D. candidates to help them sort out their proposals and get started. He also set aside grant funds specifically for students who are close to completing their degrees but who are running out of money.

The retention trend among minority Ph.D. candidates at Loyola is encouraging. The share of minority students leaving STEM Ph.D. programs within four years in the 1995-97 cohort was 47 percent. For the 2007-9 cohort, it was 22 percent.

The long, often solitary slog of earning a Ph.D. can prove daunting for anyone, but the Council of Graduate Schools' report notes that isolation is a particular problem for minority students. Being one of the few people of color — or the only one — in a graduate program can create additional pressure, says Mr. Allum, and universities that can foster a culture of diversity "are in a better position to help their students succeed."

Students and faculty members often establish informal support groups to share experiences and tips, and some universities do their best to encourage and build on such efforts. In 2010 the University of California at Irvine founded a program called Diverse Educational Community and Doctoral Experience to help increase the number of female and minority students earning doctoral degrees at the institution.

Decade, as the program is known, is meant to help minority students "find a home in the community" while improving their professional development, says Frances M. Leslie, dean of the university's graduate division. Decade offers an introductory summer research program, faculty mentoring, and even cash awards for conference travel.

Similar to Decade, the University of Iowa created its Office of Graduate Inclusion about 10 years ago to foster diversity- and community-building efforts among its graduate programs. John C. Keller, dean of the graduate college, says the number of STEM Ph.D.’s awarded to minority students at Iowa still falls about 10 percent to 15 percent below the number for the overall cohort, on average.

As he looks to improve those rates, Mr. Keller says the data collected by the Council of Graduate Schools surprised him in one respect: STEM graduate programs with more minority students didn’t necessarily have higher completion rates. "Community didn’t necessarily equate to success," he says.

Moreover, the report highlights that different minority groups differed significantly in their performance. For example, the 10-year completion rate for Latinos was 58 percent, compared with 50 percent for African-Americans. The 10-year completion rate for minority students with a prior master’s degree was 57 percent, versus 52 percent for students without one.

Such differences highlight the challenge of coming up with practices that effectively deal with a category as broad as "minorities."

Programs such as Irvine’s Decade are designed to benefit minority and female students, but they are open to all graduate students — state law requires it, in fact. And there are few recommendations in the new report whose benefit would be limited to minority students.

As Mr. Keller puts it, "The kind of things that we’re all talking about are things we should be doing for all of our students."

Lee Gardner writes about the management of colleges and universities, higher-education marketing, and assorted other topics. Follow him on Twitter @_lee_g, or email him at lee.gardner@chronicle.com.

Clarification (4/14/2015, 2:54 p.m.): This article should have noted that in addition to lagging behind white students in Ph.D. completion, the underrepresented minority students listed trail their Asian-American and foreign counterparts. The article has been updated to reflect this change.