Study: More Ph.D students of color doesn’t mean more minority professors

The study questions a common belief that a solution for too few professors of color is bringing more students into doctoral programs.

by Rilyn Eischens

A new study put to question a commonly-held belief that increasing the pool of doctoral students of color boosts the hiring of diverse professors.

Instead, experts at the University of Minnesota say initiatives aimed at increasing diversity should focus on easing minority graduates into teaching jobs by supporting them while they’re still studying.

The November study — conducted by four east coast researchers — was published in eLife Sciences, and analyzed a pool of biomedical doctoral graduates and assistant professor hires in medical school departments nationwide between 1980 and 2013.

The researchers found that, while the pool of underrepresented minority doctoral graduates increased by more than nine times during that period, the number of minority professors only increased 2.6 times.

According to the study, even if minorities make up 73 percent of doctoral graduates by 2080, fewer than ten percent of assistant professors would be minorities.

“There are a lot of things that keep me from wanting to be in academia. The constant marginalization that happens is one of them,” said Rachel Olzer, second-year doctoral candidate and Black Graduate and Professional Students Association community outreach director.

The study suggests the root of the problem lies in the fact that not enough doctoral graduates are transitioning into professorships.

“When I first heard about this, to be honest, I was kind of like, ‘I’m not surprised that white people are surprised by this.’ If you ask any person of color, they’re not surprised at all,” Olzer said.

There are two concerns at play — students choosing not to go into academia, and students who want to be professors and aren’t hired, she said.

“You have to prove twice as much that you deserve to be where you are. At the end of the day, it’s just kind of exhausting, so I think there’s that choice to get out now while it’s easy to leave,” Olzer said.

Noro Andriamanalina, director of the Academic and Professional Development Office for Diversity in Graduate Education, said if students don’t feel welcome while they’re in school, chances are they won’t want to pursue a career in academia.

The problem isn’t a lack of talent among minority graduates — as there is already a large pool of experienced scientists with diverse backgrounds — said Kenneth Gibbs, lead author of the study.

“The scientific community needs to think more critically about how we can all ensure this talent pool we already have is being utilized in all sectors,” Gibbs said.

It’s going to take a more inclusive environment for students of color to make them want to come back to work as a professor, Andriamanalina said.

“It’s not just about aesthetics. It’s not just about having more different-looking people at a campus, but it’s really looking at how are we defining a promising graduate student,” she said.

Diversity efforts in the University’s Graduate School focus on providing students of color with mentors and offering support to ease minority students’ transition to academia, Andriamanalina said.

The University’s Predoctoral Diversity Teaching Initiative is one such program. Students teach at either the Duluth or Morris campus for a year while they write their dissertations, Andriamanalina said. There, they gain experience and learn what it’s like to work at a university.

“It’s really important to make sure that all grad students have good, rewarding experiences so that they feel that academia is a place where they are valued, [where] they can make contributions, and they want to do that as career,” she said.