Minorities and the Sociology Pipeline

February 8, 2007

A new study attempting to determine why members of minority groups are underrepresented on sociology faculties finds that while black sociologists, for instance, are actually overrepresented through the master's level, members of minority groups are disproportionately "leaked" from the academic pipeline at two critical junctures: the Ph.D. stage and the tenure process.

“The long slog to get your Ph.D. is a difficult one. Many minorities, especially the protected minorities, African-Americans and Hispanics, they have more financial difficulty, they have less financial backing, so the idea of taking this fairly lengthy period of time to work on a Ph.D. is probably more difficult,” said Roberta Spalter-Roth, director of the research and development department at the American Sociological Association, which recently released its report, “ Race and Ethnicity in the Sociology Pipeline.”

In fact, the impact of economic factors on graduate study can be traced back to the undergraduate level, as the study suggests : While both black and Hispanic students are more likely than their white peers to report a desire to go to graduate school (with 63.5 percent of black students and 57.4 percent of Hispanic students, compared to 40.9 percent of white students, indicating plans to attend), they are also far more likely to report plans to attend graduate school part-time while working. The proportion of black students who plan to work and attend graduate school simultaneously is, at 42.5 percent, actually greater than the total number of white students planning to attend at all.

Spalter-Roth cited other factors that might contribute to minority students dropping from the pipeline, including a lack of mentoring, insufficient interest among senior faculty in some topics and journals that minority sociology candidates are disproportionately drawn to, and the saddling of young minority hires with extra responsibilities to be mentors to minority students and participate in committees, thus detracting from time for publishing. However, “in spite of the leakage,” members of underrepresented minority groups are more widely represented in sociology than in other social science disciplines: About 15 percent of sociology Ph.D. recipients are black or Hispanic,   compared to 13.1 percent in political science, 8.3 percent in economics and 12.8 percent in psychology, the report states.

In the study, which Spalter-Roth cautioned is based on data obtained from a wide variety of imperfect measures, “some older than others,” researchers found that about 16 percent of all sociology bachelor degree recipients in 2004 were black -- a higher percentage than the proportion of black people within the U.S. population. Like at the Ph.D. level, their representation within sociology exceeds minority representation within other behavioral sciences. Black sociology majors are more likely to see the study of sociology as a tool to change society and to prepare for careers, the study reports, and black students are more likely than their white peers to engage in volunteer work, a service learning project or career-related mentorship or networking programs.

The study finds that the ratio of black to white students, 1 to 4, stays constant through the awarding of master's degrees but that it falls, based on 2004 data, to 1 to 9 among Ph.D. recipients. The study reports that 85 percent of black master’s graduates are lost from the pipeline at the Ph.D. level, compared to 51 percent of their white counterparts.

While black students are more likely to report receiving mentoring at the undergraduate level than their white peers are, at the graduate level, just 33 percent of black and 36 percent of Hispanic students indicated that they received faculty assistance in publishing, compared to 56 percent of white students and 48 percent of Asian ones.

Yet, those minority-group members who do pass through the first bottleneck in the pipeline and obtain the Ph.D. tend to fare well in the initial hiring cycle, as the report shows. Black and Hispanic applicants with Ph.D.'s in hand submit fewer applications per job offer, at 14 to 1 and 17 to 1 ratios, respectively, than do white faculty candidates, who apply for 22 jobs per offer. Black and Hispanic instructors are also far more likely to get tenure-track jobs, with 71.8 percent of black applicants and 63.6 percent of Hispanic ones gaining tenure-track positions, compared to 57.6 percent of white applicants and just 31.3 percent of Asian candidates. However, while Asian professor candidates submit the fewest applications per job offer, at 4 to 1, they are also the only group of sociology Ph.D.'s who tend to land in non-academic or non-tenure track jobs, with 68.7 percent doing so.

But while "the protected minorities," in Spalter-Roth's words, seem to be in demand on the job market, and will be more handsomely rewarded financially at the full professor level than their white counterparts, with black full professors making $1.30 for every white full professor's dollar, they are far less likely than their white counterparts to persist through the tenure process. Over all, the study reports an 8.6 percent difference in the proportion of Hispanic, black and Native American faculty at the assistant professor and full professor levels, while the proportion of white instructors increases as you move up the tenure ladder.

The study offers few reasons why, other than the disproportionate mentoring, though Spalter-Roth pointed to feelings of isolation among minority faculty and the factors cited above, including distractions from publishing, as possible causes. She indicated that a department survey scheduled for the fall will gather more data on this topic. "There are various reasons why varying people don't live up to their potential promise because of the factors that we've talked about," Spalter-Roth said.

The study indicates that because minority sociologists tend to have strong interest in the sociological study of their own race or ethnic group, “there might be an underrepresentation of certain topic areas if there were no minorities in the pipeline.” The study cites the benefit of existing programs, including the American Sociological Association’s Minority Fellowship Program, but indicates that “with the growth of anti-affirmation action sentiment, these programs may be on the decline.” Future studies, the report concludes, are needed to help develop strategies “to plug the leaks.”

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