Missing Minority Ph.D.s

Most black and Latino doctoral students in STEM fields are not earning their degrees within 7 years, and many are leaving their programs, new study finds.

November 3, 2014
Charles West
New minority Ph.D.s are saluted at Institute on Teaching and Mentoring

ATLANTA -- The Institute on Teaching and Mentoring, whose annual meeting just concluded here, gathers 1,300 minority Ph.D. students and postdocs, and some of their advisers in what is billed as the largest annual gathering of minority doctoral students. Many here talk about the challenges created for black and Latino students who end up -- as doctoral candidates or later as junior faculty -- with few colleagues who share their backgrounds.

The institute celebrates the success of new minority Ph.D.s in a ceremony in which they put on their doctoral robes, but what of those who didn't make it to the finish line?

Data presented here by the Council of Graduate Schools suggest that higher education could significantly diversify the Ph.D. pool by holding on to more of those black and Latino students who start programs but do not finish. Only 44 percent of black and Latino Ph.D. students in STEM (with STEM defined to include behavioral and social sciences) earned a doctoral degree within seven years, according to the new study. That's only slightly more than the 36 percent who leave their programs. (Another 20 percent are still in their programs, without a Ph.D., after seven years.)

The new data come from a council study that looked at the progress of more than 7,000 black and Latino graduate students enrolled from 1992 through 2012 at 21 research universities. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, which along with the council wanted to find out if there had been much progress since previous studies. (The official report is still a few weeks away, but the data were presented at a session here.)

A 2004 report, for example, found that across all disciplines, the 10-year doctoral completion rate for students of all races and ethnicities was 57 percent, while the rates were 51 percent for Latinos and 47 percent for African Americans.

The new study also looked at 10-year rates, and found that the overall black and Latino STEM Ph.D. completion rate in that time frame was 54 percent. But many in the room (primarily graduate faculty members in STEM fields) said that they had a hard time viewing 10-year completion as success. "Does anyone here want to keep students for 10 years? What are they doing?" asked one participant.

Robert A. Sowell, who recently retired as vice president of the Council of Graduate Schools and is finishing work on this study, said that the results were disappointing in part because so many efforts have been started by so many groups in recent years to improve the completion rates of Ph.D. programs for all students and in particular for minority students.

For the latest study, the focus was on seven-year completion rates and only black and Latino candidates were tracked. (Sowell said that Native Americans are also underrepresented but that the pool was too small to offer meaningful analysis on completion rates.) The study found significantly higher completion rates for Latino than black students (48 percent vs. 40 percent).

There were differences by type of STEM field. The seven-year completion rates were higher for engineering (48 percent) and life sciences (52 percent) than for physical sciences and mathematics (39 percent) and social and behavior science (38 percent). For every STEM specialty, and for black and Latino students alike, women are completing at higher rates than men.

In addition to compiling the data on completion rates, the council also conducted both a survey and focus group interviews with black and Latino graduate students.

In the survey (1,640 responses), the study found mixed evidence on whether graduate programs in STEM are doing a good job in making black and Latino doctoral students feel that they are treated equally. Seventy-seven percent reported that standards were the same for all graduate students, and only 13 percent reported that they experienced racism in the program. But only 31 percent reported that they felt that faculty members understood issues that affect underrepresented minority students. People who attended the session were mixed on whether the 13 percent figure was surprisingly low or high.

The survey also found the black and Latino students reporting mixed personal experiences while in their doctoral programs. A very high percentage (95 percent) said that they felt supported by a network of students. But 62 percent reported being worried about their mental or physical health while in grad school, 53 percent reported that they were losing interest in the field, and 40 percent said that they felt burdened financially.

The students were also asked open-ended questions about what would most help minority doctoral students finish. The top responses were that faculty members be clear about expectations, and review student progress regularly.

In the focus groups, several themes also emerged. One is that many black and Latino students feel that they are constantly being evaluated and that they feel pressure to perform well, in part because of their minority status. One student said: "I have to look on point and maybe it's just in my head, but I feel have to be that much better" than other students. Another doctoral student said: "If I were to miss class, it would be noticeable."

Another common theme was that family members supported them, and were proud, but had no idea what their doctoral education was about. They reported comments from parents such as: “When do you finish?” “What is that you really do?” “When am I having grandkids?” and "What kind of doctor are you going to be?"


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