We Must Change How We Fund Graduate School

Channeling more funding directly to grad students would diversify academe and enhance the scientific enterprise, argue Kafui Dzirasa, Christopher D. Lynn, Jin Kim Montclare, Leia Stirling and Bill Wuest.

September 1, 2020
 
 
Istock.com/Anastasia Usenko

The National Science Foundation recently changed the criteria for its Graduate Research Fellowship Program, one of the most prestigious federal funding awards for graduate students, to prioritize applicants in certain quantitative and technical fields like artificial intelligence. While the agency clarified that no applicants will be excluded based on their area of study, favoring certain topics signals that some research areas are more important than others and prioritizes research agendas over investment in future scientists.

We, like many other scientists, are concerned that this change may limit funding for promising scholars from underrepresented groups or undergraduate institutions with fewer resources -- an outcome that would run counter to the goals of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2017, to enhance our nation’s innovation. We believe that federal agencies like the NSF should be expanding funding for graduate students rather than reprioritizing who receives it. Channeling more funding directly to a wide array of individual graduate students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, will help empower a diverse next generation of scientists.

The #BlackintheIvory movement is the latest reminder of how far we have to go in achieving equity and diversity in academia. The stories that recently poured into the hashtag offer a disturbing catalog of the discrimination, harassment and bias Black academics regularly face over the course of their careers. They also detail the isolation of being “the first” or “the only” Black face in a department, lab, cohort or administration. Less than 6 percent of full-time faculty at colleges and universities in the United States are Black. In many STEM fields, the numbers are even worse, with Black scholars accounting for less than 1 percent of faculty members.

This important conversation dovetails with other recent discussions -- prompted in part by the Me Too movement -- about the challenges women face in the sciences and academe, which has the second highest rate of sexual harassment (58 percent) after the military. Black women are at the intersection of these two forces, experiencing twice the rate of stress from discrimination as white women and 50 percent more than Black men. In a survey of 20,000 full-time faculty members, Black, Latina and Native American women were the most likely to report having to work harder than their colleagues to be perceived as legitimate scholars.

To transform academe, we must fix the graduate school system that produces future scholars, including reforming how we fund graduate study. Financial support for graduate students, particularly in science and engineering, is often tied to working as a research assistant for a particular professor, who thus has enormous sway over the students that depend on them for resources. Our existing system for funding graduate school in the United States produces power imbalances between faculty members and students that allow discrimination and harassment to fester, hindering the careers of promising scientists and reproducing existing hierarchies including structural racism.

Research shows that mentoring is one of the biggest predictors of graduate student success, yet graduate students of color often feel isolated, unsupported or actively undermined by those who are supposed to guide them. Some of the most painful stories in the #BlackintheIvory discussion on Twitter described how faculty advisers doubted the capabilities of their Black students, tried to curtail their ambitions or made them feel as if they didn’t belong in academe.

Negative experiences with faculty are one reason that only 44 percent of Black, Latino and Native American graduate students in STEM earn their Ph.D.s within seven years. The lack of representation among new science Ph.D.s is jarring: Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans make up 31 percent of the U.S. population but receive only 13 percent of science and engineering doctorate degrees. Furthermore, Black students finish graduate school with significantly more debt than their white peers.

Funding People Instead of Projects

We can empower graduate students by changing how they are funded. According to the NSF, 41 percent of graduate students receive funding primarily from their institution, much of which comes from taxpayer-funded federal research grants awarded to faculty members that then flow through to grad student research assistants. In contrast, a small share of graduate students (15 percent) obtain most of their funding directly from research fellowships provided by agencies including the NSF, National Institutes of Health, the National Air and Space Administration, and the Department of Defense. These students with research fellowships work in faculty labs and are mentored by faculty advisers, but they generally have more flexibility to leave unsupportive or hostile work environments and take their funding with them.

We propose directing more of our federal research dollars to individual research fellowships like Graduate Research Fellowship Program that would cover all of a graduate student’s funding needs. Prominent organizations like the National Academies have begun to call for similar funding reforms in order to “diffuse the hierarchical and dependent relationship between trainee and faculty.” This shift wouldn’t require more money, simply a reallocation of existing funds from faculty research budgets directly to graduate students.

We also oppose creating limits on these fellowships that favor certain researchers over others who are equally talented and innovative but don’t study a topic on the agency’s priority list. There are less exclusionary ways to encourage research in specific areas, such as offering additional training across disciplinary boundaries.

Channeling more funding directly to graduate students, regardless of their topic of study, would empower them to pursue the research projects, mentors and work environments where they will thrive. Their careers will be driven less by whether a particular faculty member has funding available for research in their area of expertise and more by their own professional development needs, including community engagement and career-building opportunities not tied to specific research projects. Federal agencies could allocate research fellowships in ways that promote gender, racial and ethnic equity, and draw talent from across our nation's educational landscape, rather than largely from the most elite colleges and universities.

Today we are losing future scientists at an alarming rate, sometimes after significant resources have been invested in training them. Half of nascent scientists leave academic science within five years of their first publication. While there are a variety of reasons for these departures, we know that rates of depression and anxiety are six times higher among graduate students than the general public. Women scientists and scholars from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups continue to share stories of being pushed out of higher education by rampant discrimination and lack of support from administrators and senior faculty.

To empower students who are disadvantaged within existing power structures, we must dismantle those structures, starting with the control faculty members hold over graduate students. Expanding individual graduate student fellowships represents a shift from funding projects to funding America’s greatest scientific resource: people.

Unfortunately, the recent changes by NSF only bolster a system that directs federal research dollars primarily to research initiatives and priorities of the scientists of today. It is equally important to fund the professional development and human capital of the next generation of scientists, particularly those whose talents our current academic system has not historically fostered. By changing how we fund graduate study, we can improve the graduate school experience for Black students, women and other underrepresented groups and more effectively prepare a diverse and inclusive body of future scientists.

Bio

The authors are all university faculty members and fellows in the 2019-20 cohort of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science. Kafui Dzirasa is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. Christopher D. Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama. Jin Kim Montclare is the director of the Convergence for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at New York University. Leia Stirling is an associate professor of industrial and operations engineering and core faculty in the Robotics Institute at the University of Michigan. Bill Wuest is a Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator and an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University.

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