The University Network

The Key To Success For Minority And Women Ph.D. Students In STEM

Women and minorities, unfortunately, continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields.

To understand the underlying factors leading to such disparities, a group of researchers from UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford and the California Institute of Technology looked at how gender, race and ethnicity could impact a doctoral student’s success by measuring differences in publication rates between underrepresented minorities and majority students.

They found that women and underrepresented minorities in doctoral STEM fields are more likely to publish research and advance professionally if their institution sets structured expectations and provides a welcoming environment.

Together, the four universities generate an estimated 10 percent of the nation’s underrepresented minority doctoral students in science and engineering.

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Background on the research

The study followed a 2017 paper by the same research team, who found that severe differences in publication rates between underrepresented minorities and majority students existed in all STEM departments except for chemistry, explained Aaron Fisher, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study.

“We found that graduate training in the chemistry department is highly structured, with clear expectations,” he said. “So this was the genesis of the hypotheses and analyses in the current study.”

Knowing this, the researchers wanted to understand disparities in publication rates by focusing on underrepresented students’ feelings of belonging within their academic program, and how the clarity of expectations and structure within a program can impact success.

Looking at the number of papers that graduate students publish is an important measure, according to Fisher.

“It is the principal currency of academia,” he said. “It is perhaps the single most important metric of student success.”

The study

The researchers recruited 499 graduate student participants from across their universities: 114 students from Berkeley; 110 students from UCLA; 125 students from Stanford; and 150 students from Caltech. There were 221 female students — both underrepresented and non-underrepresented minorities — and 240 underrepresented minorities (47 black, 182 Latinx and 11 Native American).

The participants had to complete a survey that focused on their sense of belonging, perceptions of departmental structure, subjective well-being, publication success, and perceived level of preparation to account for background factors potentially affecting these variables.

“I think the most practical thing to start with is to ask students about their experiences” said Fisher. “Listening is paramount. The best answers will likely come from the bottom up, not the top down.”

The findings

The researchers found that white, Asian and Latinx students published in academic journals at roughly equivalent rates, while black students published at significantly lower rates than their peers.

The statistical model used found this to be attributed to negative experiences associated with being a minority in otherwise white settings.

They also found that female students felt more insignificant in STEM settings and less prepared for graduate courses in their area of study. Underrepresented minorities also felt less prepared for graduate courses.

Additionally, the researchers identified a number of constructs that likely constitute a successful pathway to high publication rates and subjective well being.

Among others, these included students feeling accepted within their STEM setting, beliefs that they were adequately prepared for advanced undergraduate classes, beliefs about preparation for graduate classes, and perceptions of departmental expectations and standards.

Overall, the results seem to suggest a cyclical pattern: when students feel less prepared in their undergraduate and graduate studies, they end up feeling less successful relative to their peers and publishing less.

“We want to eliminate the degree to which anyone feels that success in academia requires a secret handshake,” said Fisher. “A clear rubric for meeting departmental expectations should be provided, and departments and mentors should work to understand student experiences.”

Moving forward

The team plans to move forward with the study to continue finding reasons for disparity between underrepresented minority student success and majority student success.

Each California institution in the study has made commitments to recruit, retain and advance underrepresented minority students in STEM fields.

Fisher and his team hope that institutions will learn from this research that when students feel more accepted and understand what’s expected of them, they are more likely to succeed.