From Grad School to a Job: How to Get Underrepresented Minorities into the S&T Workforce

It’s been a good decade for underrepresented minorities pursuing doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But, even though more minorities are getting doctoral degrees, the small number of faculty members who are minorities has not budged.

At a recent AAAS-organized conference, principal investigators receiving federal funding to increase minorities in science and technology fields brainstormed ways to move minority doctoral recipients into faculty positions. They tossed around ideas as if their funding depended on it—which, in fact, it partly did.


James Wyche [Photo by Molly McElroy]
James Wyche | Photo by Molly McElroy

“We’re at the crucial juncture. It’s time to put up or shut up,” said James Wyche, division director of Human Resource Development at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Wyche oversees the NSF’s program Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), which funds 23 programs, or ”alliances,” to support a more diverse faculty at colleges and universities across the country.


“If you can’t find the mechanism to bring minorities into the professoriate then—to be blunt—you’ve failed,” Wyche said to the audience, consisting of about 100 grantees and others affiliated with the AGEP program.

Since the AGEP program began in the mid-1990s, colleges and universities have applied for funding to create resources for underrepresented minorities, which include African Americans, Alaskan Natives, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Pacific Islanders. They’ve found ways to find, recruit, and mentor underrepresented minorities through graduate school in technical fields. A March 2009 AAAS report with the consulting firm Campbell-Kibler Associates Inc. showed a 33.9% increase in the number of Ph.Ds awarded by AGEP institutions to underrepresented minorities in science and technical fields from 2001 through 2008.

But how to bring minorities with doctorates into professor positions? A more diverse professoriate is seen as critical for recruiting and retaining more students in fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and yet, the answer remains elusive.

About 100 principal investigators receiving AGEP funds met at a AAAS-organized conference on 10-11 December in Washington, D.C., to explore new ideas for achieving the goal. Since 1998, AAAS’s Education and Human Resources directorate has helped evaluate the effectiveness of AGEP and has organized NSF-funded meetings related to AGEP.

In an 11 December discussion, Wyche asked meeting participants to help guide the future of the program. He emphasized that it’s a local decision to determine the best paths forward in taking their graduates and guiding them to faculty jobs. And finding these paths could make it or break when it comes to future funding, Wyche said.

One approach to improving the AGEP program could be to combine resources. For instance, some alliances—a small group of universities that apply for AGEP funding together—have AGEP programs for both science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students as well as for students in social, behavioral and economic sciences (SBE). Wyche asked meeting participants whether it would make sense to combine these programs into one. This way, minority students participating in an AGEP programs would mix with other minority students from various other disciplines who are also participating in an AGEP program within the same alliance.


Wanda Ward, the acting assistant director for Education and Human Resources at NSF, and Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS [Photograph by Michael J. Colella
Wanda Ward, the acting assistant director for Education and Human Resources at NSF, and Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS | Photograph by Michael J. Colella

Representatives from some alliances thought that a combined program would work well, saying that a consolidated program would allow minority students in STEM and SBE AGEP programs to share workshops and other training tools and would allow for one office with the same staff. A combined program could also widen mentoring possibilities, in that if minority mentors were lacking in an alliance’s STEM program that they might exist in the same alliance’s SBE program.


Plus, students from STEM fields and from social, behavioral and economic sciences fields could learn from each other. “The nature of problems we’re engaging in now, we need broad interaction,” said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS.

Other participants at the meeting showed hesitation to combine the programs, citing fear that funds would be stretched too thin or that student needs would not be met. “It’s not smooth sailing for everybody,” said Cheryl Judice, director of Northwestern University’s AGEP programs.

Robert Lichter
Robert Lichter

What does make for a smooth-sailing AGEP program? NSF hired independent consultant Robert Lichter to collect and examine qualitative data on six AGEP alliances. During a 10 December talk at the meeting, Lichter, of Merrimack Consultants LLC, highlighted the passion of the staff involved in the programs, adding that most programs have minimal staff. He reported that AGEP students said that the program gave them a sense of community within their department and campus, and even across campuses.

“The AGEP structure gave them a safe haven if they had problems,” Lichter said. “And that’s all within the context of what AGEP is trying to do.”

Malcom pointed out some challenges with getting minorities into faculty positions, citing a loss of impetus in recent years. “There’s been little pressure to do it and a lot of pressure not to do it,” aid Malcom, an ecologist by training. The confused legal environment on some campuses also makes it difficult to build a more diverse faculty. “We can’t make progress on [increasing minorities who are faculty members] until it’s clarified to the universities what they can and can’t do,” she said.

But are faculty jobs the sole measure of success of AGEP? As participants at AGEP’s December meeting contemplated ways that they could improve underrepresented minorities in the S&T professoriate, they discussed how signs of AGEP’s success should not be limited to minorities receiving faculty positions. Minorities landing other S&T jobs—in industry or at national labs, for example—should also be included as part of the headcount of underrepresented minorities in the S&T workforce.

Anne Donnelly, based at the University of Florida, also showed concern about focusing too much on faculty positions as the metric for success. “I really worry about us setting goals” for the number of professors who are minorities, said Donnelly, director of AGEP’s South East Alliance. She pointed out that the lengthy path to an academic position can deter students and encourage them to seek better-paying industry positions.

After the AGEP meeting, Malcom acknowledged that some people say that the time and money that it takes to get a doctorate and then become a tenured professor may make it seem that underrepresented minorities are “operating against their own best interests.” But those negatives should be balanced with the positives of faculty life, such as a flexible work schedule, the thrill of scientific discovery, and power to mentor the next generation of scientists.

“One thing that I believe emerged was a better understanding of the complexity that will be involved in responding to a new focus on the professoriate,” Malcom said of the meeting. “Producing more Ph.Ds is a necessary but not sufficient condition to diversifying the faculty. Students must also learn specific skills to enable them to play the faculty role.”


Learn more about the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate.

Watch a brief video of Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, discussing a March 2009 report showing an increase in science-related doctoral degrees among underrepresented minorities in AGEP institutions.

Use the MySciNet social network to connect with minority scientists.