Study Finds That Institutional Support Is Essential for Black Ph.D. Students in STEM Fields to Succeed

A study led by a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and including scholars from the University of California, Los Angeles, Stanford University, and the California Institute of Technology, has found that Black Ph.D. students in STEM fields are more likely to advance professionally, publish more research, and secure postdoctoral and faculty positions if their institutional culture is welcoming and sets clear expectations.

The research team first started this project to investigate why Black graduate students were nearly three times less likely to have published a paper in an academic journal than White, Asian, and graduate students from other underrepresented groups. The statistical model used in this study showed that this racial disparity is due in large part to negative experiences associated with being from an underrepresented group in a predominantly White academic setting.

“African Americans have been communicating for decades about the difficulties and discomforts of being Black in White-majority settings, and our data represent a clear example of empirical support for that narrative,” said lead author Aaron Fisher, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s not so much that being Black results in fewer publications, but that the experience of being Black in a university setting presents challenges and obstacles that White students are either not facing, or facing to a lesser degree.”

The researchers surveyed more than 500 Ph.D. students at the four California institutions. In addition to their demographics and academic performance, the team collected data on their mental well-being, whether they felt accepted or insignificant in their departments, whether they considered themselves prepared for graduate school, whether they have published in an academic journal, and whether they felt they were held to appropriate standards. While Black graduate students were three times less likely than their peers to be published in a journal, they had reduced feelings of insignificance when their respective departments had more positive interactions with their students

“These results show that it is possible to rapidly and effectively remedy these disparities with relatively straightforward interventions,” Dr. Fisher said. “We could ensure that departmental expectations and standards are not only clear for students of color in an explanatory sense, but also clear in terms of how to navigate the program to meet those expectations and standards.”

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  1. Water is wet. No new results here. Decades of research tell us the same. Contemporary African American researchers like Dr. Ebony McGee (Vanderbilt) have been providing compelling data and research on this issue.

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