Too Few Minorities Earning Ph.D.s in Science Pursue Academic Careers

Dear MentorDoctor,

I am a faculty member (environmental science) at a large land-grant institution. I have noticed over the years that many minority students who earn graduate degrees in SME (science, math, and engineering) are pursuing careers outside of academia. More minorities are earning Ph.D.s in SME fields than ever before, but this is not apparent if you look at that faculty present in many universities. I have two minorities in my research laboratory, and I think they would do very well as professors. In your opinion, how should I prepare these students for a career in academia? I have spoken to the them about postdoc opportunities and the importance of developing writing and oral communication skills.

Nichelle Moore

Dear Nichelle,

I share your concern that too few minorities earning Ph.D.s in SME fields are considering academic careers. Your suggestions about postdocs and good written and oral skills are excellent ones. In addition, let me offer a few more. ...

Too often, graduate students see and hear about the downsides of academic life. They hear the horror stories about promotion and tenure decisions, the fight to secure funding to keep research going, and the drudgery of teaching introductory courses in which students only want to get the "A" that will help them get into the medical or graduate school of their choice. They are bombarded every day with comparisons of academic and corporate salaries. We must ensure that graduate students are exposed to the pros of the professorate as well as the cons.

Let students know about the joy you derive from your academic experience. Research may be extremely frustrating at times, but it is also very rewarding. Teaching is often frustrating as well, but nothing replaces the joy that you see on a student?s face when he or she finally masters a difficult concept. Likewise, the occasion for rich discussion with colleagues (both in and out of our specific disciplines) cannot be matched in any other environment. What price tag do we place on the potential to positively shape the next generation of leaders? Seek to create an environment where discussions are routinely held about what it means to mentor and be mentored.

Additionally, give students a realistic view of academic life. Introduce them to your colleagues outside of your academic institution. By the time they graduate, young professionals should know the leaders in the field and have an appreciation for the pecking order of journals in which their research should be published. They should know something about professional societies and the role they play in the growth of the discipline. Take your students to regional or national meetings so they can experience firsthand the excitement of exchanging ideas with colleagues from a broad set of institutions. Furthermore, they should know the primary funding agencies for their specialty and should have some limited experience in grant writing. Graduate students should be exposed to the sources of advice on pedagogical as well as subject-matter issues. That most students don?t learn as they do is an eye-opening revelation for most new faculty.

In short, expose your students to those issues that helped you make the decision to enter the professorate. I would argue that most of them were not content related.

Good luck!

--The MentorDoctor

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