Recruitment and Retention of Minority Students Makes for an Innovative Degree Program

In 2000, the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson launched a revolutionary new degree program designed to specifically and strategically prepare students for scientific careers in industry. The UA Professional Master's Degree Program (PMDP) in Applied Science and Business has three tracks, namely, Applied and Industrial Physics, Mathematical Sciences, and Applied Biosciences. This program provides endless opportunities for students to pursue industry careers in any related subfield, including biotechnology, cryptography, and physical and mathematical modeling.

Funding and Program Challenges

Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation * as part of a nationwide initiative to provide new career opportunities and related high-level skills to science students, the PMDP has always been driven to attract the best and the brightest to the program. In fact, the recruitment philosophy of program organizers is grounded on attracting students based on quality over quantity. It is important to note that this philosophy applies to the recruitment of minority students, a population specifically targeted by PMDP in an effort to attract underrepresented minorities into scientific positions in industry.

One of the challenges the PMDP faces is the fact that because it is such a new degree program, top science students might not readily appreciated the benefits it can provide them. Most science students, like many others in academia, still view a master's degree in the sciences as a consolation prize for students who could not complete a Ph.D.

Yet, this master's degree could not be more different--this is a professional, terminal degree, not unlike an MBA or a JD. Moreover, this program not only prepares students for specific career fields, but also offers students opportunities to develop important professional skills through special seminars in topics that include problem solving, communication (written and verbal), and contact management. Proficiency in business themes such as marketing, accounting, operations management, ethics, project management, and intellectual property are reinforced through business courses specifically designed for this program. We also recognize that students need hands-on experience; thus, we expose them to industry problems through internships and colloquia with leaders in science and business.

Recruitment and Retention Efforts

Faced with the challenge of promoting a new degree program directly to the population from which students will be recruited, as well as the specific goal of recruiting top minority science students, the PMDP has developed a series of recruitment guidelines designed to meet all of these objectives.

The most significant recruitment activity involves working within the established framework of the UA Graduate College, which has made it its mission to increase and improve recruitment and retention of minority students into all UA graduate programs. In fact, the Graduate College has several employees whose job responsibilities revolve around recruiting minority students. This staff works with minority scholars from national programs such as the McNair Program, attends conferences at which outstanding minority students present their work, and visits other universities to tell students and faculty about the outstanding resources for minority graduate students that can be found at UA. Some of these resources include specific minority graduate fellowships and financial aid packages, a minority graduate student travel fund, and a minority mentoring program.

Yet, given the unusual nature of the PMDA, it is clear that program coordinators cannot simply rely on the UA Graduate College for all their recruitment needs. They must take other initiatives to ensure that top minority science students are knowledgeable about and understand the benefits of the PMDP. Therefore, in addition to the help received from the UA Graduate College, organizers of the PMDP have developed other strategies to improve minority recruitment and retention. These include:

  • Attending conferences that focus on minority science students, such as those organized by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society;

  • Creating advertisements that run in minority science student publications;

  • Giving presentations at the four minority student centers on the UA campus. These include the Offices of Chicano/Hispano Student Affairs, African American Student Affairs, Native American Student affairs, and Asian Pacific American Student Affairs (these presentations are done with assistance from the UA Graduate College, and in the future this type of recruitment strategy will be expanded to other universities that PMDP representatives visit);

  • Providing access to personal assistance, mentoring, advising, and career and internship guidance. These activities help PMDP students realize that they are not alone and are part of a group of people all working toward the same goal. (For students from larger universities, this one endeavor has made all the difference in helping them to adjust to the demands of graduate school.)

Many other recruitment and retention strategies have been employed on behalf of the PMDP at UA. But the bottom line for this--and any other recruitment enterprise--must be to educate potential recruits about the program and its benefits and to provide the students that do join the program with the resources and help they need to succeed.

* The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation provides funding support for Next Wave's Postdoc Network and for the Minority Scientists Network.

Alaina G. Levine is the director of special projects in the College of Science at the University of Arizona and serves as the coordinator of the UA Professional Master's Degree Program.

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