Perspectives: Preparing Postdocs of Color

Although the percentage of minorities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has traditionally been small, many institutions are making a serious effort to change that. One recent gathering brought together approximately 40 underrepresented minority graduate students from all over the country for the purpose of preparing them for postdoctoral education.

Filling the Ranks

"The Institute on Preparing for Postdoctoral Experiences in STEM" was sponsored by Howard University (HU) and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) in conjunction with the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). The 3-day workshop, held from 18 to 20 August 2004 at the AAAS building in Washington, D.C., provided students with a wealth of information including funding sources, networking skills, grant writing, and career development strategies. Students also visited the National Science Foundation and met with NSF staff for an afternoon dedicated to learning the ropes of being a professional scientist.

This AGEP meeting was the first joint project of its kind between HU and UTEP: two institutions that lead the nation in the production of African-American and Hispanic doctoral candidates. For more information on AGEP, see the box below.

Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate

The AGEP program, sponsored by NSF's Directorate for Education and Human Resources and the Division of Human Resources Development, seeks to significantly increase the number of African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students receiving doctoral degrees in all disciplines funded by NSF.

Specific aims include: (1) developing and implementing innovative models for recruiting, mentoring, and retaining minority students in doctoral programs, and (2) developing effective strategies for identifying and supporting underrepresented minorities who want to pursue academic careers.

For more information, please contact Roosevelt Y. Johnson (, AGEP program director, at (703) 292-4669 or Sanya Spencer, AGEP program assistant (, at (703) 292-4686.

Conference Goals Fulfilled

I had an opportunity to give a short presentation at this valuable meeting and came away with a very positive outlook on the future of minorities in science. Each session seemed to hit upon topics that are required learning in the world of academia. Everything I had to learn "on the fly" as a first-year postdoc was discussed, including identifying the right postdoc and basic survival skills for a person of color. The HU-UTEP conference definitely gave this crop of graduate students a huge advantage.

HU-UTEP Diversity Issues Panel.

From left: Jabbar R. Bennett, Robin Arnette, Ansley Abraham, and Alberto Roca.

Photo courtesy of Alberto Roca

According to Cherie Butts, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoctoral fellow and NPA co-organizer, the meeting did what it was designed to do: "The HU-UTEP conference was formulated to arm these students with the necessary tools to make informed decisions before, during, and after the postdoctoral fellowship."

Session titles included "What Are Postdocs and Why Should You Do One," "Grantsmanship: Making Competitive Applications," and "Developing Postdoc Goals." During the panel session on "Diversity Issues and Postdoc Experience," Alberto Roca, a University of California, Irvine, postdoc and NPA co-organizer, described the process of "bicultural mentoring." Roca says, "An immediate supervisor [PI] is the source of technical and career advice for your chosen discipline. However, someone else needs to be consulted to receive objective advice about balancing work with other responsibilities such as family, volunteer, and outreach activities."

He encouraged all young scientists to find a second mentor through societies such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Graduate Women in Science, and NPA. This second mentor at SACNAS, for example, could relate on a personal and cultural level and would give the postdoc objective career advice that is independent of the postdoc's relationship with their PI.

Jabbar R. Bennett, a research and science specialist at Harvard Medical School's Office for Diversity and Community Partnership and NPA co-organizer, presented "Fueling the Professoriate Pipeline" during the diversity session and commented on the success of the meeting. He says, "This conference proved to be a very enlightening, empowering, and an encouraging experience for everyone involved. It served as a revival for some and a renewal of passion for others to help fuel the professoriate pipeline with young, gifted, and talented people of color."

Minority Postdoc Summit

AAAS, NPA, and SACNAS are sponsoring the Minority Postdoc Summit at the annual SACNAS conference in Austin, Texas, on 21 October 2004. The 1-day summit is a forum to discuss issues and to propose solutions to challenges faced by minority scientists during the postdoctoral training period. For more information, see the Minority Postdoc Summit Web site.

Related Articles

" Diversity in Science: Promoting the Success of Minority Postdocs," M. Sinche, A. Roca, A. Patel, Summary of breakout session from COSEPUP Second Convocation on Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience (15 April 2004).

" Minority Postdocs Are Rare, Independent Breed," J. Mervis, Science 285, 1529 (1999).

" Building Diversity in the Scientific Workforce," Report from NSF Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellows and Mentors Annual Meeting, 1996.

Student Reactions

Although the majority of students came from HU or UTEP, many represented a variety of schools such as the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, New Mexico State University, and the University of California, San Diego. Regardless of where they hailed from, each student was glad they came.

Rachelle Duvall, a doctoral student in environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, modified her postdoc search after speaking with a conference participant. "I already knew which postdoctoral positions I wanted to apply to, but after attending this workshop, my plans changed. I was approached by a faculty member who informed me about some of the postdoctoral positions at his university. I would not have been aware of this opportunity otherwise. I left this workshop feeling recharged about my future and the potential career opportunities available."

Jose Pacheco, a biological sciences doctoral student at UTEP, also felt the workshop was a positive experience. "I really enjoyed meeting fellow doctoral students, and I believe I have not only met future collaborators but also lifelong friends. The AGEP meeting provided a family atmosphere that opened up a medium for discussion. This casual environment allowed for the exchange of ideas to occur rather easily."

According to Renee Hayslett, a doctoral student in pharmacology at HU, "Hearing other experiences gave me insight for what I am to expect from a postdoc. I thought the workshop was very informative and covered every topic one could think of concerning postdoctoral fellowships. I would recommend participation in this workshop to every graduate student."

More to Come

According to the NSF Web site, "The scarcity of role models and mentors in the professoriate constitutes a significant barrier to producing minority graduates, and NSF is particularly interested in increasing the number of minorities who will enter the professoriate in these disciplines." This year's HU-UTEP AGEP conference definitely fulfilled NSF's goal of pointing underrepresented minorities toward the ranks of academia. I'm looking forward to other meetings that answer the same challenge.

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at

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