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Minority Ph.D. students: Where do they go?

A new report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) provides what its authors call “the most comprehensive large-scale” picture available to date of the outcomes of underrepresented minority (URM) students enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) doctoral programs. Titled Doctoral Initiative on Minority Attrition and Completion (DIMAC) and released on 14 April, the 72-page document is crammed with interesting and revealing facts about how black/African-American students and Hispanic/Latino students fare in doctoral programs in engineering, life sciences (including health sciences), physical and mathematical sciences, and social and behavioral sciences.

The study does not, however, reveal how URM students’ experiences stack up against those of students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Nor does it provide any information on the motivations or next steps of the students who leave their graduate programs before finishing.

Research shows that the desire to earn a good income and improve their financial status motivates first-generation college students more strongly than it does students with college-educated parents.

The project examined enrollment data for 7575 black/African-American and Hispanic/Latino students who entered the STEM graduate programs at 21 universities between the 1992-93 and 2011-12 academic years. A total of 1640 of those students answered surveys about their experiences, advisers, and various features of their programs, and 322 participated in focus groups discussing those topics. The researchers also collected information on the universities’ programs and policies relating to URM students and conducted focus groups discussing these topics with about 320 university officials.

For the 3829 URM students identified as entering their doctoral programs before 2005, 44% had completed their degree by the 7-year mark, and 20% were continuing their studies. The remaining 36% of the original enrollees had withdrawn from graduate school. Life science had the highest rate of completion at the 7-year mark (52%), followed by engineering (48%), physical and mathematical science (39%), and social and behavioral science (38%). Attrition was highest in the physical and mathematical sciences (47%), followed by engineering (36%), social and behavioral sciences (33%), and life sciences (31%).

By the 10-year mark, 54% of the students who entered between 1992 and 2002 had received their doctorates—including 63% of those in life sciences, 56% of those in engineering, 52% of students in the behavioral and social sciences, and 45% of those in the physical sciences. Although no rigorous comparative data exist, the top-line figure—54% appears “pretty close” to the 55% 10-year completion found in an earlier CGS study of the overall graduate student population, DIMAC co-author Hironao Okahana, a research associate at CGS, observed during a webinar for reporters prior to the report’s release.

Women attained higher completion rates and lower attrition rates than men did, with 45% of women earning their degrees, compared to 42% of men. The data also showed that 33% of women dropped out by the 7-year mark, compared to 40% of men. At 7 years, Hispanic/Latino students had higher completion and lower attrition rates than black/African-American students: The authors found that 48% of Hispanic/Latino students had earned their degrees and 35% had left, compared to a 40% completion rate and a 38% attrition rate for black/African-American students. “[R]acial/ethnic differences persist after controlling for the main and interactive effects of gender and field in seven-year completion and attrition,” the authors write.

It would be useful to know why so many minority students left—but because they only surveyed graduates, that question isn’t answered. Other literature, though, addresses this topic. Much of this writing carries the implication that graduate student attrition represents failure, either of the student to master the work or of the institution to enable success. As Okahana observed in the webinar, though, some fields, especially computer technology, offer attractive employment opportunities that may draw students away from graduate school.

A wide range of other motives may cause students to withdraw once they have experienced academic life. For example, some may find scientific research a poor fit with their personal values. Social justice concerns are important to many URM students, as we’ve previously reported, and some may seek fields with an applied human component, such as education, health care, or government work. Economic realities may also come into play for some: The prospect of long, poorly paid grad school and postdoc years followed by uncertain career prospects in a glutted job market may persuade some to seek more lucrative and reliable alternatives. Research shows that the desire to earn a good income and improve their financial status motivates first-generation college students more strongly than it does students with college-educated parents. A substantial portion of those who answered the DIMAC survey appear to fit the profile of first-generation students with limited financial means; 38% have parents who lack college degrees and 44% received Pell grants for undergraduate study, indicating modest family incomes.

Some URM students may find the culture of graduate school uncongenial, especially if they attend institutions with small URM populations either on campus or in the surrounding community. Although very few of those surveyed mentioned overt racism or racial discrimination—certainly good news—a number cited the importance of “fit” with the program, their advisers, their professors, and their peers. Comfort and cultural familiarity may help explain the outstanding ability of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to produce science students who pursue graduate degrees. As we have previously reported, 17 of the 21 schools producing the largest numbers of black students who go on to earn science doctorates are HBCUs. Interestingly, 21% of the students answering the DIMAC survey got their undergraduate degrees from minority-serving institutions, many of them probably HBCUs.

DIMAC allows no sweeping conclusions except that for URM students as for all students, the experience of graduate school is influenced by a host of personal and institutional factors. In addition to its detailed characterizations of URM populations, it offers several recommendations for institutions to improve the experience of URM graduate students. You can read the report here.

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