Ph.D. candidates who belong to underrepresented minority (URM) ethnic groups are about half as likely to submit research for publication as their non-URM male counterparts. That’s according to a survey of students in various physical sciences and engineering disciplines at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, one of the nation’s largest producers of doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The survey also identified a smaller gap between non-URM men and women of all ethnicities, echoing a recent study showing that female first-year biology Ph.D. students are less likely than men to publish after spending the same number of hours in the lab. When it comes to increasing diversity in STEM, says lead author Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a UC Berkeley social psychology professor, “it’s not just doctoral completion that matters, but the opportunities that departments provide to emerge from their programs with publications. … This is the work that leads to a professorship.”
The conclusions come with some caveats. The sample is small, and the data were initially collected as part of a broad mentorship program, not to investigate disparities between specific groups, so some questions can’t be answered. Nonetheless, the results provide a reminder that data-driven approaches are needed to address science’s lack of diversity, says Frances Hellman, dean of the mathematical and physical sciences division at UC Berkeley. (Her predecessor, Mark Richards, is an author on the paper.) “This university is filled with programs trying to help minorities and women in STEM fields,” she says. “We have to focus in on what actually helps, and this [study] gives us a starting point.”
The authors also found that minority students were less likely to be encouraged to publish by faculty members in their department, according to graduate student exit surveys dating back to 1998. This finding squares with previous work showing that minority students were less likely to say that advisers respected their ideas or promoted their professional development, including with respect to publishing.
The authors were limited, however, in how deeply they could investigate questions of racial or gender gaps in publishing. The surveys contain no information, for instance, about how often students published or the prestige of their publications. The new work also lumps together different ethnicities. And Mendoza-Denton’s team did not consider the consequences of being both a woman and a minority, though they plan to explore this potential “double whammy” of discrimination in a future analysis. “There are a lot nuances to consider,” says David Feldon, a psychologist at Utah State University in Logan, who points out that it would also be useful to account for which students are international in this type of analysis.
But Feldon believes the fundamental claims of the new work. And even in light of the study’s limitations, Hellman says that those looking for ways to address disparities could find inspiration in a bright spot that turned up: In chemistry, women and minorities fared just as well as, if not better than, their classmates in both surveys.
Why that is, however, remains an open question. Chemistry could, as a discipline, have a different approach to publishing, for instance. Mendoza-Denton has his own hypothesis. He has noticed that UC Berkeley’s chemistry department has more official mechanisms in place to support its students. For instance, administrators regularly contact faculty members about their students’ performance. “Chemistry has a very structured program in which the students are not allowed to fall through the cracks, but picked up and redirected towards positive productive roads,” he says. “It highlights the importance of creating an environment where there is an expectation that everyone is going to publish.”