Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Stephen Thomas (left, in hat, leading a workshop) works on diversity issues in STEM.

The Maryland Center for Health Equity

A sense of belonging matters. That’s why academic culture needs to change

For science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduate students from underrepresented groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities and women, a sense of belonging—or lack thereof—can have a concrete effect on a crucial career component: their publication records. That’s the result of a study published earlier this month, which sheds light on the reasons behind previously documented disparities in publishing rates and indicates how institutions’ structures and cultures bear part of the responsibility.

Female and minority graduate students published the same number of papers as their white male peers when they felt accepted by their mentors and peers, had clear departmental expectations, and felt prepared for their graduate classes, based on a survey of 341 graduate students pursuing physical science, computer science, mathematics, and engineering degrees at four universities in California. What this tells us, says Aaron Fisher, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the lead author of the study, is that the reason some students have lower productivity is because of their experience “being an outsider—being a minority—in an environment that was designed by and for the majority.”

The findings put a spotlight on cultural issues in academia that need to be addressed, says Stephen Thomas, the director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland in College Park, who works on diversity issues in STEM but wasn’t involved in the new study. “I came up at a time when I was the first or only black student in my doctorate program, first or only [black] assistant professor in the tenure track, first or only tenured black faculty member,” Thomas says. “I came through that. But the scholars I’m training now, they don't want to be first. They don't want to go to institutions that don’t get it.”

Science Careers spoke with Thomas—who also serves as the associate director of the mentor training core at the National Institutes of Health’s National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN)—about his thoughts on the paper’s findings and what he thinks can be done to foster better institutional cultures in STEM. The discussion was edited for clarity and length.

Q: What’s your general reaction to the paper?

A: I found it quite fascinating that one of the areas that they highlight is psychological distress and how structure and a sense of belonging can be a pathway to success. It might be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re already perceived as less than and if you believe that—if you internalize that—then you will be less than.

Q: Why do you think students were more productive, and had a greater feeling of belonging in STEM, when they had clear departmental expectations?

A: I think it helps everybody, but especially minorities and women. Their social networks may not be as connected, so they may be less likely to be “in the know” when there’s an expectation that’s not written down.

For example, if a Ph.D. program requires that students submit a certain number of papers for publication before they graduate, then that should be explicit. If students know that’s an expectation, then they don't feel like they’re on the outs and that others have inside information that they don't have.

But it’s not enough to simply improve documentation. I think it's far more subtle, far more nuanced, than that. The structure must have a heart. And it has to be accompanied by other efforts to improve institutional culture.

Q: What are other parts of academic culture that you see as problematic?

A: Our young scholars need mentors that are advocates. Unfortunately, I have met many scholars who don’t have mentors; they have tormentors. Harassers. Psychological bullies. Some view that as a way to toughen young scholars up. But it’s also a form of abuse, in my opinion.

Stephen Thomas

The Maryland Center for Health Equity

Many senior scholars came through systems like that; they came through gauntlets. And if they made it through the gauntlet they were good enough. Now, as mentors, many of them operate using that same system, seeing that as the only way to build the next generation. That may well be fine when they’re dealing with white males or people who look like them or come from similar backgrounds. But when they’re dealing with racial and ethnic minorities and people who are the first generation in their families to graduate from college, that hazing—I’ll call it hazing, the gauntlet—is very, very oppressive.

Q: Your work with the NRMN involves doing hands-on mentor training with senior scientists. What’s the goal with that?

A: We’re training mentors to become more culturally aware. Some say, “I don’t need mentor training because I’ve been doing this for 40 years.” But it’s needed because senior faculty are now seeing young scholars coming through who don't look like them and who don't look like the Ph.D. cohort when they came through.

I think that many white males feel that they’re walking on eggshells when they’re dealing with issues of women and minorities. They’re afraid they are going to say something that offends someone and they kind of shut down. So when you do this kind of training, you’ve got to have facilitators who know how to make it OK for people to open up.

Q: What’s something that mentors can do to connect with mentees, even if they don’t look like them or share the same background?

A: It’s important to not be afraid to share your own vulnerabilities. For example, a faculty member told me that when he shared with his students that he had epilepsy—so that they weren't alarmed if something happened in the classroom—the minority students seemed to open up a bit more. They connected with him—not along issues of race, but around the fact that he’s had struggles too. He showed the students that just because he’s a white male, it doesn’t mean he’s had a cakewalk.

Many of my faculty colleagues feel uncomfortable disclosing vulnerabilities. Senior faculty have to recognize that one of the ways to change the culture, to break down the preconceived barriers, is to open up and share personal stories and experiences. In the end, for the mentees it doesn’t matter if their mentor looks like them. What matters is: Do they care?

Q: What kind of advice do you give young scholars who are from underrepresented groups?

A: I tell them that, yes, there is unfairness; yes, there is bias; yes, there is racism, structural discrimination—all those things are real. But you have to work to make connections with people.

That means that you can’t just lock your door and get your papers published—meanwhile, nobody knows you. This comes back to the whole sense of belonging. I belong because Sally down the hall can tell you what I do.

You should also find a peer group that you can open up with about personal struggles. If you’re alone, it’s easy for feelings of self-doubt to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if you’re in a place where there’s a critical mass of people going through what you’re going through and you have what I’ll call a brave space to talk about what’s going on—“I don't feel welcome,” for instance—then that can be really helpful.

Q: The article was, in part, about the number of papers students publish. Do you have any advice on that front?

A: Yes, I do. I’ve noticed that many young scholars are sitting on their work, waiting for perfection. They hold onto their work much too long in an attempt to get it into a high-impact journal. I tell scholars I’m mentoring that you cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is a cumulative process; you’re building a track record. What’s most important is that you get your work out there.

I’ve also noticed that women and minority scholars are more likely to want to get that full picture and less likely to want to publish little snippets as they go. There’s a balance. You don’t want to get in a mode of slicing your work too thinly. But there’s a reason slicing and dicing works. Each paper needs to tell one story, not six. So, it’s important to understand how you can segment your research in ways that help you tell individual stories and keep you productive.

I also highly encourage young scholars to send their publications to the very authors that they have cited, for instance by sending an email that says something along the lines of, “I thought you might find this article important. I cited your work.” Then those authors are aware of your work and they begin to cite you. You cannot assume that everyone’s doing a comprehensive literature review and that they’ll find your work. You have to get your work out there and be your own publicist, in a sense.

Senior people know the game. They cite each other; they build each other’s credibility in that way. If you’re an outsider trying to break in, you simply may not be aware of ways in which those that have keep having.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers