Minority recruitment in biology

One topic I have been mulling over for a while but have resisted posting on is minority recruitment. Everyone knows that attracting grad school applications to life science programs from minority students is an issue, but the million dollar question is what to do about it. I don't have the answer and it is something I have been banging my head on for a while.

The problem of getting applications, in reality, is an institutional issue. If you look at any success story, such as the UMBC Meyerhoff Scholarship program, two things jump out: A university commitment to attracting and retaining minority faculty, and 2) Putting money towards minority grad student recruitment in the form of scholarships. The good news is that my university is already doing #2 and working aggressively (at least in my college, I can't speak for others) towards improving on #1. However, as it currently stands, we get next to zero (and actually zero last year) minority applicants for the life science graduate programs I am associated with. We have scholarships NOT BEING FILLED because we don't have the applicants. This drives me crazy.

Unfortunately, our college minority recruitment effort is aimed exclusively at undergraduates. When I talked to the individual in charge of this effort, it was clear that they had never considered grad students. The grad school also has someone in charge of minority recruitment, but in after a half hour meeting I was more convinced than ever that the grad school is ineffective in this charge and does not appear to have a strategy beyond "hand out fliers". At all.

So, how does a white male PI recruit minority students to his lab? IME, the only time I have been able to cultivate any interest has been after individual discussions at conferences. Even then, I can't compete with some of the programs that can swoop in and offer more money and a bigger name. The student needs to make the best choice for them and I need to continue to attempt to make my lab an attractive place to minority students. But the catch22 remains - it's hard to foster a diverse lab culture when applicants are so non-diverse. I'm going to see what I can do to help the recruiting effort this fall, so ideas and suggestions would be welcomed.

31 responses so far

  • Matt says:

    One of the things that my uni is doing in order to recruit a more diverse student population is through matriculation agreements with community colleges. We do not have a PhD program in my field (chemistry or in bio, for that matter). But I imagine that one could recruit students from community colleges to finish undergrad at your uni and promise a spot in the grad program commensurate with the proper GPA and undergrad lab experience. Recruiting from community colleges also tries to get at diversity through class and trying to promote social mobility (see analysis of recent Supreme Court decision on Affirmative Action in schools).

  • eeke says:

    Do you live in an area with a very low minority population? The reason I ask this, is that I've known of at least one junior faculty who began a program where post-docs, faculty, etc, go to local high schools to give seminars about their work. The high schools in that area had both african american and hispanic students who made up about 70% of the population. The purpose of such a program is exposing these students to this type of occupation and to the science itself. The teachers and students were also invited back to the labs. The NSF loves this type of thing. If you're having trouble finding and recruiting minority graduate students in your geographic location, the place to start may be high school or earlier.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    eeke, I've been involved in this type of program and there is some return on that for the undergraduate program, but none for the grad program so far.

  • Anonymous says:

    Our graduate program actively seeks out applicants at national meetings geared toward minority students, like ABRCMS and SACNAS. We send admin, faculty and graduate student representatives, and we set up a booth and provide brochures, application info, etc. This has been hugely successful for us. We get the word out about our program, and the prospective students get to ask questions.

  • Heavy says:

    I too have this problem at the grad level but definitely not at the undergrad level where my uni has several large programs. My hope is to retain one of the good undergrads when the time/person is right.

  • Alex says:

    Could I play Devil's Advocate? The blogosphere is full of discussions of how PhD programs are just pyramid schemes and a horrible way to spend your 20's and all that. If, for the sake of argument, there is something valid to those critiques, one should probably pause before adding "How can we get more under-privileged minorities to participate?"

    Mind you, I agree that, as long as there are at least some PhD programs of whatever size, those programs should be more diverse than they are. If an ethical decision has been made concerning the appropriate size and purpose of a program, then the people who train students in that program should seek a diverse cohort of students.

    But I still think we should all pause before following "PhD programs are a pyramid scheme!" with "We need more under-privileged people to participate!"

  • pentahedron says:

    Ask active REU programs to send your pdf advert to their students towards the end of the summer. State that XYZ scholarships are available. Have a responsive person ready to answer questions at the other end of whatever email is listed.

    REUs often have a concentrated pool of URM undergrads and the students are guaranteed to have research experience.

    FWIW I am a URM postdoc and I was recruited to my PhD institution this way.

  • pielcanelaphd says:

    I second the role that the ABRCMS and SACNAS conferences play in the recruitment of talented URM undergraduates. Both of these conferences are well established and attract students that have been involved in research as undergraduates. A lot of graduate schools also visit undergraduate campuses during the fall semester to recruit undergraduates for their programs. There are a number of well established summer research programs that are primarily geared at getting undergraduates from diverse backgrounds to pursue graduate degrees, and these may also be good to tap. My experience has been that almost every URM graduate student and postdoc I've met participated in research programs such as MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) as undergraduates (myself included), so you may want to reach out to the program directors of any surrounding schools that offer the MARC program (and perhaps offer to give a talk).

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Thanks for the suggestions, those are helpful.

  • Aaron says:

    The NIH MARC programs are designed to help minorities into biology PhD programs and are looking for good matches for their students. I'm sure these directors would love to hear from you: http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Training/MARC/PartInstUSTAR.htm

  • Hermitage says:

    Does your school send people to recruit at minority-oriented conferences (e.g. NSBE/SHPE, which are not all engineering!)? Some of the most low-effort, high-reward stuff I've seen is getting ahold of emails from organizations like NSBE/SHPE and sending pseudo-personalized emails inviting people to apply. Similarly, engaging with any HBCUs in the area, or similarly minority-heavy schools, for any email lists they may have could be helpful.

    Alex, read http://chronicle.com/article/Does-Blanket-Dont-Go-to/138537/

  • becca says:

    Don't offer scholarships at the department/university level.

    Or at least, only offer recruitment sign-up bonuses, travel support, or other types of top-offs. That is, minority students must get the regular stipend in addition to extra money. Why? Well, if PIs don't have skin in the game, the students don't finish. People value what they pay for. Most PIs, however well intentioned, will still have implicit biases. They will still perceive minority students as less talented than white students, and from what I've seen (and what the data on social psychology says), getting something "for free" results in valuing it less.

    Speaking of travel awards, there might be something to be said for offering to your minority undergrads support for going to conferences. Because if that's how *you* find it easiest to meet people to recruit, there are probably other PIs in that position as well. I think it'd be nice if you can structure it to allow them to go without having to present results at the conference (note that presenting your *approach* and *hypothesis* is very valuable at the undergrad level, but gating "who gets to go to conferences" on "who has results" reinforces good luck and possibly Privilege, and is likely to skew things oddly for undergrads especially... if conferences could have special sessions for undergrads, this could help address the issue, but barring that I'd be careful how I structured the selection criteria for travel funds).

    Keep in mind, minority recruitment efforts without minority retention and completion efforts may strike some as... suspect. From what I know of the pipeline problems, there's work to be done at all stages.

    As an aside- business, law and medicine do have an easier time recruiting minorities than grad schools. Part of this is the money per se, but I think another factor is the legibility of the career path. The fewer people you know who succeed in a type of career, the more important it may be that the career path is something you can plan for. Bioscience leaves much to be desired on this front these days, and it's perhaps even trickier for NSF type stuff than NIH type stuff.

  • pentahedron says:

    @becca "They will still perceive minority students as less talented than white students, and from what I've seen (and what the data on social psychology says), getting something "for free" results in valuing it less."

    I did not encounter this view as a PhD student and such a reaction by a PI has not been my personal experience. Every PI and collaborator I've had was extremely happy that I was able to cover my own stipend, receive minority travel grants to conferences, etc considering the current funding climate.

    I don't believe that PIs value fellowship holders less, be it funding from NIH, NSF, UNCF or wherever; from the PI perspective money is money. Admittedly, I did not attend a school in the deep south of the US where prejudices may be more pronounced in the academic realm but I certainly would not consider this view typical. Within my own experience, URM students tend to simply assume academia does not want them, and the effort of publicizing full fellowships and attending URM research meetings is often enough to get through the idea that, "hey, maybe I could do this".

    I do agree that more funding for URM undergrads to attend conferences would be beneficial.

  • drugmonkey says:

    really becca? really?

  • Call me, or someone like me. I'm not kidding. Find colleagues at schools filled with URM students and ask for their best.

    Get them to work in your lab with a grad student for a summer while they're still undergrads. Build relationships.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    This is going to be somewhat complicated. Recruiting, as in everything else, is networking. The first thing you need to do is find places which have reasonable undergraduate programs and substantial numbers of URMs, hopefully near you. Then you have to find the people in those places who have some sort of clue about reality (and believe Eli, at a lot of places reality, esp wrt research, is a far off planet and there are few commuters).

    Then you have to give those people a stake in the game, whether that means working with you on some research or outreach project, a role in a grant you have or whatever. Even better if they bring a student with them. Then you have to close your eyes and make a leap of faith. You have to say to them, if you have a student you think could do well here, we will accept your recommendation. Period. The first step should be a summer research program until you get comfortable with each other. REUs are a big deal for CCs or NRHU (non research habituated universities) students. If you get a URM student from one of those places, make sure your colleague gets the end of summer poster that she can put up next to her office. Give the kid an extra copy to give to his mom. Make sure you go there in the Fall and talk about the work that was done. etc. And don't stop just because it takes time to build that relationship.

    Everyone knows about what is going on at those meetings. No one is less than fully cynical about them. Think out of the box.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I have mechanisms for summer funding of students, which could facilitate working students into the mix if I can find the right candidates. But yes, I think taking the route of developing a pipeline with a local institution might be a really good start.

  • Your university needs to hook up with Alberto Roca at http://www.minoritypostdoc.org/. You can't wait for the talent to come to you. You have to go to them and actively recruit and this guy has an amazing database of talent.

  • bashir says:

    One thing we considered was trying to form connections with HBCUs or other minority serving schools. At one point I just proposed emailing a guy and Morehouse and asking if I could give a talk.

  • becca says:

    pentahedron- Oh don't get me wrong, I've never met a PI who SAYS this applies to them! I've also never met a person who has told me they buy McDonalds only because they saw a commercial on the superbowl. Yet McDonalds continues to buy ad spots...
    I think students and postdocs actually tend to value fellowships *more* than being paid from a grant, EVEN WHEN institutional policies are such that fellowships mean LESS money in their pocket, LESS healthcare coverage, LESS security in retirement, or LESS long term salary. EVEN WHEN their own personality is such that they won't exercise any additional 'freedom' from having "their own" funding. Such is the power of labeling something "prestigious". I don't know that this is an URM issue in particular, but sometimes the fellowship Emperor has considerably fewer adornments than are commonly attributed to him.

    DM- really. I see no reason PIs in particular are exempt from social psychology. Read up on your Dan Ariely. http://web.mit.edu/ariely/www/MIT/Papers/zero.pdf Remember, humans are not rational. Scientists are humans. Ergo...

    If the "people value what they pay for" principle were intuitive to me, I wouldn't mention it. It's something I've learned during grad school, when I've seen up close PIs who really do post-hoc rationalizations for why a student they had to pay more for is worth the investment. It's a part of the reason I feel as strongly as I do about unpaid internships, actually. You should have seen how incredibly ungracious my normally extremely mild mannered post doc PI was with the college grad volunteer...

  • MLK says:

    I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately. And am convinced we need to float the whole boat higher in order to make any noticeable difference in underserved populations enrolling in graduate schools, let alone, becoming successful scientists in our respective disciplines. In other words, we need to encourage and promote meaningful scientific interactions in underserved communities as early as possible- high school at the latest. We do this by providing scientific interactions that are meaningful and relevant to them. To reach them, we must first let them fit our science into their world before trying to make them fit into our science world. It is going to take creativity and altruistic outreach. Maybe the young person you spark an interest in comes to your lab, maybe they come to mine… either way, we should count it as a win and do our best to increase enrollment, retention and success for underserved populations that likely have no role model or example other than what is portrayed in the media about the beautiful utility of scientific pursuit. In our R01 worlds we don’t necessarily have time to do this ourselves but we can team up with creative high school science teachers and give them tools, resources, and some of our time to help them generate that spark. For instance, I absolutely love this program by Columbia University in the Bronx:


  • Eli Rabett says:

    Bashir, the better thing is to find someone at Morehouse (for example) who is/has done interesting things and inviting them to give a talk at your place. Or, if there is a good CC in your area, invite someone to talk with the Undergraduate Ed committee to discuss things you can do together and LISTEN to them don't talk at them. Think out of the box.

  • Anon says:

    I couldn't agree more with becca! (And trust me, there have been times that I don't, but on this she is spot on.) I've seen this phenomenon in my time in grad school, too. And it has nothing to do with URM. I've seen students with outside fellowships get put on the "side projects" that their advisors couldn't get funding for. I'm sure it's done with the best of intentions, but when the pressure is on and the funding agencies that are actually giving these folks money expect progress, who do you think gets ignored? No, it can actually be a bad thing to have a prestigious fellowship in grad school and be "free" to your advisor. Don't do it to URM -- they have it tough enough as it is.

  • pentahedron says:


    In contrast, I find the typical PI reaction to a student receiving an outside fellowship to be, "this student is a real go-getter and is deserving of my scarce mentoring time".

    Fellowships are a URM issue in that such students may be less likely to commit to attend grad school without a certain level of guaranteed income due to family/other responsibilities, etc.

  • becca says:

    Anon- I think the net effect of a fellowship *is* usually a bit more freedom to pursue high risk/high reward projects. It's just that the skills of being a "go getter" to obtain a grad student fellowship (often related to GPA or test scores) have precious little to do with being wise enough to know what projects are most likely to pan out for you. I'm not sure many PIs really have correct insights into what projects are likely to pan out, let alone what students are likely to succeed, but they definitely have different insights than grad students. Sometimes not being biased by "that can't work" can work for the grad student, but sometimes not.
    The good news from the social psychology studies is that "free" is a special price. You get different behaviors from a $0.01 price tag than from "free". So it may be you could skew the incentives simply by requiring PIs to cough up a tiny percentage of the actual costs.

    @pentahedron- most of the grad programs I was looking at guaranteed a minimal amount of income for a number of years to every student. When you were making decisions about where to apply, you usually weren't savvy enough to reflect on the practical differences having an outside fellowship could make. And, in practice, I found to my surprise (and dismay, truth be told) that some people who were on fellowship for a while actually had a harder time when the fellowship ran out. It was like PIs budgeted for all fellowship students to get done in 5 years, despite them working on higher risk projects. So, in practice, I think fellowships can mean less of a sure thing for students.
    If we are talking about a program that does *not* guarantee funding, then yes, I agree URM fellowships at the department/university level are wise. But, in the context of guaranteed funding, I think it can be wise to expect some level of contribution from the PI.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Grad students aren't free, even if their stipends are covered. I typically have to budget about $1K/mo/student for reagents and consumables. The fellowships available here do not come with that kind of money attached for research. Not even close.

    Again, there may be a cultural difference in investment between the Biomed world where labs tend to run larger than the NSFers out there. I can't afford (literally and figuratively) to let any of my students float around unfocused or without advice. I have had several students on different fellowships, and even in retrospect, I didn't invest my time according to whether my hard won cash was paying them or not. The ethnic background of the students would play no more role than where the money was coming from. I need people to do good work, get papers out and give good talks. Their funding source means little to me.

  • Anon says:

    @becca: "Sometimes not being biased by "that can't work" can work for the grad student, but sometimes not." I would venture to say that the number of times that this works for a grad student is *vastly* outnumbered by the times that it doesn't. Sometimes, you can win the lottery, but most of the time, people don't. And counting on winning the lottery as a way to fund your retirement is a pretty stupid strategy, IMHO -- just as counting on any sole high risk/high reward scheme would be. No, the best way to prepare for the future is to have a diversified portfolio, and that is exactly the best strategy when it comes to research projects in grad school, too. And your best chance of making sure you are always on your advisor's radar is to work on the things that are central to his/her lab -- those projects for which he/she had to fight so dearly for to get funded.

    @PLS: I know several pre-tenure PIs who think that, too. I also know that the view from their lab peeps is quite different. In one case, one PI came dangerously close to losing a student who thought that after almost 4 yrs he was getting nowhere, even though the PI kept telling him he was doing excellent work. This student still does not have a single paper out, BTW. The PI has written papers (in some cases, 2 or 3 for the same student) for almost everyone else in the group -- because they are essential for *his* grant renewals, etc. All I'm saying is that when push comes to shove, PIs look after themselves first, and the sooner grad students make peace with this and understand that they are the ones that need to look out for themselves, too, the better off they'll be.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Anon, WTF does that have to do with where the money comes from? No, I don't put people on fellowships on unfunded projects, I let them choose their interests, just like everyone else. So far it works out that I have a good balance o people working on funded and unfunded projects without regard for where their money comes from. The work gets done and the people get papers.

  • Anon says:

    OK PLS, I get it: in your lab, no one is ever unhappy, and everyone gets as much of you as they want regardless of how crucial their project is to your own personal success. Happy? Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case with most labs (both NIH and NSF) that I'm familiar with. In those circumstances, where the money comes from seems to be directly linked to how invested (literally and figuratively) the PI is in the success of the project. When all of it comes directly from the PI, for some reason, the students are more productive (in terms of papers, talks, etc.). Students with fellowships tend to wind up on the riskier (and often less thought out) projects, and all I'm saying is that this is not the basket in which you want to put all of your eggs in grad school. If you want URM students to succeed in grad school, it seems safer to let them be hand-picked and fully supported by the PI from the start.

    Oh, and that student I mentioned upthread, he's the only one in that lab with a fellowship (which is about to run out) -- go figure! O.c., it might just be a coincidence, except that I've seen the same thing happen to others in other labs before. Is it really that hard to imagine that PIs might prioritize certain projects over others, especially in response to external pressures? Again, I'm sure that when the students are put on these projects the PI has every intention of fully supporting them. It's just that somehow, it doesn't seem to work out that way.... Would be interesting to compare outcomes of people with and without fellowships in labs over time.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Is it possible to support every student in the lab the same way at all times? No. But it's rare that all students need the same thing at the same time. The way I run my lab is we have several projects that people can get into and funding for X bodies. There is not necessarily a direct correlation between who is getting paid from a particular source and what project they are working on. There is also no direct correlation between people on fellowships and people working on projects that have reporting requirements.

    THEREFORE, this idea that people on fellowships are working on side projects and people being paid off a grant are given all the resources to get shit done so I can look good, holds no water. Labs are run differently and anecdata are just that.

  • I find it ironic that a post about recruiting minority students quickly devolves, into the comments, about the distribution of money in the lab.

    This reads, to me, that the way of increasing diversity in a lab is to add new minority students with new funds. One will take minority students on if they bring their own money, but otherwise, one will stick with the current applicant pool.

    If you want to diversify, you don't need more money. You need to find the good students that are out there and get them into your lab. If you have students now, then you can have students that are from underrepresented backgrounds just as easily. No additional funds required.

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