Adam Burgasser shares thoughts and experiences on recruiting diverse graduate students in UCSD workshop

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On April 21st, the Division of Social Sciences at UCSD held a panel discussion on Recruiting a Diverse Graduate Student Pool, which included Adam Burgasser, Frances Contreras from the Department of Education Studies and Antonio DeMaio from the School of Medicine. Adam spoke on the efforts of the UCSD Physics Department to increase diversity in its graduate program.

Physics has a long road toward equity, with only 2% and 3% of Physics PhDs being conferred to African Americans and Hispanic Americans, and only 19% of Physics PhDs going to women. One tool toward improving these numbers and those of faculty and STEM professionals is to recruit, train, support and retain a diverse graduate population.

In the workshop, Adam advocated the perspective that graduate recruitment is just one link in the chain for diversifying the graduate and professional population. In addition, departments must address disparities at admissions, the “courting” phase for diverse admits, and professional support for these students from acceptance through graduation. Attention to each of these steps is necessary if graduate students from all backgrounds are to both matriculate and succeed.

Here’s an incomplete list of tactics that may be useful at each of these stages:

Recruitment: Diverse students will apply only if they know of your program, so bringing in diverse students (particularly from minority serving institutions – MSIs) through summer research programs (e.g., NSF REU, APS Bridge) is an important way to build bridges.  Visibility and leadership in the community, such as organizing sessions in diversity conferences (SACNAS, NSBP, NSHP), and partnering with faculty in MSIs can cement trust.  In Physics, we must also fight the stereotype that Physics doesn’t lead to a “real job”, so educating students about careers as a physicist (particularly in industry) is crucial. Finally, because the GRE remains a barrier in admissions (see next paragraph), encouraging students to participate in, and hosting, GRE Bootcamps such as those run by CPAPC can prepare and engage diverse students.

Admissions: The biggest stumbling block in the admission process is often the admissions committee itself, typically a group of overcommitted faculty who have little motivation to do more than sort a spreadsheet by GRE and GPA.  Moreover, these committees often approach admissions from an exclusionary (“who do we cut?”) rather than an inclusionary (“who do we want?”) perspective; the former is prone to exclude traditionally underrepresented students.  Educating committees on the social science research demonstrating how and why high-stakes testing is biased against minority groups and women (include ETS’s own research on the topic) is necessary.  Moreover, developing rubrics for evaluating students based on metrics that actually track graduate success, such as preparation and perseverance, can reduce the barrier to including these characteristics in admissions decisions. Making diverse perspectives a specific metric of excellence (which it is!) will naturally increase the diversity of the admitted student pool. Perhaps the most important tactic, however, is to make sure the admissions committee itself is diverse in background and approach; relying on a single gatekeeper to pare down the list is likely to reinforce a monolithic admissions pool.

Courting: Drawing a diverse admissions pool is one thing; assuring that they will be there in the Fall means playing ball. At this stage, it is the applicants that have the power of choice, so don’t be cheap, particularly with students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Assure that you have funding to bring all of your admittees out for a campus visit.  When they do visit, be sure to showcase the support networks that exist in your department and on campus; student unions are helpful here.  Financial aid packages can also have an outsized effect on recruiting these students; consider fellowships that recognize those that overcame barriers or enhance the diversity of the department (Proposition 209 is often cited as preventing specific awards based on race or gender in California, although to my knowledge that has not been tested in court). Finally, communicate often. Graduate school is a big step for any student, and more so for students who face 4-6 more years as part of a minority group, whether or not they are in their current institution.

Follow-through: A successful recruitment is only good if you keep your recruit, so a practice of graduate tracking, faculty responsibility for graduate success, and intervention is essential.  Start early by offering a summer program in advance of their first year that includes research and a physics “preboot” – an opportunity to fill in any gaps in their undergraduate education ahead of graduate exams and courses. You can greatly facilitate their success (and the prestige of your department) by making sure admitees also apply for fellowship funding, particularly the NSF GRFP, something they may not have been aware of at their former institution.  Make sure students have mentors that will stay with them throughout their graduate career; these should not be the faculty member advising them in their research. Finally, a comprehensive tracking system for students should be part of any graduate program, as it can help identify problems early before they upend a student’s trajectory.  The Fisk/Vanderbilt program has an excellent toolkit for this.

Importantly, these tactics aren’t just useful for underrepresented students; they can improve the recruitment, conversion and retention rates for all graduate students in your program.

That being said, not all of the tactics departments employ (including these!) have been research-validated. Often, anecdotes and “this worked last year”, combined with small number statistics, may be used to justify practices that actually have little impact.  This problem suggests a potentially fruitful collaboration between the physical and social sciences in addressing one of our country’s most pressing needs, a diverse and well-trained scientific workforce.



  1. […] etc., and it’s difficult to be rejected by the vast majority of them.) As one more example, Adam Burgasser, a faculty in my department at UCSD, has worked with social scientists recently to better recruit […]

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