UNC Health Talk

Closing the Diversity Gap

Broadening diversity in the scientific workforce has been an official policy of the National Institute of Health (NIH) for decades, yet the percentage of underrepresented minority scientists who hold faculty positions today is still well below the percentage of minorities in the general population. Compounding the problem, the number of students entering PhD-level science training programs has increased while the number of tenure track academic positions has stagnated.

A new study led by UNC researchers and published in a special edition of CBE-Life Sciences Education, showed that between 2004 and 2014 nearly two-thirds of newly minted PhDs chose employment outside academic science. According to detailed surveys, their reasons for leaving academia had little to do with advice they received from faculty advisors, other scientific mentors, family, or even graduate school peers.

The 3,669 PhDs, including 225 from underrepresented minority backgrounds, said that they made the decision to stay or leave academia primarily on their own. Reasons included a desire for autonomy, leadership roles, prestige, high salaries, work variety, and opportunities for their partner.

The study authors, led by UNC’s Rebekah Layton, PhD, wanted a closer look at the decision-making process of recent PhDs, especially the underrepresented minority students.

“We expected job prospects and market conditions to be strong factors, but we were startled by how little influence the advice of academic mentors, families, or friends seemed to matter to graduates,” Layton said. “In fact, endorsement of faculty advisors or other mentor influences, as well as family or peer influence, were surprisingly rare.”

“We were startled by how little influence the advice of academic mentors, families, or friends seemed to matter to graduates,”

The researchers concluded that formal and informal support networks for PhDs could provide an opportunity to support trainees who want to stay in faculty career paths. In addition to faculty advisors, examples of this could include informal mentors, campus career centers, or peer support networks.

Here at UNC, professional development and career coaching opportunities are available through the Office of Graduate Education, the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, and Career Services. Furthermore, student support networks are formally supported though student groups such as the Initiative for Maximizing Diversity (IMSD) Program, Women in Science (WinS), and the Academic and Research Intensive Career (ARIC) Association.

“We believe that if there were more support networks across the country, then more students, especially underrepresented minorities, would seize opportunities in academia and become leaders in their chosen fields,” Layton said. “This could help close the gap between the percentage of underrepresented minorities in academic science and the general public.”

Along with Layton, who is the director of Training Initiatives in Biological and Biomedical Sciences (TIBBS) in the Office of Graduate Education in the UNC School of Medicine, other authors include Primary Investigator Melanie Sinche, NCC, formerly of the Labor & Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and currently with The Jackson Laboratory, and UNC collaborators Patrick D. Brandt, PhD, Ashalla M. Freeman, PhD, Jessica R. Harrell, PhD, and Joshua D. Hall, PhD, all of the UNC Office of Graduate Education.