Recruiting and Retaining Minorities into Your PhD Program

By David  J. Ernst

Dacid Ernst

David  J. Ernst

What is the best way to recruit minority students into a PhD program and to maximize the number of such students who succeed at obtaining a PhD? The observations in this article are gained from many years of experience. They are not a result of any study; they are things learned through trial and error. Moreover, much that is put forward here is relevant to recruiting and retaining students in general. My personal experience is one that had a focus on domestic minorities as well as students from Latin America.

This article is also not directed toward the top few elite institutions, although many of the thoughts here could possibly be useful to them. The very elite institutions already receive an adequate number of applications from students who, on paper, look absolutely excellent. The question then is how to select the “best” when the evidence to distinguish between perfect applicants is very limited. Here, the interest is in a Research I institution that wants to increase the number of high-quality students applying, in how to identify the “best,” and then in how to retain as many as possible all the way through to receiving a PhD.

Before starting the process of recruiting and admitting, one must define what one means by “best”. Simply having the computer rank the students by grades, by general GRE’s, by physics GRE scores, or a combination of these, does not yield my definition of best students, if the best students are defined as those who will complete the PhD degree and then be the most successful both in and outside of academia. Full weight must be given to success outside of academia where the majority of your students are headed; a student who gets rich in industry and donates money back to your department is indeed a great success. My experience tells me quite clearly that numbers are not a very reliable indicator of this long term view of success.

The students of interest here are not the students who have the very high numbers, are energetic, curious, hard-working, likable, and work well with others. Most departments admit students who are less than perfect in some aspect and nobody bats a thousand in only selecting students who do ultimately receive a PhD. The question is how do you determine, in the real world, who are the best to admit and how do you increase your efficiency by increasing your success rate? Given the need for US citizens by some industries and labs, and given the declining interest within the US in science and engineering, all should be interested in identifying and recruiting the “best” students from among a pool whose size is insufficient to meet our national needs.

You wish to recruit minority students into your program. What is the first thing you should do? You have to go out and meet the students. Minorities in the US are, on average, much more people oriented than the average American. They rely on personal contact, on knowing the people with whom they work. I learned quickly while living in Mexico that to do business with someone, you first sat down and had a coffee or a beer and learned about the person and their family. This holds true, to some extent, for the US Hispanic community and for the US African-American community. Personal relationships are very important to people in a community where you rely heavily on each other. Given this culture, it is most important that the recruiter go out, meet, and get to know the student. Sending out posters, e-mails, and other impersonal efforts are good but will prove insufficient.

In the US, it is possible to meet a large fraction of the minority students interested in a PhD in physics, astronomy, and related fields. First, the number of such students is unfortunately pretty small. The US is producing only tens of PhD’s each year who are African-American or Hispanic. Second, there are two meetings each year where many of the likely students will be in attendance. These are the Annual Meeting of the Society for Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and the Joint Annual Meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP). Both of these meetings are very student-oriented. However, NSHP is very active in the organization of the meetings so that physics students will find a full program of interest to them.

The NSBP/NSHP meeting is an interesting combination of a professional society, a research focused meeting, and a meeting for students with many student support activities. It has the advantage of being a physics meeting, with physics very broadly defined to include astronomy, geophysics, acoustics, optics, etc, in addition to the traditional physics subdisciplines. If you wish to meet minority students, attend these meetings, get a booth at these meetings.

Will that be sufficient? No. You need to meet and actively engage with the students at the meetings. Get involved, be a judge, organize a session, and definitely participate in all the mentoring activities that are organized at these meetings. Get involved in the organizations themselves, since the recruiter who is on the inside has an advantage over the recruiter from the outside. You also need to attend each year. Meeting them more than once can have a significant effect.

There are two APS meetings that now have special undergraduate student programs, the Nuclear Division meeting and the April Meeting. There are two section meetings, the meeting of the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society (SESAPS) and the Texas Section of the American Physical Society (TSAPS) that have strong involvement of NSBP and NSHP in their organization. Any meeting with undergraduate participation is good for recruiting. Be sure to give recruiting some priority, be a judge, get involved. Don’t give your “to be famous paper” and not take the time to search out students and let them know what your program has to offer. Don’t wait for the students to come to you; do your best to seek out the students.

You must also recruit for the entire department. Far too often, faculty are looking only for the student who will work with them. If all faculty recruit for the entire department, the probability becomes large that a student with an interest in your work will be identified by someone and then you become the proactive, personal recruiter.

Now that you have met students and they have applied for your program, how do you decide whom to admit? I am not able to describe in a quantitative way those things that influence me to support a student for admission. Great work habits, curiosity, an ability to work in a group situation, and communication skills are some of the things to look for in addition to having the mental ability to work on complex problems. I, and my partners at Fisk and Vanderbilt, rely on intuition, on spotting a combination of traits in the students that convince us that the student can and will succeed. It is difficult to convince physicists of something that is so unscientific, but, having done the experiment over many years and many students, the results prove that a careful use of one’s intuition can be quite reliable. The student needs to be one whose numbers might not indicate that the student will succeed. Those you find with great numbers don’t really need any extra support. Fight to get this student admitted and when the student’s performance far exceeds the expectation predicted by numbers, you have made the first significant step. Do tell the student that they are breaking new ground and that they are laying a path for others. Let the subsequent students know that they are maintaining a precedent and that their success is very important to you and the department. The challenge and the realization that they are a part of something larger is a great motivator.

Some students will enter the system and move on quite smoothly on their own. But you have identified students who did not look perfect on paper. This may translate into “they may not be the perfect student and may need some assistance to move through the system.” Not all undergraduate degrees provide an adequate background to survive your program’s course requirements. For these students, the program must be willing to allow the student to fill in background. Remember, the goal is the long term success of the student, not instant production of research for an advisor. If you recruited the student, it is your responsibility to make sure the student takes appropriate courses

Another common situation is simply that the student is not good at juggling the academic demands along with the demands of life in general. Some assistance in managing the everyday situation they face is sometimes needed. The students may require very hands-on proactive mentoring. This is not easy to provide. First, it takes time. Second, students, in general, are not comfortable telling faculty about their problems. Sometimes, the faculty must take the lead and poke their nose into the student’s life in order to sniff out the existence of a problem. The missing skills may not be academic. The skills that teach them how to navigate the graduate program, are also those that will help them succeed afterwards. The students must be made aware that they too have entered into a contract. Their commitment is to work hard, to listen to advice, and to learn not only physics but to learn how better to succeed.

Can an individual have an impact and succeed in pursuing such a program? First, you should honestly examine the graduate program and the attitude and atmosphere at your institution. If your department runs a sink or swim graduate program and is happy with the present split between sinkers and swimmers, you probably should start with an effort to change the attitude within the department. Since the goal is to improve the quality and throughput of your graduate program, a cohort of like-minded faculty should be possible. Personally, this worked for me on the individual level for twenty-five years. The level of success was roughly a student per year. To work at this level, a vast majority of the students did not do their thesis with me. No rewards from the university were expected nor were they forthcoming. Being done at the one-on-one year-by-year level, I don’t believe I would have been even able to articulate all that was involved.

About five years ago, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters to PhD Bridge Program was started (see This program is based on the thoughts put forward above. It has the advantage that the students do not have to make the transition from their bachelor’s program to the Research I graduate PhD program, but can start in the Master’s program at Fisk University and then end up in the Vanderbilt PhD program. The transition is thus first to a small, friendly, personal Master’s program and then to the Vanderbilt PhD program that is, in my opinion, more student-oriented than most, with an intense mentoring program to help along the way.  

Having a formal program in place has many advantages. The recruiting is done by a group, the mentoring is done by a group. Having a program means we were able to get support–real money, tuition waivers, staff support from the universities involved. Originally, the program got extra money added to grants whose focus was research. Once in place and with a track record, the program can become the focus of a grant while continuing to be a positive addition to a number of other grants. Money is needed for a program, and money helps gain support from your fellow faculty and the administration. Having your university not only support the program but feature it and brag about it also helps the program succeed. The success of this program is due to its two present directors, Professor Keivan Stassun with a principal appointment at Vanderbilt University, and Professor Arnold Burger, with a principal appointment at Fisk University. The Fisk/Vanderbilt crew would gladly work with and help anyone who might be interested in a similar effort.

David Ernst is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University; an Adjunct Professor at Fisk University; the President and a co-founder of the National Society of Hispanic Physicists; and a Co-Chair of the Division of Nuclear and Particle Physics of the National Society of Black Physicists. He is also the Chair-Elect, Southeastern Section of the APS, a member of the Council and the Executive Board of the APS, and a member of the Liaison Committee for Underrepresented Minorities of the American Institute of Physics.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan

October 2008 (Volume 17, Number 9)

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Articles in this Issue
Energy Efficiency Crucial to Achieving Energy Security and Reducing Global Warming, States APS Report
Members Elect Barry Barish as Next APS Vice-President
LHC Start-Up was a Long Time Coming
Three Women Receive Blewett Scholarships in 2008
Four APS Members Receive National Medal of Science
Agreement Lets APS Members Provide Expertise to Industry
Physicist Tilts at Diploma Mills
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Washington Dispatch
International News
Profiles In Versatility
Focus on APS Topical Groups