APS News

Physics Lags in Minority Representation

Two recent studies have found that despite some gains, African Americans and Hispanics continue to be underrepresented among physics students and faculty members. The reports highlighted gains made overall by minorities in academia, but Hispanics and African Americans continue to be a disproportionally small part of the physics community.

The American Institute of Physics’ Statistical Research Center issued the two reports tracking minority enrollment in colleges. The research collected data from surveys of nearly 800 universities as well as information compiled in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System run by the National Center for Education Statistics under the Department of Education. The data covered up to the end of the 2008 academic year.

Currently African Americans make up 12.4 percent of the United States population, while they earn 9 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and only 2.9 percent of physics bachelors degrees. Similarly, Hispanics comprise 15 percent of the United States population, while making up only 8 percent of overall bachelors degrees and 4.7 percent of physics bachelors.

Over the span of a dozen years, Hispanics have nearly doubled the number of physics bachelor’s degrees from about 115 in 1996 to 229 in 2008. African Americans have over the same time fluctuated between about 180 and 130 with 144 earned in 2008.

During the 2005-2006 academic year, the most recent data available, African Americans made up 3.6% of all PhDs awarded, but less than 1% of physics PhDs.

Long-term trends show that over the last 30 years the number of African Americans earning PhDs has increased overall. The 1990s saw a peak of Hispanics earning physics PhDs with a decrease between 2001 and 2006.

Minorities remain similarly underrepresented among physics faculty. African Americans over the last eight years have seen significant increases in the number of university faculty but remain less than 3 percent of the faculty at bachelor’s degree granting institutions and 1.2 percent at PhD granting institutions. More than 85 percent of physics departments have no African Americans among their faculty. The number of Hispanic faculty members has similarly increased overall, yet nearly 80 percent of physics departments have no Hispanic faculty.

The study did highlight that the number of minority students receiving bachelor’s degrees overall has increased dramatically over the last decade. While the total number of degrees awarded increased by 32 percent over the last ten years, Hispanic women have made the biggest gains, earning 75 percent more bachelor’s degrees than a decade ago. Hispanic men in 2008 earned 59 percent more degrees than in 1998. African American men increased their share by 51 percent over the same time while African American women rose by 45 percent.

African Americans have tended to go into fields such as business and management, psychology and computer science, while Hispanics have gravitated towards education, psychology and engineering. 

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Editor: Alan Chodos