Making Physics More Inclusive

In a comment published in the journal Nature, Ted Hodapp and Erika Brown of the American Physical Society discuss ways to help universities and colleges improve graduate admissions and use mentoring to retain underrepresented Ph.D. students

COLLEGE PARK, MD, May 30, 2018 — The number of students from racial and ethnic minorities taking Ph.D.s in physics in the United States has been almost doubled over the past five years, write Theodore Hodapp and Erika Brown in a Comment article in this week’s Nature. They describe how the American Physical Society (APS) has contributed to this by improving admissions processes, and encouraging mentoring and peer support in physics departments across the country.

African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans make up about one-third of university-age citizens in the United States. Yet less than 11% of bachelor’s physics degrees are awarded to people from these groups. Moreover, at the doctoral level, only about 7% of Ph.D.s are granted to U.S. citizens from racial and ethnic minority groups — just 60‒70 students each year. This is one of the lowest rates in the sciences, and is “morally questionable and disastrous from a practical point of view”, the authors write. The Bridge Program has succeeded in placing enough students to eventually equalize the percentage of underrepresented students receiving Ph.D.s to that of bachelor’s degrees.

“The APS has succeeded, in only a few short years, in completely addressing the ‘leak’ in the pipeline for underrepresented minority students between the bachelors and doctoral degrees in physics,” says Hodapp. “The keys to this success are the central role played by the APS in gathering and redistributing graduate applications to universities interested in addressing the significant shortage, and the universities for implementing thoughtful programs that closely mentor these students into and through their graduate careers.”

To fix this ‘leaky pipeline’, the APS has worked with physics departments across the United States to increase admissions of under-represented students to balance the doctoral and bachelor’s graduation rates. Around 150 students are now in the APS Bridge Program. The authors describe the main problems such students faced, including poor admissions processes, a lack of support to enable them to pass graduate entrance exams, poor funding and bias. Close mentoring and peer support made a difference, such that the retention rate for Ph.D. students on the program is now around 85%, compared with a rate of 59% for all physics Ph.D. students in 2008. The authors encourage other national organizations to play a similar intermediary part.

“This program can easily be adopted by other professional societies that play a central role in their discipline. Chemistry, math, geosciences, and astronomy are obvious choices, but many of the engineering sub-fields and computer science are also good candidates.”

Contact: James Riordon, APS, riordon@aps.org, (301) 209-3238

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The American Physical Society is a nonprofit membership organization working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy, and international activities. APS represents over 55,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories, and industry in the United States and throughout the world. Society offices are located in College Park, MD (Headquarters), Ridge, NY, and Washington, D.C.