Posted on March 29, 2010

Vanderbilt, Fisk Collaborate to Get More Minorities Science Doctorates

Jennifer Epstein, USA Today, March 26, 2010

When Keivan Stassun arrived at Vanderbilt University’s department of physics and astronomy in 2003 as an assistant professor, he saw neighboring, historically black Fisk University as an obvious collaborator. The two institutions are two miles apart in Nashville. {snip}

Fisk had a successful physics program that produced more terminal master’s degrees for black students than any other U.S. institution, and Vanderbilt had good Ph.D. programs in physics, astronomy and materials science that produced very few minority graduates. Stassun’s idea “was very granular and very proximal,” he recalls: “Let’s help those students get from the master’s to the Ph.D.”

In the fall of 2004, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program took in its first five students. Since then, another 30 have enrolled, all from groups that are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. (Just three of the students are white, and all are women.) {snip}

But when the program started, the whole thing seemed like a big risk to many. {snip}

Not to mention that the students were far from certain to succeed. “These are not students that we poached from some other program,” says Stassun, who co-directs the program with Arnold Burger, vice provost for academic initiatives at Fisk. “They represent a real value added to the national production of Ph.D.s in science. Without this option, they would have pursued another option entirely” and not earned doctorates.

Thus far, however, just three students have dropped out of the program.

{snip} It was only after winning a $1 million National Science Foundation grant in 2004 that he was able to launch the bridge program, he says. “Scientists are entrepreneurial and will go where the money is.”


Giving Students a Chance

The bridge program puts more students in the pipeline and supports them through it. Burger describes it as “a mentoring program for those who need extra preparation, extra mentoring” between college and a Ph.D. program. Without the program, many likely would have chosen to enter the workforce after earning bachelor’s or terminal master’s degrees. Students in the bridge program typically spend two years working toward a master’s at Fisk before moving onto a doctoral program at Vanderbilt or elsewhere.

Underrepresented minorities are 50% more likely than their peers to earn terminal master’s degrees before getting Ph.D.’s in STEM fields, and Stassun says the reasons have to do with confidence and availability. The leading producers of black and Latino bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields are minority-serving institutions that, Stassun says, “perhaps do not have the full breadth of undergraduate curricular offerings” to prepare students for doctoral programs, so students turn to terminal master’s programs as a way to make themselves more competitive before applying for Ph.D.s. Others see it as “kind of a hedging of your bets,” he says, in case they’re never able to make it to a Ph.D. program.


Terminal master’s degrees have also “been a major growth industry” at many minority-serving institutions, Stassun says, noting that many such programs have nearly doubled in the last decade or so. The number of minority students earning master’s degrees in the physical sciences and engineering from minority-serving institutions rose from 119 in 1987 to 753 in 2006, according to NSF data. But the numbers who go further than the terminal master’s are small. In 2008, American universities awarded Ph.D.s in physics to just 12 black U.S. citizens, out of 905 awarded to U.S. citizens of any race that year.


The promise of new minority faculty members in STEM fields excites McCarty, Vanderbilt’s provost, who thinks the program’s graduates will be role models for future generations of minority students. “These are disciplines where it’s been very difficult to affect the diversity of students, but when you have a professor who knows the challenges you face, it can help.” A study released earlier this month by Cornell University’s Higher Education Research Institute suggests that black college students are more likely to persist in science majors if they have at least one black science instructor.

Stassun–whose mother emigrated from Mexico–and many of the Fisk faculty involved in the program are themselves underrepresented minorities, and empathetic to the issues such students face in the classroom and beyond.


The bridge program, Stassun insists, isn’t a way for underqualified students to get into STEM Ph.D. programs at Vanderbilt. “We deliberately decided that we did not want the bridge to be a back door into Vanderbilt. Students have to feel and be seen as having merited being admitted to the Ph.D. program.”

Most of the students who finish Fisk master’s degrees through the program, though, do continue across the bridge to Vanderbilt. {snip}