As a formerly undocumented immigrant who has spent a decade in academe fighting for the advancement of Latino students in higher education in the sciences, I want to shed light on the struggles that students of color face in graduate school and why so many of us are leaving it.

Growing up, I never dreamed of becoming a scientist, because I figured that such a career path was not available to me as a child of immigrants. As the oldest in my family, I told myself that I would major in business administration in order to find a well-paying job to support my family. I did not have the luxury of thinking big.

All of that changed one day in community college, however, when I attended a biology class taught by a Black woman professor. Her lectures sparked something in me that gave me permission to dream. From community college to a four-year institution, CUNY’s York College, I built up research experiences working on the social behavior of the fruit fly, attended scientific conferences and published academic papers. All that led to my acceptance to a doctoral program at Yale University in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.

But I found that I faced distinct obstacles at Yale that I had not encountered before. I was the only Latino in my Ph.D. class and one of just three in the entire department. I met peers who were more prepared for the rigors of a biochemistry doctoral program than I was. After a semester, I found myself on academic probation after failing a core biochemistry course.

Several factors led to that fateful day: feeling isolated in the program, transitioning from a biology to a biochemistry field and being afraid to ask for help, as I did not want people to think the only Latino in the program needed extra assistance.

At the end of the semester, as I walked up what seemed endless stairs to Science Hill to meet with the director of graduate studies, I recalled how my parents had made so many sacrifices in coming to this country, and I felt like I had failed them.

Luckily, I was given a choice that day: “Do you want to stay, or do you want to go?” I told myself that I did not want my story to end that way, so I chose to stay.

But this time, I decided, I would do my Ph.D. differently. I rewired myself to feel comfortable asking for help from my colleagues, teaching assistants and professors. Through the support of mentors, I excelled, and I went on to earn the PD Soros Fellowship, pass my qualification exams, start diversity initiatives and receive my Ph.D. in 2020. I am also thankful that I had a supportive Ph.D. adviser, Michael R. Koelle, who believed in my potential as a budding scientist and continually encouraged me.

I’m happy that my story ultimately ended well. But, unfortunately, those of so many other Ph.D.s students of color do not. A recent report from the nonprofit RTI International, commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, was alarming; it found Black students face a longer time to earn their doctoral degrees, and both Black and Hispanic students carry significant financial debt in graduate school compared to white peers. Systematic change has to be made to ensure those students can, in fact, succeed in academe.

For starters, universities should ensure that data on how students of color progress in their doctoral programs are easily accessible so prospective students know what to expect when it comes to an institution’s diversity of student body, retention rate and alumni outcomes. One example of a university that has publicly published outcomes for students of color is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT’s data showed, for example, that the population of enrolled graduate students in biology who identified as underrepresented minorities increased from 4 percent in 2005 to 19 percent in 2023—suggesting that the institute’s recruitment efforts for that department have improved over time. Meanwhile, the attrition rate for underrepresented minorities in biology, or the percentage of those exiting the program, was slightly higher than that of white students—10.8 percent compared to 9.6 percent between 1997 and 2016. Other institutions that have made similar efforts in recent years to provide publicly available data include Johns Hopkins University and Yale University.

More higher education institutions should also publish successful intervention strategies that other universities can use as models to improve their retention rate for students of color, along the lines described by Marenda A. Wilson, Anthony L. DePass and Andrew J. Bean. Increasing that rate starts with inclusive and intentional recruitment and retention practices.

Some of the strategies that I’ve personally found to be most effective include offering:

  1. holistic application reviews,
  2. structured programs whereby senior graduate students mentor new students,
  3. workshops on topics like how to choose a research adviser or obtain a fellowship, and
  4. mock examinations in which students receive feedback on their written and oral dissertation proposals.

Programs that focus on retaining and supporting underrepresented students once they are in doctoral programs include the Duke University BioCoRE program and the student-run Yale BBS Diversity and Inclusion Collective (YBDIC). Establishing such programs can significantly help an institution improve retention rates for students of color. For example, Duke’s BioCoRE program for underrepresented graduate students in the biosciences hosts an annual DEI symposium allowing graduate students to present their research, network and build a community with underrepresented graduate students. Similarly, they also offer candidacy-exam preparation and peer graduate student mentoring.

During my time in the YBDIC program, we organized fellowship-writing workshops for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships Program, which allowed students to receive feedback from awardees and faculty mentors of awardees. We also hosted fireside chats on how to tackle impostor syndrome and social gatherings to celebrate each other and build a support system for underrepresented students across all the biological and biomedical departments. Just those two programs have played a vital role in supporting graduate students’ development throughout their Ph.D. programs, providing structured support as well as a community for underrepresented students that previously took me to four years of graduate school to find.

Finally, the Graduate Student Engagement and Community Program established by the STEM organization Científico Latino, which I co-founded, is an example of an institution-independent program for building community for students of color. The program is now in its third year and has a cohort of 100 minoritized first-year graduate students. Those students have access to peer mentorship from senior graduate students and postdoctoral scientists; professional development workshops, such as how to choose a research lab, apply to fellowships or tackle impostor syndrome; and access to a professional network of scholars and mentors across the United States.

It’s hard enough to get into graduate school, and Ph.D. students of color need and deserve support once they are there so they can become future leaders in STEM. It’s time to create more welcoming and inclusive spaces that encourage them not only to enroll but also to stay in academe. The future of those students is on us.

Robert W. Fernandez is a Junior Simons Fellow at Columbia University and co-founder of Científico Latino. He is also a PD Soros Fellow and Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.


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