Master’s-to-PhD Program Paves Smooth Path for Underrepresented Students

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As science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals work to advance innovation in the U.S., another nationwide battle is taking place within higher education: the struggle to increase representation of minorities and women in the STEM workforce.

[Above: Students in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD program during the Bridge Program Showcase in 2012, hosted by Fisk University]

According to 2013 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the STEM workforce is composed of 7 percent Hispanics and Latinos, 6 percent African Americans, and 0.4 percent Native Americans and Alaska Natives, while men make up a majority of the overall workforce at 74 percent. This underrepresentation also exists in higher education: For example, in 2009, African Americans received 7 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in STEM, 4 percent of all master’s degrees, and only 2 percent of all PhDs, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

However, many institutions are fighting this unfortunate truth by providing opportunity to deserving students, regardless of their financial situation, thereby paving the way for an upsurge in diversity in STEM fields.

An example is the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program, co-founded in 2004 by Vanderbilt University astronomy and physics professor Keivan Stassun and professor of physics David Ernst, as well as Fisk University professor of physics Arnold Burger. The program is designed to address the unfair process of filtering out students for STEM PhDs.

Students with an undergraduate degree in physics, biology, chemistry, computer science, math, or another science discipline who would like to pursue a PhD but require additional coursework, training, or research experience are eligible to apply for the program.

Admitted students attend a full-time, two-year master’s program at Fisk in the areas of physics, chemistry, biology, or another science discipline. Once they complete the master’s, they begin their PhD track at Vanderbilt. After their first year, students are able to transfer to another institution to complete their PhD. As long as students uphold university standards and maintain good grades and behavior, their education is fully funded from their first day of class until they receive their diploma; this includes a financial guarantee from the admitting PhD program, should students choose to transfer, Stassun says.

Instead of relying on GRE scores alone, the program admits students based on demonstrated character and determination. Both Fisk and Vanderbilt faculty are involved in everything from admissions committee decisions and disciplinary committees to mentoring and advisory boards.

“A study came out that showed that of the underrepresented minority students in STEM fields, 50 percent were more likely than their non-minority peers to get a PhD through a master’s degree,” says Stassun, who is also a Bridge Program mentor. “[And] it was becoming clear that the way in which GRE scores were traditionally used to filter out applicants to PhD programs was filtering out the vast majority of students [who were] otherwise qualified.”

Stassun says that while the GRE can pick up on certain skills, it is unable to detect grit — the strength of an individual’s character — which he believes to be equally, if not more, important.

“The GRE can’t read traits like perseverance, experience with failure, working through adversity, and communication and networking skills — things that make up the people [who have] the grit to get through a PhD program,” Stassun says.

While these students may need more help than their peers — which faculty at Fisk and Vanderbilt provide — Stassun believes their ambition and tenacity provide them with the resolve to complete the program.

PhD Performance
Though hugely successful now, the Bridge Program had a difficult start. Many of Stassun’s colleagues were unsure whether incoming students were PhD material.

Students at the Bridge Program Showcase
Students at the Bridge Program Showcase

“In the first two years, colleagues questioned the students we were bringing in … because, on paper, they didn’t look like traditional candidates,” Stassun says. “But once they saw these students were performing at or above our standard of excellence, we saw a real change in attitudes.”

The program has helped many students succeed, and some have gone on to achieve impressive feats. Fabienne Bastien became the first African American woman to be published in Nature for her paper on astronomy and is now the first African American to have received NASA’s Hubble Fellowship; Jedidah Isler is the first African American woman to receive a PhD in astronomy from Yale University; and Aaron Juarez and Jonathan Florez both won the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

“We helped them get through,” says Dina Stroud, executive director of the program. “Jedidah would not have been accepted into Yale without preparation from the Bridge Program, and Fabienne wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to shine with cutting edge research.”

Since its inception, 94 students have enrolled in the program: 54 African Americans; 23 Hispanics; and four Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, or Native Hawaiians. Of these 94 students, 18 have gone on to receive their PhDs — 83 percent of whom were minority students and 50 percent of whom were women.

Thanks to grants from the NSF, NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and Department of Education, the program has grown exponentially. When it began 11 years ago, only two students enrolled. Last year, 17 students were accepted out of more than 100 applicants.

The program continues to grow and attract larger numbers of minority and female students. However, it’s not the numbers that are most important to Stassun, but the educational opportunities the program opens up for these students, who are typically filtered out of advanced-degree STEM programs.

“At the end of the day, we don’t care if students are successful on multiple choice questions. It’s about who will be successful in the labs. We get to say, ‘Look at what you’ve done! Look at the paper you just wrote!’” he says. “They deserve to be here.”●

Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Read about alternatives to GRE scores in PhD admissions in Casey W. Miller’s article Non-Cognitive Competencies in Graduate Admissions: Enhancing Validity and Diversity.