The Disciplines Where No Black People Earn Ph.D.s

In more than a dozen academic fields—largely STEM related—not a single black student earned a doctoral degree in 2017.

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Some trends in higher education move up and down—ebbing and flowing with the economy and demographic shifts. And then there are those that are stagnant, ever-present reminders of the work America’s universities still need to do.

One of those is the problem of faculty diversity: Less than 6 percent of full-time faculty members at institutions across the country are black. Many factors coalesce to bring about that dearth of black faculty, but one of the most significant is the perpetual scarcity of black doctoral-degree recipients.

From 2002 to 2017, of the roughly 50,000 people who earned Ph.D.s each year, the percentage who were black increased only modestly, from 5.1 percent to 5.4 percent, according to data from the National Science Foundation. In 2017, there were more than a dozen fields—largely subfields within science, technology, engineering, and math—in which not a single doctoral degree was awarded to a black person anywhere in the United States.

The lack of black doctoral students is due, in part, to a broken pipeline, and addressing the issue is a matter of getting more students interested in pursuing the credential. But pipeline problems don’t necessarily account for the number of black college graduates who don’t pursue, or are dissuaded from, higher degrees because of how those programs treat black people. “You hear a lot of horror stories from black faculty and black doctoral students,” Felecia Commodore, an assistant professor of higher education at Old Dominion University, told me.

Those stories can make it feel like getting a Ph.D. simply won’t have the payoff for black students in the long run—stories like that of Thea Hunter, a brilliant scholar who, as a professor, was questioned about whether or not she had a doctoral degree and was mistaken for a janitor; or like that of Amherst College, where, from fall 2000 to fall 2016, black faculty were 33 times as likely to be denied tenure as their white colleagues, according to an investigation by the student newspaper.

Before experience becomes a material issue, though, a student must first get into a doctoral program, which can be a chore all its own. It is typically up to departmental faculty to decide who does and who does not get into a Ph.D. program, and “there can be a lot of politics in play that keep black students from being admitted,” Commodore told me. There could be a lack of enthusiasm about an applicant’s topic or research interest, or some students might not come with the same social capital—recommendations from noted or well-connected faculty in the field—that others might.

Then, after they are admitted, there is the question of cost. Black college students borrow at higher rates than any other racial group, and they are more likely to default on those student loans. “Imagine coming out of school with a bachelor’s degree, with such a debt burden,” Lorelle Espinosa, vice president for research at the American Council on Education (ACE), told me. “Students are thinking, I don’t have a safety net for this debt. Am I really up for going for an advanced degree where I’ll find myself in even more debt?

That fear is compounded by the jarring fact that roughly 50 percent of black doctoral students were enrolled at for-profit colleges, according to a recent report from ACE; that means they are more likely to sink deeply into debt than they would be if they had started a doctoral program at a nonprofit college. Nearly all those students, 95 percent, took out loans and ended up with an average debt of more than $120,000.

Despite all these forces bonding together to dissuade black students from pursuing doctoral degrees, there are ways to break the cycle. One way, Espinosa suggests, is to demystify graduate school and doctoral programs in particular. “Research, exposure, and experience for undergraduates is a huge predictor of success in research careers,” she told me. Some institutions, particularly historically black colleges, are already doing this work. Among black STEM Ph.D. holders, more than a third earned their undergraduate degrees at HBCUs, according to a report from the American Institutes for Research.

“A number of black students don’t know if they can do it,” Commodore told me. “It’s our job”—not just black faculty, but all faculty—“to help them do it,” not only while they’re in the program, but after they’ve entered the job market as well.