My colleague Ed wrote a piece last week examining the relative dearth of science professors who are not Asian or white (“Science’s Minority Talent Pool Is Growing—but Draining Away”). He quoted many experts, primarily Kenneth Gibbs Jr., an immunologist and science-policy expert at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences:
Gibbs gathered figures on the numbers of Ph.D. graduates and assistant professors in the science departments of medical schools throughout the country, from 1980 to 2014. The data were stark. During that time, the number of newly minted Ph.D. holders from underrepresented groups grew by nine times, but the number of assistant professors from those groups grew by just 2.6 times. No such gulf existed for well-represented groups like whites and Asians; there, the Ph.D. graduate pool grew by 2.2 times while the assistant professor pool rose proportionally, by 1.7 times. […] In an earlier study, Gibbs showed that women and underrepresented minorities are 36 to 54 percent less likely than white and Asian men to be interested in faculty careers ...
A reader questions the implications of those findings:
Um, why should we assume that minorities with science backgrounds going to jobs outside of academia is a bad thing? Perhaps they feel a private sector or a government career would be more rewarding, or those jobs are in locations they would prefer to live in as opposed to university locations?
Another reader is more blunt:
There is something rather patronizing about the implicit assumption that women and minorities are wrong about their own interests and priorities. Perhaps women and minorities are more likely to go to medical school because—gasp—they actually want to become doctors, not teachers of other doctors.
Ed’s piece did touch on those factors:
But why does the gap exist? Donna Ginther from the University of Kansas wonders if it’s partly because Gibbs focused on medical schools, most of which do not guarantee salary with tenure, and so might be unattractive when compared to other alternatives. Perhaps scientists from minority groups are just seeking employment elsewhere. Gibbs counters that this is unlikely, since almost every sector of academia struggles with faculty diversity. Hiring practices are a likelier culprit.
Here’s a reader in academia with a telling anecdote:
I remember myself and a couple of my postdoc colleagues having a conversation with two really talented young black women who were technicians. We were trying to persuade them to go to graduate school and get on the academia track.
They laughed at us. They told us that we were women in our early thirties who couldn’t afford to buy houses or have children, who spent our nights and weekends working, who didn’t have retirement savings, and who were still struggling to get permanent jobs. Why on earth would they want to be like us? I felt they made a good point.
This next reader has the most relevant perspective of all:
I’m not a PhD, but I am a scientist who recently left a Harvard lab to work in Big Pharma and I’m black. I’m sure there’s some discrimination at play, but I would argue that one of the biggest issues here is the pay associated with academic life.
I grew up in a working-class, inner-city family in Boston and was bussed 1.5 hours both ways to go to school. I was highly modulated to do well because I saw the lives of my schoolmates that were SUBSTANTIALLY better than mine (median income in my neighborhood of $40K vs median income of $150K in the town I went to school in). I realized education was going to be my way out, so I threw myself behind that 100 percent.