Female chemistry graduate students say they have less support from their advisers, and chemistry students from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in the sciences face more financial hardship. Those are just a few of the challenges that make some students less likely to want to finish their degrees or pursue a career as a chemist, according to an analysis of a survey of US chemistry graduate students.
The big picture is that we need to pay more attention to the retention of our graduate students, and particularly our underrepresented minority students and women,” says Geraldine Richmond, a University of Oregon chemist who led the analysis (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2021, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2020508118). “Faculty need to be more aware of what it really means to mentor our graduate students and to do it well.”
The study is a statistical analysis of a 2013 survey of 1,375 graduate students who had been in their programs 1 to 5 years. The survey was conducted by the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN. The analysis looked at the 100 chemistry departments that received the most research funding. When University of Oregon statistician Jean Stockard first heard about the data, she thought, “Wow, this is a gold mine,” she remembers. “This will really help us understand what is going on.”
Many of the findings echo ideas that have been proposed before but haven’t always been backed by data, says chemist Isiah M. Warner, vice president for strategic initiatives at Louisiana State University. “There’s a lot of information that’s anecdotal out there,” Warner says. “They’ve done a more systematic approach to try and understand the problem.”
In the analysis, Richmond, Stockard, and Celeste M. Rohlfing, a retired chemist who worked in science policy, show that men were more likely than women to say that their advisers were supportive. Women from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, including Black, Latino, and Native American students, were the most likely to report negative experiences with their advisers. Those who reported negative experiences were less likely than those reporting positive experiences to say their advisers encouraged them to take on challenges, advocated for them, gave them feedback, or helped them develop professional relationships.
“There are advisers that take on students and don’t really believe in them, don’t believe that they’re capable of reaching the PhD,” Warner says. “And so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Advisers’ not challenging students is one of the key concerns for Richmond. “I firmly believe that the way you build your confidence is by taking challenges and overcoming difficult stuff,” she says.
The study also examined students’ relationships with others in their departments, particularly with graduate student peers and postdoctoral scholars. Male graduate students from underrepresented groups were almost twice as likely as other students to report that they did not receive enough peer support.
It wasn’t clear what caused that difference. One explanation could be that Black men are less likely than people from some other racial or ethnic groups to have peers like them in chemistry graduate programs. Chemist Tyrslai Williams-Carter, director for strategic initiatives in Louisiana State University’s research, education, and outreach programs, says that from what she has seen, women are often hesitant to go to advisers for advice but will reach out to peers. By contrast, “men are very reluctant to seek out help” from peers, she says.
Edgar Arriaga, a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, agrees and wonders if international students’ perceptions feed into men reporting that they do not have enough peer support, especially for students from Latin America whose culture might mean they are less likely to reach out for help. “The experience one has as an international person of color is very different from the experience that a US citizen” or people who have lived in the US for much of their lives have, he says.
Different backgrounds could also help explain why underrepresented graduate students said their financial support was not enough to meet the cost of living where they live. Students from underrepresented groups were more than twice as likely as other students to say that their support was not adequate. The same students were also more than twice as likely to say they had to supplement their stipends, such as with outside jobs.
Williams-Carter says she sees this problem of unequal financial resources often with graduate students. Some students, often those who are White, have family members who can afford to help them pay for rent, medical insurance, undergraduate loans, or other expenses. “My African American students don’t have that,” she says. “Students have to think about these things.”
In fact, many students of color need to do the reverse and support their extended family, says Carmen Valdez Gauthier, a chemistry professor at Florida Southern College. “What they get in graduate school they are using to support their family,” she says. “I see that even in undergraduates.”
Financial worries are going to affect how students perform, Arriaga says. Most graduate students are paid the same regardless of their financial circumstances, but what is equal is not necessarily what is equitable, he says.
Despite these challenges, students from underrepresented groups were more likely than other students to express a commitment to finish their degrees and continue to work in the chemical sciences. The survey analysts labeled this commitment “confidence.” The effect held true for men and women.
But women overall, regardless of race or ethnicity, were less likely than men to say they wanted to finish their degrees and continue on to a chemistry career. Williams-Carter says that could be because women are more likely than men to come to school feeling as if they don’t belong. Women may also be less likely to ask an adviser for help. “As a woman, you don’t want to be seen as weak,” she says, noting that lack of assertiveness is something she regularly talks to advisees about. They say, “I don’t want to seem like I’m always the one asking for some type of support or assistance.”
Across the board, students with the most supportive advisers were more likely to want to stay in chemistry and finish their degrees, the survey analysis shows. “This is clearly telling us that we all need to reflect more on how we mentor people and how we could be more consistent about the mentorship and providing the right depth of mentorship,” Arriaga says.
At the most prestigious schools, defined as the top 25 recipients of research funding, women were less likely than men to want to stay in the field. That wasn’t the case at less prestigious schools. Several factors could contribute to that trend, observers say.
Richmond suggests one reason that women are less likely to expect to graduate at top schools is they might not be not getting as much one-on-one contact with their advisers as students at other schools are.
“We’re taking these incredibly bright students, but then we’re just throwing them into the pool and saying, ‘Sink or swim, and whoever rises to the top, I’m going to keep mentoring,’ ” Richmond says. “That is not the way to get the most productivity out of a group or help their feelings of confidence and success.”
The competitive atmosphere at top schools could also contribute. Warner says he has heard stories of several graduate students in a lab at a prestigious school being given the same project, and only the most successful one gets to stay. “They bring in more students than they need,” while less competitive schools can’t afford to do that, Warner says.
Jennifer Nielson, a chemistry professor at Brigham Young University, says that women can compete at top schools. “But we do only when we have the support we need to compete,” she says.
Confidence was associated with different career goals. Men, who scored higher on confidence, were more likely than women to want to become a research professor, the analysis shows. Those who most wanted a research faculty position were first-generation college students, those who attached less importance to a job that allowed time for family, and those who said they had a supportive adviser.
When race and ethnicity were considered, students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups were most likely to want to become a research professor, especially if they were in departments with at least one faculty member from an underrepresented group.
Arriaga was surprised that having even one professor made a difference because underrepresented groups are so different. But clearly, professors from underrepresented groups “are extremely powerful to motivate people to explore their own potential.”
Faculty of color may change the culture of a department, which may contribute to the positive effect on underrepresented students, Nielson says. “I bet the mentoring gets better, not just because there are more people who might look like you if you are the graduate students but because the rest of the department takes their cues” on how to interact with students of color from the faculty member of color, she says.
Nielson hopes that departments use the survey results and analysis to improve decisions about their graduate programs. Getting diverse students into graduate school isn’t enough if they drop out of the program or leave the field. Underrepresented students don’t typically leave just because they decide to do something else—they leave because they think faculty perceive them as unwanted or incapable, she says.
Richmond would like to see departments share their graduate student retention numbers. That information would help prospective students identify the most supportive schools and motivate departments to improve.
She’d also like to see a federal push to pay graduate students more. “We have to put more value into our graduate students,” Richmond says.
This article was updated on March 19, 2021, to state that Black men aren’t necessarily the least common underrepresented people of color in chemistry graduate programs; they are less likely to attend grad school than people of some other racial and ethnic groups. Tyrslai Williams-Carter talks with advisees, not advisers, about women being less likely to ask for help. The quote “I don’t want to seem like I’m always the one asking for some type of support or assistance” is what students tell her, not what Williams-Carter says. Also, a lack of one-on-one contact with advisers is a possible explanation of a lower intention to graduate among women at prestigious schools, not an explanation of failure among these women. The update also clarified that underrepresented students include those who are Black, Latino, and Native American. And it clarified how international students’ perceptions potentially affect men’s reporting of peer support: an example is students from Latin America who may have a lower likelihood of reaching out for support.