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Is there a Doctorate In the House?

Is there a Doctorate In the House?In the battle to increase the numbers of African American Ph.D.s in science, technology and engineering, the nation may just have a secret weapon: historically Black colleges and universities. The statement may sound improbable. After all, only a handful of the nation’s HBCUs offer doctoral programs. And education has long been the field of choice for African Americans choosing to tread the doctoral path.
But consider this nugget of information: In May 2004, North Carolina A&T State University graduated 21 newly minted doctors from the three programs that offer the Ph.D. degree — industrial and systems engineering, mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering. Twelve of the graduates were African American, a number that leaves the previous leaders in that area — Johns Hopkins and Stanford universities, which graduated four Ph.D.s each in 2002-2003 — in the dust.
Meanwhile, at Tuskegee University, three more students are preparing to join the four who graduated from the school’s six-year-old Ph.D. program in materials sciences and engineering in 2003. Not content to rest on those laurels, the school will be launching a second Ph.D. program in integrative biosciences, in fall 2004, says Dr. William Lester, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the Alabama school.
Of course, some will argue that the numbers sound small. And it’s true — they are. But officials from both schools argue that slow and steady is the strategy that will win this race.
“Historically we have a strong engineering program,” says A&T Chancellor James C. Renick. “Our nation needs minority and African American engineers and scientists who can compete and meet the engineering challenges of the 21st century,” and A&T is engaged in the business of providing those competitive graduates.
Renick is not exaggerating about the need. In 2001, the last year for which figures are available, only two percent of doctorate holders in the sciences and engineering were African American, according to an analysis by the National Science Foundation. In some disciplines — such as computer and information sciences and math — the numbers were so small that they had to be suppressed lest they throw off the analysis.
Tuskegee’s Lester says he hears a lot of talk about the national crisis. “Many universities, majority institutions, have taken on this challenge, but you look at what they’re doing and most are not producing the numbers. You’ll read about one (African American graduate) in a field, two in a field — that’s not making a dent.
“But if we’re producing four to five African American Ph.D.s a year (at Tuskegee), in five years we’ve made a significant impact,” he says. “And even though few historically Black schools are offering these degrees, when you start adding up all the figures and comparing the numbers with White universities, our numbers will equal theirs in the next couple of years,” he says.
Reneé Rodgers is one person who can’t wait to become one of those graduates. A graduate of Tuskegee’s aerospace science and engineering program, Rodgers had been with Cessna in Wichita, Kan., working in interior design when she learned that her alma mater was starting a doctoral program in materials science and engineering. Not the kind of design where they match your colors, she explains, the kind that involves the engineering of the craft’s interior materials. It seemed an absolutely perfect fit.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t like Cessna, not at all. But I’d been looking around at the people I was working with. There was this group of much older employees and this group of much, much younger employees,” with the gap due to that ‘huge downturn’ in aerospace,” Rodgers explains. “I started thinking, ‘What if that happened again?’ And then after 9/11, I just realized I couldn’t afford to get locked in career-wise. With a degree in materials, I thought, ‘I can go anywhere.’ “
Four years later, Rodgers finds her destination has gotten much more specific. After she defends her dissertation in December, she’ll be headed to Tucson, Ariz., to take a job at Raytheon. There she’ll be working on designing new composite materials to be used in missile systems.
Rodgers, 31, hasn’t ruled out returning to academia to teach. Given the numbers of African Americans in her field, she says, it would be “a big detriment (to the field) not to come back at some point.” But she explains she’s going to welcome taking “a breather” from the ivory tower.
“This is a great opportunity. It’ll be great to experience the thing that I came to academia for,” she says.
Dr. Doug McWilliams, who graduated this year from North Carolina A&T’s industrial engineering program, understands those sentiments well — except the thing McWilliams came to academia to experience was — more academia.
McWilliams is in the process of moving his family to Indiana as he prepares to take a tenure-track job at Purdue University. He says he couldn’t be happier about the change in career path.
“I’ve worked for many years as an industrial engineer and production manager,” says McWilliams, 37, explaining that he’s worked on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico as well as in industry. “But I’ve found I get more fulfillment out of helping others.
“For me, when I look back on my career, I don’t want the measure of my success to be the number of widgets I’ve produced. I want to help students, to make them more productive individuals in society, enrich their lives, help them have more successful careers,” McWilliams says.
Such words are music to the ears of someone like Dr. Joseph Monroe, dean of A&T’s schools of engineering and one of the key figures involved in getting the doctoral program off the ground in 1994.
Monroe is clear that the challenges involved in getting the program started were many. “Given that we are within one hour of North Carolina State and Duke, who offer doctorates in the same areas, we had to work hard to justify our program,” he says. “But with such a significant shortfall in the whole nation in African Americans with Ph.D.s in science, engineering and technology, we had a great argument: those programs weren’t producing enough.”
A&T, on the other hand, could cite its status as the nation’s top producer of African Americans with baccalaureate and master’s degrees in engineering. Now the school can claim to be the top producer of engineering doctorates, too. Forty-seven have earned the Ph.D. degree since the school started graduating doctoral students, roughly four-and-one-half years after the program’s inception.
Of course, convincing students to forgo the rich financial rewards offered by industry to attain the doctorate remains a tough sell. Starting salaries in industry are so high for qualified African Americans that they actually work as a disincentive to pursue higher education, McWilliams notes. Thus, both A&T and Tuskegee offer highly competitive financial packages.
A&T’s fellowship stipends start at $18,000 first year, reach $21,000 the second year, then rise to $27,000, Monroe says. As for Tuskegee’s package, “It’s the best in the nation,” says Dr. Shaik Jeelani, vice president for research and sponsored programs and director of the Ph.D. program in materials science and engineering at Tuskegee. Students receive $30,000 in fellowship monies, plus the $12,000 tuition, travel stipends, computers and more.
Both McWilliams, who has a wife and three children, and Rodgers, who is single, say they found their packages to be adequate to get them through their four-year programs.
“It was a struggle,” McWilliams says, but with his wife working part-time to help out, “it was enough to keep us afloat.”
“I have to admit it, though, you get tired of being poor,” Rodgers says.
But both agree that the goal, attaining the doctorate, was worth every minute of the hard work and sacrifice.
“There’s a big complaint that there are not enough African American professors in the classrooms. But people must understand that if they don’t pursue the Ph.D., there will never be enough. To make a change we’ve got to look in the mirror, understand that, if you are African American, this is a problem and the solution begins with you,” McWilliams says.
“I realized that I could be part of the solution, and that is one of the things that really motivated me.”

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