If you ask minority high school students interested in biology what they want to do as a future career, they typically tell you that they want to be a physician or dentist. Unfortunately, what they don’t tell you is that they want to be a professor or researcher. This lack of interest is often due to a lack of exposure or negative stories about being a professor in the sciences. Becoming a professor in the life sciences often takes at least 10 years after the bachelor’s degree due to the need for post-doctoral experiences. In addition, students are often lured to practitioner-focused careers by higher starting salaries and the prestige associated with being a physician or dentist.
With exposure and mentoring, however, it is possible to bring more students of color into the academic track of the life sciences. High school faculty and guidance counselors need to expose students to faculty careers as well as highlight the positive aspects of these careers. For example, faculty members control their own time; have considerable autonomy in terms of teaching and research; serve as leaders in their labs; and are able to put forth their ideas in ways that make positive change in the world.
As a recruiting tool, the federal government could provide more tuition support to fund students of color in the life sciences. For example, what if all or a portion of students’ educational loans were forgiven in exchange for teaching at community colleges or minority serving institutions, or MSIs, after graduation from college? This strategy would not only provide great teachers for community colleges and MSIs, but it also would encourage more students to pursue careers in the life sciences.
In order to increase the numbers of minority students that are retained in biological science majors, college and university faculty members also need to begin to groom students of color for faculty careers from day one of their undergraduate studies. Research shows that having a mentor, engaging in summer research experiences and doing undergraduate research serves as an impetus for a career in the sciences. More importantly, this kind of experience also demystifies the faculty life and gives students a window into the demands, expectations and rewards of the job.
While grooming their undergraduates, colleges and universities should communicate how funding typically works for students interested in pursuing a doctoral degree. Many undergraduates, especially low-income students of color, don’t know that life science Ph.D. programs are typically fully funded, including tuition, a stipend and benefits. This fact would be very compelling for students who are often limited by the cost of higher education. We can’t assume that people are familiar with the doctoral process and subsequent funding.
After obtaining their graduate degree, students should consider engaging in post-doctoral research that is applicable for the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, Loan Repayment Program, or LPR. Through the LPR, the NIH provides education loan repayment support for post-doctoral trainees who work with human tissues. Debt is repaid for individuals researching ways to improve public health.
With proper exposure and mentoring, more students of color will pursue doctoral degrees in the life sciences, resulting in additional role models and creating a network of faculty members of color in the sciences.
This post is co-authored with Caleph Wilson, a post-doctoral fellow in the life sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.