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Gems of wisdom: avoiding derailment on the doctorate track

Dr. Howard Adams has been engaged in the struggle to attract more African American students into graduate education in science and engineering for more than twenty years. In that time, he has witnessed measurable improvement in the academic caliber, motivation, and preparedness of African American undergraduates. Still, he says, many obstacles remain to impede their access to and success in graduate school.

Adams is the former director of the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minority Engineering and Science, Inc., more commonly known as GEM. Founded in 1976, this public/private partnership provides programs, activities, and fellowships aimed at ameliorating the under-representation of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans in engineering, science, and mathematics from pre-college through the doctorate.

One of the most common excuses Adams hears from colleges and universities about the scarcity of African American graduate students on their campuses is that it is hard to persuade Black students to pursue graduate study rather than earn top salaries with their bachelor’s degrees.

“I remind people that that’s not true,” he says. “Yes, the reason [Black students] go to school is to get a job. I mean, everyone else is looking for jobs too. Why should we be any different? But [Black students] also look at options if other things are available.”

Too often, Adams says, Black undergraduates aren’t encouraged to think about graduate school. Moreover, when they do get information, it is marketed to them in negative terms. He characterizes the sales pitch
as going something like this:

* Admission to graduate school requires skills and talents;

* it is only for those who wish to do research;

* it is prohibitively expensive;

* and it is mainly for students rich enough to support these degree aspirations independently.

With regard to the issue of expense, “This isn’t true,” says Adams. “In fact, graduate education [in science and engineering] is free, it doesn’t cost [the student] anything.”

With regard to admissions, Adams says, schools that judge skills and talents more by Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores than by undergraduate grades must recognize that they’ve stacked the deck against under-represented students. Typically, according to data from the Educational Testing Service, Black and Latino students score lower
on these tests than their White and Asian peers (see chart).


“But what does a GRE score tell you that a 3.8 grade point average from Duke [University] doesn’t tell you? We don’t know how to calibrate people’s credentials so that we can not only admit them, but
legitimately admit them, eliminating the perception that they didn’t
qualify’ to get in,” Adams says.

He also cautions that the low standard of expectation faculty and institutions have toward Black students can manifest itself in ways most people don’t even think about. This phenomenon requires a special
sensitivity among those making admissions decisions.

“In twenty years, I’ve never seen a faculty recommendation [on a graduate school application for a Black student] from a professor who says, `This is the best student I’ve ever had.’ Even [among] those
writing recommendations for students with a 4.0 GPA. The level of expectation is lower for Black students. So, it takes them longer to be viewed as excellent by their professors.”

Another huge problem Adams sees is the way Black graduate students are funded. He estimates that roughly 60 percent of African American graduate students pay for school with fellowship money. While this
support may open the door to a graduate education for them, it can also come with consequences.

“Too often, the type of fellowship support Black students get isn’t linked to a professor and his or her research,” Adams says.

This is akin to giving a star basketball player a terrific salary and uniform and pointing him toward the NBA without assigning him to a team or coach who is committed to using and developing his skills.

“The reason foreign students are doing so well is that they are admitted by a professor, into a professor’s lab, into a research group,” Adams says. “That is the way it is supposed to work. So, [they] come in with funding from a professor who needs to see them graduate because he needs to get his money again.

“When you come in with a fellowship, even though you have money to pay your tuition, you still don’t have a key to the lab,” he continues. “You don’t have colleagues to talk to. So you go take classes, which is
marginal to the whole process of graduate education.”

According to Adams, this marginalization follows students throughout their graduate career.

“People don’t flunk out of school because they couldn’t do the course work, they flunk out of school because they couldn’t pass the qualifying exams. And they can’t pass these because they don’t talk to people who’ve taken the exams before. They don’t go to journal club meetings, and they don’t go to research meetings where you get the
language of how you do this stuff,” he says. “Sometimes it can take two years to get into the right group. [But] by then, you’re way behind.”

While Adams doesn’t advocate the elimination of fellowships, he encourages students who receive them to be aware of how this blessing can become a curse. One way fellowship students can work around the potential for alienation is to volunteer time in a lab for free.

Another problem with fellowships is the way they are currently structured. Many of them don’t stretch far enough to cover the full amount of time needed to complete doctoral research. Black students frequently find themselves scavenging around for money near the end of their research period, a process that is highly stressful and can
jeopardize their doctoral success.

And, according to Adams, another factor that commonly hinders many African American students upon arrival at graduate school is their independent spirit.

“The gamesmanship that it takes to pull all of this off is not necessarily wrapped up in one person,” he says. “Very few people get a dissertation done all by themselves. They get help with the writing, the analysis, packaging their data. Well, we [African Americans] don’t know that. We have an independent spirit, and try to do it by
ourselves, when in fact other people hire people to do this stuff.”

When asked why Black students have a propensity to be such loners, Adams says, “They’re a little mad. They’ve been the `only one’ so often.”

His advice for under-represented graduate students is as follows:
“Graduate school is like a guild. It is a chosen group that decides who it wants to collaborate with. The guild includes professors, postdoctoral students, graduate students, undergraduates, technicians, and support staff…. Being part of the [lab group/ research group] team is the way the relationships are built. Don’t underestimate the
protocol or the politics of the process.”

Adams strongly advises undergraduate science and engineering majors to consider pursuing graduate education, suggesting that they learn as much as they can about the applications process as early as possible —
preferably while still underclassmen. Acquiring quality research
experience is another must.

Adams urges graduate institutions to recognize the complexity of issues that can impede the success of under-represented graduate students, and take immediate action to provide the additional support
these students require and deserve.

Editor’s Note:

Dr. Howard Adams is the author of Making the Grade in Graduate School: Survival Strategy 101, available through the National Center for Graduate Education for Minorities, P.O. Box 537, Notre Dame,
Indiana 46556; (219)287-1097, fax: (219) 287-1486; or e-mail at:
; or .

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