Winning to lose – academy losses of Black faculty to industry

When thirty-year-old Dr. Damian Rouson completed his Ph.D. last
April, the Stanford University graduate took a job at Failure Analysis
Associates, a prestigious Silicon Valley engineering firm.

The youngest of his mother’s five children, Rouson was recruited to
Stanford from Howard University. He is not only the first engineer in
the family, but the first of his siblings to complete a doctoral
degree. His father also had a Ph.D. Rouson’s ebullient personality,
athletic gait, and infectious smile defy the traditional stereotype of
techno-geeks.

Dr. John Eaton, a mechanical engineering scholar whose experimental
research is in the field of thermal dynamics, was Rouson’s advisor at
Stanford. Eaton had hoped his student would pursue a career in academe.
Instead, Rouson has opted to start his career in industry.

“I still think I’ll teach eventually, perhaps at Howard
[University],” Rouson says. “But for now, I’m more interested in the
business side of things.”

During his nearly two decades at Stanford, Eaton has shepherded
thirty graduate students to the completion of their doctoral degrees.
Five of these have been students of color, but Rouson is the first
African American.

“We get very few [Black and Latino students] who say, `I want a Ph.D.,”‘ the professor says.

Eaton is extremely selective about the doctoral students he
mentors. He prefers those who express an interest in academic careers
and estimates that roughly half of the doctoral students he has worked
with have gone on to faculty or scholarly research jobs.

“My students know I’ll pressure them to get into an academic
career.” he says. “Damian knows I’m mad at him for going into industry.”

The growing lure of careers in industry has made recruiting
engineering students of all races into academic careers more
challenging. And with the United States under-producing the number of
native engineers needed to meet demand, engineering graduates are among
the most sought after graduates in today’s economy.

Nearly half of all engineering doctoral graduates have plans to
pursue careers in industry immediately after graduation, according to
the National Science Foundation. This compares to only one in five
physical science doctoral candidates.

Money is the main factor behind the appeal of industry to
engineering graduates. Entry-level salaries for engineering students
with B.S. degrees begin in the $37,000 to $40,000 range. With a few
years of experience, salaries average around $51,000 (see chart on page
15).

Master’s degree holders start at salaries of $46,000, and with experience, average approximately $52,000.

Doctoral graduates’ salaries start in the mid-$50,000, and average
around $70,000 with experience. Since Black doctoral graduates are so
rare, salaries for them can, in some cases, run higher.

These hefty salaries are hard for students to turn down, says
Stanford Engineering School Dean John Hennessy. This is especially true
since most have deferred financial rewards for years watching their
friends with lesser degrees go on to buy homes, cars, and other
commodities.

According to Eaton and Hennessy, competition from industry doesn’t
just affect an institution at the faculty recruitment level, it makes
it harder to keep engineering undergrads in school beyond the bachelors
degree as well. The challenge is even more formidable when the students
are Black.

“I think the biggest challenge is increasing the awareness of top
[Black] students that this is something they might want to pursue,”
Hennessy says. But even so, he admits, “When the economy is good,
you’re in stiff competition.”

While he concedes that academic careers are not as lucrative as
jobs in industry, Eaton feels professorship and research still offer an
appealing lifestyle.

“If I get a Black student to complete a Ph.D., I know that student
will get a position [in academe] if he or she wants it,” he says. “It’s
not a highly paid thing, but it is a good life.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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