STEM doctoral education is subject to contentious discussion about how it is funded, career possibilities and training and whether there are too few or too many scientists trained. Receiving much less attention is the increasingly elite background of doctorate recipients, 78% in 2013 come from educated and highly educated backgrounds (SED, 2014). First generation students (parents with a high school diploma or less) of all ethnicities have lost substantial access to and completion of programs since 1978 when such students received 42% of doctorates (SED 2009). Members of US ethnic minorities may or may not be first generation and/or low income in 2015, but the percentage receiving doctorates in STEM is barely increasing.
There is no argument that first generation, low income children and adolescents and those belonging to other underrepresented groups are usually best served by a continuum of interventions from Headstart onwards. These and subsequent programs promote entry into the language of science and analysis, and higher level vocabulary and grammar in case it not spoken at home. However, a great many social, economic and personal circumstances can lead to participants not persisting, or not acquiring the full measure of knowledge available.
For students in these groups who successfully complete a bachelor’s degree in STEM and enter a doctoral program the question addressed in this paper is whether interventions at the doctoral level can improve their success rate. It is too often inferred that the national Ph.D. dropout rate of around 50% comes from this population, but there is not enough data to support this inference (CGS). At the same time there is sufficient evidence that specific interventions at the doctoral level do promote student success. Whatever a student’s background, admission to a STEM doctoral program requires successfully completing a relevant undergraduate curriculum. Barring inappropriate admission practices, students arrive with some preparation and the desire for a degree.
This paper reviews the kinds of interventions found in STEM doctoral training, the research literature on them and where they may fall short. To a limited extent it looks at the research on what students think about their training including my Spencer funded study on STEM Ph.D. recipients from the University of California. The paper is a consolidated review examining programs like AGEP, and LS-AMP which are part of a continuum, to those created often in isolation by disciplinary societies, individual universities/departments/faculty. The emphasis is on programs that address issues of first generation students. It builds on a catalog of programs I have developed over the years, focusing on shared characteristics and areas of intervention along with whether there are credible measures of success. It also provides a limited amount of student evaluation taken from my survey and others.
‘First-Generation’ Graduate Students and Postdocs: Yes, They Exist and You Should Pay Attention!
Carrie Cameron, Hwa Young Lee, Shine Chang, Cheryl Anderson, and Melinda Yates—all of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Students who are in the first generation of their family to attend college (1G) have begun to receive increasing attention regarding unique challenges they may face in the undergraduate academic environment, including questioning of their belonging and academic identity, financial stressors, and family tensions resulting from their departure for college (Jehangir, 2009; Metheny & McWhirter, 2013).However, very little attention has been paid to these students when they reach the graduate and postdoctoral level. In fact, a lack of supportive policies and interventions for 1G students that pursue graduate degrees, suggests that students who have made their way into the graduate level have ‘made it’ and no longer encounter these stressors. Is this actually the case? Through focus groups, interviews, and surveys, at a major academic health center in Texas, we sought to find out more about the graduate and postdoctoral experience of 1G trainees, including what stressors they identify, their perceptions of their relationships with mentors, and their perceptions of their communication skills (frequently considered a manifestation of socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic identity). We also sought to tease apart the influences of family economic status during the trainee’s childhood, race, ethnicity, and native language from 1G status. Our qualitative date suggest that 1G trainees feel that personal financial stressors during school and training are an extraordinarily important problem in educational and career development decisions and that the challenges of ‘fitting in’ increase rather than decrease at the graduate level. The quantitative results of our survey (N=218, all US citizens or permanent residents) indicate, among other things, that 1G trainees are older (mean1G=34.91, meanCEF=29.49).