Departmental structure, belonging impacts STEM minority doctoral students, UC Berkeley study finds

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Underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields are more likely to publish research when there is a clear departmental structure and a sense of belonging in postdoctoral programs, a study conducted by UC Berkeley researchers found.

The study, which published Jan. 9, found that instead of attempting to change the imbalance of underrepresented minorities and women in STEM itself by increasing enrollment, the focus should be placed on changing factors that cause students to feel like they don’t belong.

“The degree to which we feel able to study and work hard — a lot of it depends on the environment,” said Aaron Fisher, lead study author and campus assistant professor of psychology. “As a psychologist, it speaks to the importance of emotions and that we as professors, administrators and educators should take time to be thoughtful about the environment of our students.”

Structure and belonging are key factors that contribute to the formation of inclusive environments for students, according to the study. To understand the relationship between structure and belonging, researchers from UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles, the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University observed academic outcomes across these institutions.

The study defined ‘structure’ as the students’ perceived expectations and standards in their departments. ‘Sense of belonging’ was defined as students’ positive or negative experiences in STEM settings. The study also took into account participants’ psychological and emotional distress, as well as how prepared students felt for graduate school.

“When you set a clear expectation and provide resources that prepare students to meet them, students will be able to overcome obstacles,” said Robin Garrell, study co-author and dean of the graduate division at UCLA. “When students know when milestones are, what resources are available to them and other basic things, it supports all students succeeding — not just those in STEM fields.”

Graduate students that participated in the study were part of the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, which focuses on increasing diversity in fields with a low number of members from underrepresented communities.

According to the study, the only direct predictor of research publication was students’ perception of their own success, while higher levels of perceived success predicted that a student would likely publish a manuscript. The study also found that perceived inequities in graduate programs affect students’ levels of distress and their sense of belonging.

“One thing that this study shows is that the burden is often placed on the students, as in what can students do to eliminate these differences,” Fisher said. “It might be more effective to look at how universities present clear expectations and create an inclusive environment for graduate students.”

Clara Rodas covers race and diversity. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ClaraRodas10.