For Immediate Release
Results of the study, "Beyond Small Numbers: Voices of African-American
Ph.D. Chemists," were presented February 15 at the annual meeting
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The
study explores the divergent career experiences of 44 randomly-chosen
African-American Ph.D. chemists who received degrees prior to 1994.
"The opportunity structure differed dramatically in many cases over time," said Pearson, who conducted face-to-face interviews with all but one of the scientists. "Most felt that race was an issue, and that it had impacted them in certain ways. But they didn't let that cripple them or stifle their achievement. Racism was just part of the reality that confronted them."
Most respondents began their careers in the academic world, with slightly
more than half taking positions at historically black colleges and universities.
Ph.D. chemists choosing academic careers were attracted to institutions
similar to the ones where they obtained their undergraduate degrees.
Their experiences changed dramatically over time, affected by federal
legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and court decisions such
as Brown v. Board of Education.
Other key findings include:
Daryl Chubin, senior vice president at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), said the study is unusual in using interviews to provide an in-depth look at complex issues.
"The value of the analysis is that it looks across a half-century
of experience on the part of these minority chemists," he said. "Because
of the interviews, the study puts a human face on their experiences. There
is a great deal of commonality in what these Ph.D. chemists are saying."
Chubin noted that the experiences reported by the chemists parallel those
of today's minority science and engineering students, who often suffer
from lack of access, isolation, tokenism, lack of acceptance from others
at the institution and limited mentoring opportunities.
"The good news is that they prevailed," he added. "Some
of them had very distinguished careers despite this. But it points out
the climate in which they had to work, and which still confronts faculty
The qualitative study highlights the importance of mentoring, Chubin
and Pearson agree. To be successful in academia, scientists must not only
teach and do research, but also write papers, submit grant applications,
make professional presentations, compete for graduate students and manage
their laboratories. That knowledge isn't taught in the classroom, but
comes from working with top faculty.
"Many in the first generation of Ph.D.s didn't have a sense that
the degree is only the beginning," Pearson said. "Finishing
at a top academic institution is a great achievement, but in the research
community, the degree is only the key to get in. Those who did not have
a rich publishing experience and knowledge of how to write a grant had
a very difficult time."
A shortage of African-American faculty poses a threat to the modest diversity at U.S. colleges and universities as today's full professors look toward retirement. "When we are only producing 30 or so African-American Ph.D.s a year and a number of African-American chemists are at or near retirement age, we risk losing ground, especially in academia," Pearson warned.
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