Issues that Impact the Success of Minority Postdocs

By Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D.

In 2000, the National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) published a report which attempted to address issues of particular importance to postdocs who were members of underrepresented groups. The report was unable to make a general statement due to the very small number of such postdocs surveyed. In 2004, COSEPUP held a “Second Convocation on Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience” to asses the status of postdocs. The author worked with the NPA Diversity Committee to develop the following talking points for a breakout session on this topic.

What is the motivation for diversifying the scientific workforce, in particular the professoriate? Minority faculty can serve as role models for the students that self-identify within the same cultural peer group as the mentor. However, there are not enough minority faculty members to serve the growing and diverse undergraduate student population. In general, postdoctoral experience is a requirement for being a competitive faculty candidate. Therefore it is imperative that minority postdoctoral career development be studied to assess this potentially weak link in the academic career pipeline.

  1. What are the demographics of minority postdocs? How are “minority”, “diversity”, and “under-representation” defined within the context of the postdoctoral experience? What are the number of minority postdocs and their distribution among disciplines? What is the attrition rate for minority postdocs? What data exist on career outcomes?
  2. What are effective strategies for minority recruitment into postdoctoral positions and subsequent career stages? What factors affect retention, for example, mentoring, career development, networking, and community building?
  3. What financial resources are available for minorities to pursue their education and careers? What are the pros/cons of minority versus majority postdoctoral fellowships, travel awards, etc? Is “separate, but equal” good for the minority postdoc? Are programs (i.e. fellowships, travel awards, etc.) that have been established to encourage the participation of underrepresented minorities in science-related disciplines actually “hurting” or “marginalizing” the individuals these programs seek to support?
  4. What networking opportunities are available for minorities? What are the pros/cons of networking within your cultural peer group versus a wider scientific population?
  5. While it is important that a minority see community members in their field, mentors do not have to be minorities themselves. How can mentors be sensitized to respect the values and priorities of an ethnic/cultural community? Such mentor education presents different challenges at majority versus minority serving institutions.
  6. Can affirmative action ideals and/or policies be applied to independent fellowships and non-advertised postdoc positions?
  7. Are there appropriate grievance mechanisms to handle incidents of racism, sexism, etc?
  8. How do we address the imbalance between work and “outside” activities such as family, outreach, and volunteer activities. Are minorities penalized for their emphasis on these activities?
  9. What are the best practices for addressing minority postdoc needs and concerns? What channels are there to publicize such programs? What roles do individuals, institutions, professional societies, funding agencies, etc play in supporting minority postdocs?

A summary of the resulting discussion will be added in the future.

Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D., is the Founder and Editor of the web portal A longer biosketch is on the About page. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

The citation for this article is:
A.I. Roca (2010) Issues that Impact the Success of Minority Postdocs.
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article first appeared as a handout for the COSEPUP Diversity breakout session. A PDF version of the talking points can be downloaded here and the archived convocation website is here. is now publishing original written works. Submit article ideas by contacting us at . This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Last updated 28-Jan-2011,
Published 10-Sep-2004