Redirecting National Attention to the Needs of Underrepresented Postdocs

By Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D.

Editor’s note: A shorter version of the following text was read by a proxy during the Public Comment section of the NIH ACD Working Group on Diversity in Biomedical Research Workforce meeting on February 14, 2012. The Working Group was formed in response to the study that NIH R01 applications from Black or African American Ph.D.s between 2000 and 2006 did significantly worse than white applicants (Ginther 2011).

The article that follows has now been updated as testimony for the following additional events:
National Academy of Sciences (NAS) COSEPUP meeting: The State of the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers Revisited
NAS Committee for Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine conference: Seeking Solutions- Maximizing American Talent by Advancing Women of Color in Academia
National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM) request for public comment on “Design Principles for Federal STEM Education Investments”


DiverseScholar Background and Activities

Thank you for the opportunity to present through written testimony. These comments draw attention to the needs of underrepresented postdocs but first an introduction about the author. In 2003, Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D. as a postdoc founded the Postdoc Committee of SACNAS – the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (Roca 2005a). He also co-founded the NPA Diversity Committee of the National Postdoctoral Association (Roca 2005b). Since that time, his activities have been documented on his website, MinorityPostdoc.org. The site maintains a curated Resources page that lists over 90 different diversity funding opportunities and is main reason why the website remains a top web search result when using keywords such as “minority”, “diversity”, and “postdoc”. More recently, the organization has begun publishing the new print periodical DiverseScholar (Roca 2011a).

Since 2010, Dr. Roca has been working full-time on helping postdocs achieve their career goals by acting as a career coach as well as organizing professional development workshops (Brooks 2011). He also connects diverse postdocs to stakeholders (such as academic Chief Diversity Officers) who are responsible for diversifying the professoriate. Separately, his postdoc advocacy activities involve promoting effective models for balanced research and teaching postdoctoral training (Roca 2010a), catalyzing discussions between different diversity postdoctoral interventions (such as at the Minority Postdoc Summit), and also serving as an award-winning postdoc community leader both locally (Bold 2007) and nationally.

Dr. Roca’s new non-profit, also named DiverseScholar, is a project of the fiscal sponsor Community Partners based in Los Angeles, CA. The mission of the DiverseScholar organization is to promote the recruitment, mentoring, and success of diverse postdocs thereby facilitating the diversification of the doctoral workforce. While collaborating with SACNAS, the NPA, and many other professional societies, Dr. Roca noticed that efforts to diversify the STEM professional workforce were not cohesive. Many diversity organizations and conferences were discipline specific and/or focused on a specific cultural identity. These ideals are fine for networking among like-minded scholars such as for peer-to-peer mentoring. However, such balkanization poses a challenge for individual allies, institutions, and especially recruiters championing diversity in general. For example, recruiters will have multiple competing demands on their limited time and funding when attempting to expand the diversity of candidate applicant pools. Furthermore, since minority postdocs are so few in number, our new organization sought to disregard these discipline and cultural identity divisions when designing activities for recruiting and professional development. This may allow a critical mass of diverse, junior doctoral professionals to come together for a new, self-sustaining community. Thus, besides being cross-disciplinary, DiverseScholar works on diversity broadly defined including gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, etc. For instance, Dr. Roca has promoted newly created annual conferences for the Asian American (Stith 2011) and LGBT (Roca 2010b) communities. Another defining characteristic of the DiverseScholar approach are interventions utilizing social media tools as well as promoting diverse bloggers as online role models. A novel project demonstrating this capacity is the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival (Roca 2011b).

Classical Diversity Interventions Will Fall Short

Over the last four decades, many resources have been spent on interventions to improve the beginning of the doctoral training “pipeline”. The focus has been on encouraging K-12 and undergraduate students to pursue STEM education (especially to enter graduate school). By comparison, there are few interventions directed at the career needs of current advanced doctoral graduate students and postdocs. In fact, a recent National Academy report on minority participation in STEM (NAS 2011) only focused on recommendations for the minority K-16 student training “pipeline” and methods to encourage them to pursue doctoral graduate work. Minority postdoctoral scholars were not mentioned as a target of interventions. Furthermore, a GAO report estimated that $3 billion was spent in 2010 by the U.S. federal government on STEM education programs (US GAO 2012). Dr. Roca proposes that if even just 1 percent of these funds were targeted specifically toward minority postdocs, then there will be a larger overall return-on-investment on the quantity and quality of the desired long-term outcomes. If the NIH Diversity Working Group wants to address R01 grant success in the short-term, then training postdocs in grant writing and tenure track preparation is a more efficient approach than supporting student-centric activities. If committees from the National Academies or the American Chemical Society want to learn about problems in the training “pipeline”, then the issues of postdoctoral scholars need to take precedence since this is the last career stage before advancing to tenure track positions.

Postdoctoral scholars, not students, are the primary candidate pool for open faculty positions especially in the STEM disciplines. Most federally-funded STEM diversity interventions promote diversifying the professoriate as their program’s goal. However, intervention activities only target the beginning of the training “pipeline” (from K12 up thru the doctoral graduate student stage) thereby leaving these student alumni exposed to vulnerabilities during their postdoctoral training. Note that the nation is potentially at an unprecedented opportunity to make a dramatic advancement in doctoral workforce diversity. Over the next 5 to 10 years, a generational change will occur as the aging “Sputnik”-era of scholars confront health issues of their own or of their partners. Only postdoctoral scholars will be poised to fill such a wave of once-in-a-generation job openings.

Uncovering Postdoctoral Issues

Many “diversity” issues are similar for minorities at every career step. Yet some issues are distinct to the postdoctoral stage (Roca 2010c). For example, can affirmative action ideals and policies be applied to non-advertised postdoc positions? The most competitive and lucrative postdoctoral training experiences are created by an informal, mutual agreement between the prospective candidate and the advisor thereby circumventing the typical employee recruitment process.

Navigating a successful transition into (and presumably out of) the postdoctoral stage will depend upon a trainee’s networking skills and the relationships with their current and future supervisor. Ominously, a National Academies report (NAS 2006) on women in the STEM disciplines noted the following:

Gender and racial issues will surely compound these already precarious career transitions. In particular, Dr. Mary Ann Mason at the 2012 NPA annual meeting described the following unpublished observations about California postdocs (Goulden 2009). Married postdoc mothers are 35% less likely to enter tenure track jobs. In addition, twice as many women then men change their career goal away from academia if they have babies as postdocs.

Unfortunately, most research on diversity and broadening participation has ignored postdocs thus creating a large knowledge gap. Therefore, an analysis of the scholarship and practice on postdoctoral training is timely in light of recent calls to action. The National Academy of Science COSEPUP committee is reviewing the “State of the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers” ten years after their milestone study (NAS 2000). The National Institute of Health’s “Diversity in Biomedical Research Workforce” advisory group was created following a recent study of ethnic disparity success rates among R01 grant awardees (Ginther 2011). Notably, a retrospective review 35 years after the landmark Double Bind report “did not reveal a single empirical study about women of color postdoctoral fellows” (Ong 2011).

Survey of Diverse Postdocs

To start, what is the nature of the minority postdoctoral population? Based on published surveys (for example, Davis 2005), Dr. Roca estimates that there are around 2,000 domestic, underrepresented postdocs from the Hispanic-, African-, and Native-American communities (Roca 2010d). The DiverseScholar organization has developed a unique doctoral directory of diverse postdocs as a first step toward building a community to support their needs. Currently, this email contact list has over 1,000 individuals culled from various diversity intervention programs, conferences, networks, and brute force online searches. Dr. Roca has conducted an internal survey of this postdoctoral population and is also collecting their curriculum vitaes. What follows are demographic and career observations of the survey respondents (see the flyer handout entitled “Talent Pool Demographics”).

Greater than 90% of the survey respondents are U.S. citizens (or permanent residents) and greater than 60% are females. The average age of the postdocs is 33 years old; and, they have been training as a postdoc on average for 2.5 years. In light of the aforementioned family planning observations, these last two figures underscore that these minority postdocs might be making career decisions soon that carry weighty work-life balance implications.

With regard to ethnicity, the distribution among postdoc survey respondents is as follows: 42% Hispanic-American, 31% African-American, 2% Native-American, 2% Asian-American, 10% multi-ethnic, and 6% Caucasian. Thus, many members of this minority postdoctoral community will face “double bind” challenges since this group is largely women of color. By comparison, in the greater national science and engineering postdoctoral population, only 45% are U.S. citizens (or permanent residents) and only 35% are women according to recent NSF statistics (Einaudi 2011). From the few surveys conducted, the ethnic demographics of the U.S. domestic postdoc population are the following: 3% African-American, 4% Hispanic-American, and 0.5% Native-American (Davis 2005). Therefore, the DiverseScholar Doctoral Directory is enriched for domestic, female, and underrepresented minority postdocs and could serve as a wealth of information about this critical, but underserved, career stage.

With respect to their research, Dr. Roca’s survey shows that close to 70% of these postdocs are in the biological sciences as expected from the preponderance of NIH funding. Around 50% of survey respondents indicated that they desired a future academic career. A smaller subset of 10% exclusively wanted a research and teaching faculty career compared with other options such as private industry research, post-academic (i.e. alternative) careers, etc. Clearly, our national Ph.D. training system is producing people who want to become future NIH R01 grantees which is germane to the target audience of the NIH Diversity Working Group.

Recommendations

Minority postdocs are not entering tenure track positions in large numbers especially at the top research institutions such as where NIH grantees typically work. To address this disparity, Dr. Roca proposes that federal resources be refocused on the following:

  1. Empirical research to understand the career preparation and outcomes of current minority postdocs. Diversity research which only studies either tenure track faculty or doctoral graduate students, but not postdocs, is of limited use for identifying the barriers that prevent entry into the professoriate. Note that Dr. Roca has been the only recurring speaker on postdoctoral issues at the Conference on Understanding Interventions.
  2. Professional development training to prepare postdocs for the demands of careers in the doctoral workforce in sectors such as academia, industry, government, etc. The NPA Core Competencies toolkit (2009) serves as a model for the other competencies that postdocs need to develop outside of the technical skills that are currently emphasized in research projects (Chuck 2010). Dr. Roca’s primary goal in this area is in developing a postdoc’s writing skills for peer-reviewed publications, fellowships, and grants.
  3. Proactive recruiting to help minority postdocs find employment in any career that uses their scholarly training. Of course, a priority is tenure-track faculty appointments if NIH wants to broaden the participation of underrepresented populations applying for R01 grants. More generally, higher education faculty have an almost exclusive role in mentoring students for future careers. Other doctoral-level professionals in industry, government, etc do not have such a direct influence on our nation’s education system. However, the undergradute student body is rapidly becoming more diverse than the faculty responsible for educating them. Postdocs with diversity skills can fill this void.

The point should be emphasized that the career success of postdocs (both minority and majority) should not solely be the responsibility of federal agencies (or of individual diversity champions working locally or through professional societies). Instead, policies need to be promoted so that academic institutions become invested in a postdoc’s career outcome. The current lone advisor “apprenticeship” training model (that generally lacks institutional oversight) is not working for the entire postdoctoral population. Briefly, some options to consider are the following:

  1. a formal committee of long-term mentors invested in a postdoc’s career success,
  2. career center access for postdocs (Roca 2007), and
  3. holding departments responsible for tracking postdoc alumni and publishing those outcome results. Perhaps accountability could be ensured by linking an academic institution’s acceditation renewal to postdoctoral certificates of completion.

Specific Comments on CoSTEM Design Principles

(Note: to be reformatted; commenting on document “Design Principles for Federal STEM Education Investments”)
2. UNDERREPRESENTED GROUPS

ALT: Groups underrepresented in STEM include, but are not limited to, historically underrepresented… Other cultural groups recognized as underrepresented in STEM include domestic Asian Americans as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

ALT: a. Be designed with the input from and implemented with the participation of underrepresented groups…
[This makes explicit that groups are full partners in implementation.]

ALT: b. Draw upon, relate to, and be respectful of the interests, knowledge, practices, and culturally relevant STEM experiences of underrepresented groups…
[This ALT makes explicit that investments will not ignore a community’s priorities even if practices were “understood”.]

ADD: e. When appropriate, require collaboration between underrepresented groups for the mutually shared goal of greater diversity.
[Some legacy investments are targeted, e.g. HBCUs, women. However, strategic plan can encourage real _coordination_ between investments by tearing down funding silos. Also, (e) recognizes that trainees are now self-identifying as multi-racial so past divisions are antiquated.]

3. PRIMARY INVESTMENT OBJECTIVE
c. POSTSECONDARY STEM DEGREES & STEM CAREERS

ALT: vii. Ensure sufficient support so that students successfully complete STEM programs/degrees and postdocs transition to independent careers.

ADD: viii. Require adherence to professional development recommendations from individual development plans and core competency guidelines.

[PRINCIPLES ignore postdocs who are neither a degree nor a career, but a crucial stage between the two. Use “trainee” to include both and make explicit issues for each. For example, problem w/ (iii), entry into postdoc training has no “establishment strategic recruitment approaches”.]

In Closing…

The DiverseScholar organization is uncovering the invisible minority postdoc population. Diversity stakeholders and recruiters could utilize our Doctoral Directory for engaging underrepresented minority postdocs especially for faculty diversity interventions. Our communication channels for reaching diverse postdocs include our MinorityPostdoc.org website, monthly email announcements, new printed DiverseScholar periodical, and live professional development events. Lastly, we are actively seeking collaborators from the higher education community for future, rigorous quantitative and qualitative studies using our unique national database of diverse postdocs.

References

K. Bold (2007) Advocate for Postdocs: Alberto Roca, Assistant Project Scientist of Molecular Biology & Biochemistry, Supports Unsung Scholars, Today@UCI, May 22

C. Brooks and A.I. Roca (2011) MinorityPostdoc.org Promotes New Postdoctoral Events at the 2010 SACNAS Annual Conference, DiverseScholar 2:2

E.T. Chuck (2010) Core Competencies for Future Researchers: A Compass for Navigating Your Career, SACNAS News newsletter 13(1): 18-19

G. Davis (2005) Doctors without orders, American Scientist 93(3) supplement

E. Einaudi (2011) Two Decades of Increasing Diversity More than Doubled the Number of Minority Graduate Students in Science and Engineering, InfoBrief NSF 11-319

D.K. Ginther, et al. (2011) Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards, Science 333: 1015-1019

M. Goulden, et al. (2009) Slide presentation with unpublished results from the University of California (UC) Postdoctoral Career Life Survey, a UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge Project

D. Hernandez (2011) “Social” Science: Experimenting with Social Media to Build Scholarship Communities, DiverseScholar 2:4

National Academy of Sciences (2000) Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisors, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies

National Academy of Sciences (2006) To Recruit and Advance: Women Students and Faculty in U.S. Science and Engineering

National Academy of Sciences (2011) Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads

National Postdoctoral Association (2009) Postdoctoral Core Competencies Toolkit

M. Ong, et al. (2011) Inside the Double Bind: A Synthesis of Empirical Research on Undergraduate and Graduate Women of Color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,
Harvard Educational Review 81(2): 172-209

A.I. Roca (2005a) 20/20 Foresight: the New Postdoc Programs and LinkedIn group of SACNAS, SACNAS News newsletter 7(3): 20-21

A.I. Roca (2005b) Diversity as a Life Skill: Collaborations Between SACNAS and the NPA,
NPA POSTDOCket newsletter 3 (3): 5-6

A.I. Roca, et al. (2007) Postdoctoral scholar access to Career Services, University of California Council of Postdoctoral Scholars memorandum

A.I. Roca, et al. (2010a) Illuminate Research and Teach Science Postdocs, Science (E-Letter), May 27

A.I. Roca and D.G. Taylor (2010b) NOGLSTP “Out To Innovate” STEM Career Summit,
DiverseScholar 1:2

A.I. Roca (2010c) Issues that Impact the Success of Minority Postdocs, DiverseScholar 0:0

A.I. Roca (2010d) Uncovering the Invisible Minority Postdoc Talent Pool, DiverseScholar 1:0

A.I. Roca (2011a) We Are All Minorities, so Let’s Help Each Other: Introducing DiverseScholar, DiverseScholar 2:0

A.I. Roca and J.B. Yoder (2011b) Online LGBT Pride: the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival, DiverseScholar 2:1

A. Stith (2011) The First National Celebration of Asian Heritage Scientists & Engineers: SASE Connects! DiverseScholar 2:3

U.S. GAO (2012) Strategic Planning Needed to Better Manage Overlapping Programs across Multiple Agencies

Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D. is the Founding Editor of MinorityPostdoc.org and Executive Director of DiverseScholar, a project of Community Partners. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. He thanks Justin Hentges and Robert Rivers for help during the February 14 NIH ACD meeting as well as Arti Patel Varanasi for help at the June 7 NAS CWSEM meeting.

The citation for this article is:
A.I. Roca (2012) Redirecting National Attention to the Needs of Underrepresented Postdocs. DiverseScholar 3:4


Editor’s note: DiverseScholar 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 12-Jan-2013,
First published 13-Feb-2012