Uncovering the Invisible Minority Postdoc Talent Pool

Ethnic minorities are underrepresented among faculty in academia. This situation motivates interventions that promote minority students to pursue a doctoral degree. However, the postdoctoral population is the actual talent pool for a faculty search especially in the STEM disciplines. Since its inception in the 1870's, the postdoctoral career stage has had little formal administrative and educational oversight. Only in the last decade have academic institutions begun improving the training experience for postdocs. Consequently, intervention efforts directed toward the much smaller minority subpopulation have lagged. Thus, faculty diversity efforts have overlooked this invisible talent pool. This brief report about underrepresented minority (URM) postdocs will summarize available demographic information, outline relevant policy issues, and describe effective strategies that serve as a model and resource for those stakeholders championing academic diversity.

The Nelson Diversity Survey [1] describes the disparity between female and minority student Ph.D. graduation rates and the lack of corresponding tenure track faculty in the STEM disciplines. However, the postdoctoral experience has become a prerequisite in many science disciplines. Thus, a fundamental question to resolve is whether there is an adequate supply of URM postdocs. Demographic data about URM postdocs are available from the 2005 Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey [2] and complementary internal institutional surveys conducted by either local postdoctoral associations or administrative offices responsible for postdocs (personal communications and web research). The average percentages of URM postdocs in the domestic postdoc population are the following: 3% African American, 4% Hispanic, and 0.5% Native American. Using estimates of the total U.S. postdoc population [3-5] and the fraction of foreign postdocs in the U.S. [5], then the total number of URM postdocs is possibly 2300 ± 700. There are caveats to these figures such as (a) self-reported ethnicity data from surveys, (b) the assumption that underrepresented postdocs are evenly distributed across the nation, and (c) the limitations of the NSF GSS survey which does not reach all institutions or all academic disciplines.

In 2004, the author co-chaired a National Academies COSEPUP session on postdoctoral diversity [6]. We outlined policy issues related to the minority postdoctoral experience. Many of these issues are similar for minorities at every career step although some are peculiar to the postdoctoral stage. 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.

SACNAS has over 30 years of experience promoting the advancement of Hispanic and Native American students towards the completion of a science doctoral education. The author led the creation of a Postdoc Committee to extend the successful SACNAS model to the career development needs of postdocs [7]. The Committee's inaugural event was the 2004 Minority Postdoc Summit. At the SACNAS annual conference, the Committee has organized career development workshops, an exhibition booth, and a reception for postdocs to network with recruiters [8, 9]. Significantly, the 2008 conference hosted a poster session that for the first time allowed postdocs to present their research. Thus, faculty, diversity officers, equity advisors, and other stakeholders can recruit minority postdoctoral candidates using this unique event.

Importantly, the author created the www.MinorityPostdoc.org website as a portal for documenting the minority postdoctoral career stage. The site feature resources, events, and articles about career advice, professional development, jobs, funding, fellowships, mentoring, and diversity issues. Note, for example, a career advice article about postdoctoral diversity fellowships [10]. In addition, activities of both national and regional diversity-related postdoc groups are promoted on this website. The outreach efforts of the author have led to the creation of a virtual community of minority postdoc talent for intervention activities. This internal, contact database consists of approximately 950 postdocs many of whom are from underrepresented populations. Therefore, stakeholders and especially recruiters could leverage this community for engaging the minority postdoctoral population. Currently, this postdoc database is not available online publicly; but, selected individuals are highlighted in the "Postdoc Spotlight" feature of www.MinorityPostdoc.org.

In summary, a National Academy report described postdocs as the "invisible university" because of their critical, but unrecognized, contributions to academia [11]. Today, the status of postdocs in general has improved. However many diversity efforts in academia have overlooked the minority postdocs in the STEM pipeline. This work ensures that minority postdocs will be an invisible solution no more.

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


1. D.J. Nelson (2004) Nelson Diversity Surveys: A National Analysis of Minorities in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities, Diversity in Science Association: Norman, OK; http://chem.ou.edu/~djn/diversity/top50.html

2. http://postdoc.sigmaxi.org

3. Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, COSEPUP, 2000.

4. Science and Engineering Indicators, NSF, 2008.

5. Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS), NSF, 2009.

6. web.archive.org/web/20060115202044/www7.nationalacademies.org/postdoc/BreakoutA5.html

7. A.I. Roca, "20/20 Foresight: the new postdoc programs at SACNAS", SACNAS News newsletter 7 (3): 20-21, Summer 2005.

8. A.I. Roca, "Diversity as a life skill: collaborations between SACNAS and the NPA", NPA POSTDOCket newsletter 3 (3): 5-6, Summer 2005.

9. M. Higa M and A.I. Roca, "2010 SACNAS national conference welcomes postdocs", University of California Postdoc Newsletter, Issue 4, p3 (May 2010).

10. A.I. Roca AI and I. Vidal Pizarro, "Diversity Funding for Your Postdoctoral Research: Advice for a Successful Experience", SACNAS News newsletter 12 (1): 20-21, Summer/Fall 2009.

11. The Invisible University: Postdoctoral Education in the United States, National Academy of Sciences, 1969.

A.I. Roca (2010) Uncovering the Invisible Minority Postdoc Talent Pool.
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An earlier version of this work was published as a poster abstract at the 2009 Conference on Understanding Interventions.

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Originally Published 20-Oct-2010

Last updated: 2020-04-17