Jan 5, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Some experts have long insisted that the key to faculty diversity in higher education rests in the establishment of a pipeline. Their theory? That encouraging more minority students to pursue PhDs would naturally lead to more diversity at the faculty level. Not all have held with this theory, however, pointing out issues which occur later in the recruitment, hiring and retention process as an inherent part of the problem. So which line of thought is correct? Recent research from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences suggests that it may be a bit of both.

A Closer Look at the Research

Published in eLIFE, “Decoupling of the Minority PhD Talent Pool and Assistant Professor Hiring in Medical School Basic Science Departments in the US,” indicates that while “flooding” the PhD pipeline with minorities is a necessary part of the process, it’s not sufficient on its own.

Why not? Because the data also indicates that while diversification should be possible based on the number of new PhDs entering the job market, it’s not playing out that way. The research reveals that while the number of minority PhD grads is growing at a much faster rate than the number of their well-represented counterparts, faculty hiring rates don’t correlate. In other words, while PhD grads from well-represented groups are being hired at rates corresponding with their numbers, PhD grads from minority backgrounds are not. The conclusion? It will take more than a pipeline to address the gap.

Key Takeaways

So what can be done beyond the pipeline to help higher education institution achieve their diversification priorities? According to the paper, “Faculty diversity efforts that rely primarily on enhancing rates of Ph.D. graduates (i.e., ‘filling the pipeline’) can only have their desired impact if they are coupled with efforts to get these candidates on the market and hired. This would require making faculty positions and work environments attractive and supportive to these scientists, ensuring the proper types of support (e.g. funding, mentorship and sponsorship) to allow [underrepresented minority] postdocs to effectively progress to independence, and ensuring institutional faculty recruitment, evaluation and retention processes support scientists from all backgrounds.”

While all of this may sound like a tall order, there’s good news. According to the researchers, “With concerted and targeted effort, the numeric realities of assistant professor hiring and turnover mean that higher diversity could be achieved relatively quickly among junior faculty.” So while the problem itself has been longstanding, parity may be a relatively quick fix with the right measures in place.

Read more about PhDs in Biomedicine.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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