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The Pathway to the PhD: Latinas as STEM Doctorates From 1975–2010

Doctoral programs help students develop competence and expertise so they can become leaders in a variety of professions (Parsons & Platt, 1968; Wood- row Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, 2005). In the twenty-first century, it is especially important to equitably develop doctoral-level talent in STEM fields. Leading up to US involvement in World War II, STEM fields began to receive “prominent attention” over humanities and social sciences because science and technolog)' fields were seen as the “handmaidens of economic interests” (Parsons, 1946, p. 458). Within a few decades after World War II, US STEM doctoral education expanded almost exponentially, which allowed the United States to lead the world in producing STEM research (Fernandez 8c Baker, 2017; Powell, Baker, & Fernandez, 2017). Universities that had previously focused on undergraduate education began offering STEM PhDs, and old providers expanded the size of their programs. Despite unprecedented growth in the capacity for STEM training, the doctoral education system never equitably included US-born people of color (Fernandez, Baker, Fu, Munoz, & Ford, 2017).

The United States should increase STEM doctoral educational opportunities for Latinas as a matter of social equity and fairness. The United States must increase STEM doctoral opportunities for Latinas to meet labor market demands (Malcom, Dowd, & Yu, 2010). The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that the number of STEM jobs will increase by 28.2% between 2014 and 2024—more than quadruple the growth in other occupations (Fayer, Lacey, 8c Watson, 2017). As STEM occupations continue to expand, the percentage of the US population that identifies as White alone continues to decline; in fact, the majority—minority demographic crossover is projected to occur by 2044 (Colby 8c Ortman, 2015). Based on national projections, it is crucial that underrepresented populations, like Latinas, be brought into the STEM labor market (Martinez 8c Gayfield, 2019).

In addition to meeting the needs of the twenty-first century labor market, training more Latina STEM PhDs will help expand the pool of Latinas who can work in college and university settings as role models and mentors. Latinas are underrepresented among college and university faculty (Turner,

Gonzalez, & Wood, 2008). Increasing the number of Latina faculty is critical given that Students of Color are more likely to complete courses and earn better grades when they take courses with faculty of color (Fairlie, Hoffman, & Oreopoulos, 2014). Increasing Latina doctorates who take faculty positions can help improve student success for the growing ranks of Latina and Latino undergraduate students. The role of Latina faculty is especially important in STEM undergraduate education, because women of color in STEM fields often lack role models and experience microaggressions that prevent them from persisting in STEM fields (Espinosa, 2011). Therefore, for both economic and educational purposes, it will advance the national interest if the US higher education system draws on the talents of all its people, including by recruiting, retaining, and improving doctoral attainment rates of Latinas.

In this chapter, we examine the pathway for Latinas who earned STEM PhDs between 1975 and 2010. We examine the representation of Latinas who earned STEM PhDs, relative to their share of the population. Additionally, we consider whether there was a change in the percentage of Latina STEM undergraduates who went on to earn STEM PhDs. We inform this descriptive study by reviewing prior literature. After presenting our findings, we provide recommendations for increasing opportunities for Latinas to earn STEM PhDs—a key credential for moving into positions of leadership throughout our society.

Prior Literature on Latinas in Graduate Education

Prior studies established that Latinas were underrepresented among doctorate degree earners, relative to their share of the population. Data from the 1980s demonstrated that Latinas (i.e., Chicanas or Latinas of Mexican descent) were less well represented than other racial groups across multiple fields, including engineering, life sciences, and hard sciences (Solorzano, 1994), as well as social sciences (Solorzano, 1995).' The same disparities persisted through the 1990s (Watford, Rivas, Burciaga, & Solorzano, 2006). Using data from the national Survey of Earned Doctorates, Watford et al. (2006) examined doctoral attainment of students with respect to gender within each racial group. They found an increase in Latina doctoral recipients from 3.5% to 5% during the 11-year period (1990—2000); however, the gains were relatively small in relation to the overall population growth of Latinas in the United States over the same period. Additionally, Latinas continued to face both overt and covert forms of marginality in pursuit of doctoral education (Watford et al., 2006). Recent work has examined Latina and Latino doctorate production in the social sciences during the 2000s (Fernandez, 2018; Fernandez, 2019; Fernandez, 2020), but additional research is needed that examines the long-term pathway between Latina STEM undergraduates and PhD earners.

If Latinas and Latinos are to participate in the social and economic growth of this society, institutions of higher education must seek ways to increase educational attainment rates for this group (Contreras & Gandara, 2006). In the remainder of this section, we review literature on the pathway to doctoral education. Our review of prior scholarship both informs our findings and challenges institutions to consider ways to train more Latina STEM PhDs.

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