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Latina STEM Doctorate Production

Figure 3.2 plots annual changes in Latina PhD production between STEM and non-STEM fields. In 1975, around 5% of the doctorates Latinas earned were in STEM fields. In Figure 3.2, we focus on Latinas as PhD earners. Even if the number of Latina PhD earners has increased, the percentage of PhDs that were earned by Latinas in all fields did not change much over 35 years. Between 1975 and 2010, the number of PhDs awarded to US-born Latinas increased from

Latina PhD Production, 1975-2010

Figure 3.2 Latina PhD Production, 1975-2010.

Note: Figure 3.2 is based on authors’ calculations of restricted data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). For our analysis of SED, we defined STEM fields as including computer information sciences, engineering, life sciences, math, and physical sciences (NORC, 2012).

a little more than 70 to more than 1,000. Figure 3.2 plots the annual number of US-born Latinas who earned PhDs along the left axis.

By 2010, approximately 13% of Latina PhDs graduated from STEM programs. However, the 2010 percentage was still just below the 1989 zenith. One could argue that the percentages of PhDs earned in STEM stayed relatively low because production of Latina PhDs increased so quickly in non-STEM fields. However, analyzing the same data source, Fernandez (2018) revealed that Latinas are still relatively underrepresented relative to the population in social sciences and humanities.

Other work suggests that the relative drop of US-born Latinas earning STEM PhDs after 1989 coincides with a period when American universities significantly increased enrollments of international students in STEM PhD programs (Fernandez et al., 2017). Of course, we do not mean to imply that international PhD enrollments squeezed Latinas out of STEM programs. Yet, it is evident that even though the US system of STEM doctoral education continued to expand, and the percentage of Latinas in the population continued to increase, US universities did not make sufficient progress in expanding Latina STEM PhD production.

In summary, Figure 3.2 shows that Latinas earned greater numbers of PhDs in both STEM and non-STEM fields between 1975 and 2010.

48 Frank Fernandez et al.

However, the relative percentage of PhDs earned by Latinas in STEM fields dipped several times since the late 1980s. Two full decades passed before Latinas again earned a similar percentage of STEM PhDs.

Next, we consider the pathway between undergraduate STEM programs and STEM PhD programs. For Figure 3.3, we examine Latina PhD earners in the Survey of Earned Doctorates for whom undergraduate degree information was also available. Latinas who earned undergraduate degrees in STEM but did not earn PhDs are not included in Figure 3.3. In only five years during the 35-year period between 1975 and 2010, did at least half of Latinas who earned doctorates graduate from both STEM undergraduate and doctoral programs; those years were outliers in which the number of Latina PhDs who earned STEM undergraduate degrees never exceeded single digits. In most years, Latina PhDs who earned STEM undergraduate degrees completed their doctoral studies in non-STEM fields (see Figure 3.3).

On one hand, we should celebrate every Latina who earns a PhD in any field. There are certainly cases of people who earn undergraduate degrees in STEM and then apply their STEM knowledge and skills in other fields (Ro, Lattuca, 8c Alcott, 2017). For example, a Latina might find undergraduate training in biology to be useful in a PhD program in business. On the other hand, it is problematic for STEM graduate education and industries if Latina STEM undergraduates desire to leave the STEM fields because of negative

Lack of Retention in STEM Among PhD Earners, 1980-2010

Figure 3.3 Lack of Retention in STEM Among PhD Earners, 1980-2010.

Note: Figure 3.3 is based on authors’ calculations of restricted data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates.

experiences or chilly climates (Espinosa, 2011). Anecdotally, people often assume that there are few Latina STEM faculty members or few Latinas in STEM PhD programs because there are too few Latinas in undergraduate programs—or too few going to graduate school. Yet the data in Figure 3.3 show in many years, Latinas who were trained in STEM doctoral programs demonstrated their ability to complete graduate coursework, and to write and then defend dissertations.

The descriptive data in Figure 3.3 do not give us any indication of why Latinas with STEM undergraduate degrees chose to earn PhDs in non- STEM fields. While it may be that they experienced chilly or hostile climates in their undergraduate studies and thus chose to pursue different fields for doctoral studies, they may have chosen non-STEM disciplines but still incorporated their STEM knowledge and skills into their graduate education (Ro et al., 2017). It may also be that they chose graduate schools or programs based on life-stage factors, such as being location-bound for work or family reasons (Grimes & Morris, 1997; Warnock & Appel, 2012). The data in Figure 3.3 lead to a need for further research on the pathways that Latinas take to PhDs and their decisions to continue to study STEM fields or to move into non-STEM subjects.


We used descriptive data to identify national trends in Latina STEM degree attainment between 1975 and 2010. We also provided snapshots of the educational pipeline (as seen in Figure 3.1 and Table 3.1) toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Prior studies examined shorter periods of time or provided snapshots with older data (e.g., Solorzano, 1994). The longer trends in this chapter demonstrate numerical but not proportionate increases of Latina STEM PhD earners, and the more recent snapshots update seminal work (e.g., Perez Huber et al., 2006; Solorzano, 1994; Watford et al., 2006). However, the data in this chapter do not include the most recent decade of Latina PhD production in STEM fields. Along with the other chapters in this volume, we hope that this chapter provides a foundation for scholars and policymakers to gather and analyze more recent data on Latina PhD earners.

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