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Recommendations for Improving Pathways to STEM Doctorates

During the previous decade, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute convened a Joint Working Group on Improving Underrepresented Minorities Persistence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (Estrada et al., 2016). While that group did not focus on Latinas, they asserted that colleges and universities should place greater emphasis on removing institutional barriers and developing interventions that “lift” students’ participation and persistence in STEM fields. For example, the committee found evidence that several strategies increase persistence at the undergraduate and graduate levels. They found that STEM departments should seek to create strategic partnerships between program directors and university stakeholders to create and implement interventions. For example, partners can work to support students’ academic preparation or interest and motivation in pursuing STEM degrees and careers. STEM departments and programs should also work to implement active learning pedagogies within STEM curriculums, address student resource disparities, and help students see STEM subjects as inherently creative and meaningful disciplines in ways that align with students’ dispositions. Furthermore, Estrada et al. (2016) suggested that institutions should engage in action research methodologies to track successes and failures at the institutional level while collecting data to provide evidence-based interventions that aid in reducing disparities.

Other scholars echo and expand upon the recommendations in the joint working group report. Rendon and colleagues (2019) emphasize strategies that focus on early stages in the pathway to the doctorate. They challenge colleges and universities to increase access to undergraduate programs by supporting early preparation programs (e.g., first-year experience courses for STEM majors), remarketing their recruitment materials to Latina and Latino communities, and avoiding making admissions or advising decisions based on racialized, deficit-based views about Latina and Latino students and communities. Additionally, Rendon et al. (2019) encourage faculty to promote Latina and Latino student success by redesigning curricula and pedagogy', providing professional development for faculty' and staff to help recruit and retain Latina and Latino students, and helping students develop both academic and personal competencies.

Increasing positive learning experiences and learning outcomes could be key in promoting Latinas to pursue doctoral education in STEM. In terms of pedagogy and competencies, prior work suggests that Latinas in engineering programs may excel at developing leadership skills as undergraduates (Ro & Loya, 2015), which may help them pursue advanced degrees and ultimately become leaders in STEM fields. Faculty can continue to improve pedagogical practices in STEM by' creating learning environments that promote peer interactions, co-curricular involvement, and access to undergraduate research opportunities (Ro & Knight, 2016; Ro, Knight, & Loy'a, 2016). Faculty can also support cross-disciplinary research and training opportunities between STEM departments and gender or ethnic studies departments. Strategic cross-disciplinary partnerships can help Latina students develop complementary competencies, such as an understanding of social structures and the influence of social institutions on women’s intellectual development and access to scientific material (Espinosa, 2011). Espinosa (2011) argues that partnerships between STEM and gender or ethnic studies faculty are warranted and represent a lost opportunity if institutional leaders fail to forge and promote such connections.

Provosts and deans should work to hire Latina/o faculty and administrators, who play a vital role in the academic achievement of Latina students. A study conducted by Torres and Hernandez (2009) found that undergraduate Latina and Latino “students with an advisor/mentor consistently have higher levels of institutional commitment, satisfaction with faculty', academic integration, cultural affinity', and encouragement” (p. 1). Considering the effects of role models in Latina/o education, it is important to also note the gender inequalities that exist in STEM fields. Garcia (2006) revealed the unique challenges that Latinas face while pursuing doctorates in male-dominated STEM fields. The biggest issue for Latina students is finding faculty' mentors who share similar experiences and can offer guidance and support to meet their educational needs (Garcia, 2006; Ruiz, 2013).

Recommendations for Graduate Schools and Graduate Program Faculty

Graduate program coordinators should focus on helping to retain racial minority students. First, deans and diversity officers should strive to improve the campus climate (i.e., whether racial minority students feel welcome or ostracized). To improve the climate of graduate programs, faculty and staff who work with graduate students can be sensitive to the psychological needs of underrepresented populations so that they can support and promote student success—which, in turn, will support future recruitment (Griffin et al., 2012).

Faculty can adopt specific advising practices to improve climate and support doctoral students’ success. For instance, doctoral faculty can provide greater hands-on supervision to doctoral students and normalize struggles while cultivating a growth mindset. Often, tenured faculty turn over slowly, and departments should encourage faculty to develop cultural competencies and interpersonal skills for mentoring younger and more diverse cohorts of doctoral program admits. Finally, graduate schools should rethink cultural norms and practices, particularly those that factor into the admissions process and how programs encourage doctoral students to pursue faculty' careers (Posselt, 2018).

University' chief diversity' officers and institutional researchers should investigate departments that have a history' of excluding Students of Color during admissions and funding decisions. Conversely, university leaders can work to gain a contextual understanding of university-specific factors that promote full inclusion of students across gender, race, age, and other social identities (Slay' et al., 2019). Of the factors identified by' Slay' and colleagues (2019), offering financial support to Latina and Latino doctoral students may be especially' important. Millett and Nettles (2006) and Fernandez (2019) highlight the importance of providing teaching and research assistantships to Latina and Latino students.

Policy Considerations

In the policy realm, federal policymakers can work to undo the damage that ballooning student debt has done in discouraging racial minority students from pursuing graduate degrees (Malcom & Dowd, 2012). Congress can support the pathway to graduate and professional education by reducing an overreliance on loans. Financial aid policy reforms could include strengthening income-based repayment programs, reducing the debt burden ceiling, and increasing means-tested grant aid. Additionally, the federal government could increase graduate fellowship opportunities and other sources of non-loan support for Latinas and other minority' students (Malcom & Dowd, 2012).

In addition to helping individual students, Congress and state policymakers may direct new and existing resources toward institutional programs that directly serve women in STEM (Espinosa, 2011). More specifically, Griffin and colleagues (2012) point out that organizations like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health should expand funding opportunities aimed at helping STEM programs recruit and retain Latinas and other Students of Color. At the state level, legislators and academic leaders can work to balance or counter anti-affirmative action policies by providing financial incentives to public institutions that enroll diverse graduate student populations and produce doctorates from underrepresented backgrounds (Griffin et al., 2012).

 
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