At our nation’s research universities, including the University of Washington, underrepresented minorities make up less than 6% of the faculty across non-medical science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. This severe underrepresentation among faculty has persisted for decades and comes, in part, from a lack of diversity among the doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars in these fields who elect to pursue faculty positions.

In turn, the lack of diverse science and engineering faculty discourages students of color from pursuing degrees in these fields — a negative feedback loop that has proven difficult to break.

With the help of new grants from the National Science Foundation and the Washington Research Foundation, UW is attempting to address this problem by combining efforts across an alliance of top research universities.

A key component of this effort — connecting underrepresented minority senior doctoral students with postdoctoral opportunities across the alliance — will be led by UW, under the co-direction of College of Environment Associate Dean Julia Parrish, Graduate School Dean Joy Williamson-Lott and Provost Mark Richards.

The statistics are concerning. Just 8.5% of doctoral students in these science and engineering departments identified as underrepresented minorities, significantly lower than the demographics of the U.S. But these numbers are halved at the postdoc and faculty levels — to just 3.9% of postdoctoral researchers and faculty.

“That loss is a crucial starting point,” Parrish said.

Unlike the hiring process for faculty, which usually involves advertising open positions, the hiring of postdoctoral researchers has relied more on word-of-mouth networks among academics.

“Put simply, we are looking to establish a new network at the graduate and postdoc level that doesn’t depend on who you already know or are connected to, but is instead dependent on the excellent, interesting, edgy work that they do,” said Parrish. This new system will vastly improve upon the old networks.

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