Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Postdoc and research staff diversity: the need for data

Silicon Valley came under a lot of criticism last year for its seemingly grudging acknowledgement that it has a problem with diversity in its technical workforce. After a lot of pressure, many, but not all, major technology companies have released some data.

Higher education also has a diversity problem -- several, in fact. An examination of MIT data on recruitment and retention of graduate students and faculty from underrepresented groups -- women and minorities in STEM fields -- gives evidence that positive efforts were yielding some successes, as detailed in a major report. These groups come under a lot of scrutiny, and to be sure, there is need for renewed efforts so that the talent available in more than half the population is developed and tapped more fully in academia. But it seems to me that all the light shone on graduate students and faculty has left other important groups struggling to read their career guides in astronomical twilight.

Compared with graduate students and faculty, there has been near-silence on the diversity of postdocs and non-faculty researchers in academia. These positions are stepping stones to faculty positions or lead to alternative paths following the PhD. Yet some universities don't even know who their postdocs are -- there is often no central listing -- and the hiring processes that have served to provide equal opportunity for faculty may not be present for these other PhD positions.

MIT has recently published data on the gender and race/ethnicity of postdocs, research scientists and engineers, and other academic staff roles that typically require a PhD (e.g., lecturers). The comparison with the technology industry is illuminating and worrisome.
A few caveats: 63% of MIT postdocs but 41% of faculty in this data set are international. A significant fraction of the postdocs are in life sciences, where the majority of PhDs are awarded to women. Similarly, the MIT academic staff include many lecturers in humanities, who are preferentially women. So the data are not that easy to compare to the tech industry.  Nevertheless, the trends are concerning, especially concerning the lack of Native American, Hispanic, and Black scholars.

Surprisingly little is said about diversity in the recent NRC report The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited. The report references the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates and refers to the NIH/NSF Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering Survey. In Astronomy in 2013, this latter survey shows that of 407 postdocs, 8 are underrepresented minority (American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander). That's consistent with MIT's 2% for postdocs overall.

It's time for other universities and employers of PhDs to do what the technology industry has begun to do: show the data on technical workforce diversity, including postdocs regardless whether they are employees or non-employee fellowship holders