This winter, I was fortunate to be among the small group of aspiring psychology PhD students accepted into doctoral programs. As a low-income first-generation college graduate and the first on both sides of my extended family to pursue a professional degree, this was a dream come true. The programs I applied to were focused primarily on research addressing issues of social and economic inequality and every program emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusivity. Of course, bringing in diverse perspectives would not only enhance the approach to research in this area, but would bring a representative voice to the marginalized communities being studied. During my interviews however, it was evident to me that although graduate departments in psychology have made progress, there is still tremendous room for growth in achieving truly diverse teams of students and faculty.
More specifically, despite honest efforts led by many universities to develop and recruit diverse scholars, low-income first-generation graduate students and faculty of color remain underrepresented in the psychological sciences notwithstanding absolute numbers improving over time. Of the more than 500 U.S. psychology departments surveyed by the American Psychological Association in 2017, about 70% of doctoral students are reported to be white.
This gap first emerges at the undergraduate level. Nationally, out of 7.3 million students attending four-year public and private universities full-time, about 20% are the first in their family to attend college. Of those, 50% are low-income and are more likely to be a member of a racial or ethnic minority group. These students are also less likely to graduate; in six years, 50% of first-generation students will have earned a bachelor’s degree, versus 64% of their peers whose parents attended college. Among those first-generation students who graduate, approximately 25% enroll in graduate programs compared to 34% of non-first-generation graduates.
The path towards a PhD is intensive and includes a long list of milestones a student must reach before their application is considered competitive. For a first-generation college student however, navigating this path comes with additional challenges. These challenges can be financial, as students are unable to work for free and lack professional networks from which to seek guidance, as well as psychological, oftentimes from guilt over leaving families behind and/or stress of taking care of family members while in school. The culmination of these stressors impacts students’ ability to perform academically, while at the same time they struggle to adapt to the rigor of college coursework after coming from under-resourced high schools.
Navigating such obstacles without familial or financial support can oftentimes feel isolating, overwhelming, and can make students feel like they don’t belong in the world of postsecondary education. This level of burden stands in stark contrast to their well-resourced peers who have sufficient time and energy to devote to volunteering in psychology research labs — a critical component to developing a competitive graduate school application.
For myself and my colleague, Catherine Ubri, another first-generation student and research assistant at IHDSC’s Neuroscience and Education Lab who also recently got accepted into PhD programs, there is another side to the story. “My background motivates me to continue my education and I have learned to trust that I’m capable of overcoming significant obstacles. Recognizing this resilience has helped me find strength in my experiences—a strength that empowers me to face the inevitable challenges that come with graduate school,” says Catherine.
Realizing these sources of strength, recent efforts led by Applied Psychology Department Chair Dr. LaRue Allen and a core team of Steinhardt faculty and staff, are underway to increase opportunities for college students from underrepresented groups (e.g., first-generation, low-income, and/or racial-ethnic minority students) to develop the skills and experiences needed to get to and through psychology doctoral programs. The program, called AP Quest, will recruit 10 underrepresented undergraduates in the first year and will expand to reach more students each year thereafter. Over eight weeks in the summer, students will complete coursework and workshops in research methods, as well as 20 hours per week to work on a research project in a lab. Each student will be paired with a faculty or graduate student mentor, who will provide essential training on graduate school applications, networking and advocating for oneself, dealing with the pitfalls and failures of academia, and developing a unique program of research aimed at improving the lives of children and families.
“There are fundamental inequities in the training and experiences students have access to in college,” says AP Quest committee member and IHDSC Director Dr. Elise Cappella. “We wanted to address these inequities through a summer program that created rich opportunities for learning; not only about psychological concepts and methods but also about how to select graduate programs, develop a competitive application, and navigate the challenges of graduate school.”
Beyond graduate training, ensuring diversity at the faculty level is equally important. According to the American Psychological Association, only 14% of full-time psychology faculty identify as a member of a minority group. To tackle this discrepancy, NYU’s Office of the Provost in collaboration with Steinhart, recently launched the Faculty First Look scholars program. Faculty First Look is a year-long program designed to mentor talented underrepresented doctoral students while providing them tools to navigate the culture of academy. A primary aim of the initiative is to expand the pool of competitive and diverse candidates for the academic job market.
The Steinhardt Diversity Postdoctoral Research Fellowship also launched a pilot initiative that provides additional funding recipients of the Provost’s Postdoctoral Program for Academic Diversity. The initiative aspires to attract scholars from underrepresented minority groups whose background and training show significant promise to meaningfully contribute to NYU’s academic excellence and commitment to inclusivity.
Increasing diversity in higher education is crucial for all scientific fields, but even more so for research focused on understanding the social and economic inequalities facing children and families today. Cultivating inclusive and diverse teams of scientists to tackle issues of inequality would not only improve the science—it would bring a voice to underprivileged and marginalized communities through the scientists who have themselves grown up in those communities.
At NYU Steinhardt, it’s encouraging to be a part of a community that understands the importance of mentoring and advocating for the next generation of diverse scientists in psychology. “I used to be very apprehensive about revealing my first-gen status to others. It was always just easier to nod along and pretend like I understood the complexities of academia and private universities. Now as a faculty member, I see how vital it is for first-gen or minority faculty members to be visible for students with similar experiences. Representation matters,” says Steinhardt faculty Dr. Natalie Brito, also a first-generation college graduate. “Diversifying the student and faculty population is essential to fostering a sense of belonging.” For myself and Catherine, our successful application cycle was largely due to the outstanding mentorship we received from Steinhardt faculty and students who not only gave us rigorous methodological training, but made us feel like we belonged in academia.
Meriah DeJoseph is the Lab Manager for the NYU Neuroscience and Education Lab. She is a first-generation college graduate and will be starting a PhD program in Child Psychology in the fall of 2018 at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.