As the only Latinx student in his PhD class, Dr. Robert W. Fernandez (currently a postdoc at Columbia University) faced a lot of challenges, particularly during his first year. He knew he was not alone in facing these struggles, and together with another PhD student, Olivia Goldman (Rockefeller University), created Científico Latino – an organization that helps students from various underrepresented backgrounds apply to graduate schools in the United States (US) and supports them throughout their career. Here, we speak to Olivia, Robert, and Cathy Amaya from Yale School of Medicine (who runs the organization’s Graduate Student Mentorship Initiative) about Científico Latino and the need to reinforce the message that underrepresented students can succeed in science, technology, engineering and math.
What are some of the challenges students from underrepresented backgrounds face when applying to graduate school in the US?
Underrepresented students have less access to opportunities and mentorship that can help guide them through the application process. For instance, most STEM graduate programs require a personal statement (or statement of purpose). However, the expectations for these essays is very different from the personal statement required for undergraduate school, and without a support network that can provide advice or feedback, these statements can easily make a student look like they are unprepared for the next stage of their career.
PhD programs will also often use student’s grades or level of research experience to “narrow” the pool of applicants they will consider. However, students from low-income families who had to work during their undergraduate education to support themselves or their families may have lower grades than their peers. They may also have had less access to research opportunities due to working one or more jobs during their degree or attending smaller colleges with limited or no research. Financial barriers also strongly restrict the number of applications some students can submit, which limits their chances of being accepted into the most competitive programs.
What sort of financial barriers do students have to overcome?
Each PhD application costs around $100, and students are recommended to apply for at least ten programs. Many graduate schools expect applicants to take the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) test, which costs roughly $200. Then there’s the cost of travel to the examination center (which can sometimes be hours away), sending scores to different institutions ($27 per school), and taking preparation courses for the exam (around $1,000). Students also need money to travel to graduate school interviews (before reimbursement by the institution), and some international students are also required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). So, the final cost of just applying to graduate school is easily over thousands of dollars.
While some graduate programs have need-based application fee waivers, this is often an additional hurdle that underrepresented students need to jump through. Unfortunately, these waivers rarely apply to international students (for whom the relative costs of applying to graduate school can be much higher), and some fee waivers require certain grades.
How does Científico Latino help students overcome some of these barriers?
Through our Graduate Student Mentorship Initiative (GSMI) we pair students with a supportive mentor who can help them with their graduate school applications. Mentors share their scientific journey, provide feedback on statements and, most importantly, help the student feel capable to take on the sometimes daunting and intimidating task of applying to graduate school. We also compile example statements, coordinate mock interviews, and host a webinar series to demystify the application process. Last year we also partnered with 22 universities who waived the application fee for students in our GSMI program.
Científico Latino team members Daisy Duan, Gwenaëlle Thomas, Dr. Carlos Rico, Aníbal Tornés Blanco, Yessica Santana Agreda, Leonor García-Bayona, and others played instrumental roles in the success of the 2019 and 2020 GSMI program. And the program would not exist without the support of all our mentors and their time commitment to help the next generation of scientists.
Why did you decide to place such a strong emphasis on mentorship?
Throughout our careers, we were lucky to have mentors teach us how to become a scientist, make the best of professional development and networking resources, and navigate graduate school applications. However, many undergraduates lack access to mentors and these resources, or are unaware of the benefits a PhD in STEM can bring, such as receiving a stipend or the advantages it provides to a scientific career. This especially affects low-income, underrepresented and first-generation college students, who are often first in their family to pursue a career in science and may be unaware about the importance of networking and being proactive in finding mentorship.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a better mentor, especially to students from underrepresented groups?
In our experience, patience and an open ear are often the key to being an effective mentor. A good mentor should be able to demonstrate empathy, establish open lines of communication, and encourage underrepresented students to follow their passion in spite of how scientists have been historically portrayed in the US.
If you are not from a marginalized group, you can still be a supportive mentor to students from underrepresented backgrounds. As in any mentor-mentee relationship, listen, try to identify and adapt to a student’s needs, and build a strong connection and trust. We look for mentors who will support anyone applying to a graduate program and pursuing a career in science, regardless of their background.
What are some practical steps that institutions could take to better support students from underrepresented backgrounds?
Institutions expect underrepresented scientists to be students, researchers and diversity and inclusion experts: we are asked to help with recruitment, serve on diversity and inclusion committees, and improve the climate of the department or university for underrepresented students. This is in addition to the emotionally-taxing labor of dealing with implicit bias, microaggressions, and imposter syndrome of being an underrepresented individual in often white, male-dominated departments and institutions. If institutions paid students and faculty for these efforts, this would not only help researchers from underrepresented groups feel recognized for their work, it would also improve the institutional climate over time and help others understand the importance of these endeavors.
How could institutions make their application process more accessible?
Rather than relying on GRE scores and grades, graduate programs need to evaluate applications more holistically, and not use these quantitative metrics as “cut offs” for applicants they will consider. Research has shown that grades earned as an undergraduate do not always correlate with the success of a PhD student. Similarly, there is no correlation between a high GRE score and succeeding in graduate school, which many institutions now agree on, in large part due to the incredible efforts of folks in the GRExit movement. Making the GRE score non-compulsory and abolishing application fees would also help make the process more financially affordable for students inside and outside the US.
Graduate programs should also be more explicit in their application requirements, expectations, and timelines. This can include posting example statements of successful applicants, and making it clearer whether applicants need to find an advisor before applying to the program. Institutes should also make the percentage of domestic and international students their PhD programs accept every year publicly available, so applicants with limited resources can make the best decision of where to apply.
What’s next for Científico Latino?
We are launching the next round of our GSMI mentorship program in June 2021! This will be the third year of the initiative, and we are excited to introduce new features to make it a stronger and more supportive program. Sign-ups for graduate school applicants and mentors will open in late spring – subscribe to our mailing list or follow us on Twitter @cientificolatin to be notified when sign ups open. We are also recruiting new team members who are dedicated and passionate about helping underrepresented students in STEM. To find out what positions we have available, contact us at email@example.com.
Robert W. Fernandez, Olivia Goldman and Cathy Amaya were interviewed by Julia Deathridge, Associate Features Editor, eLife.