The Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program: A Model for Broadening Participation of Underrepresented Groups in the Physical Sciences through Effective Partnerships with Minority-Serving Institutions

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We describe the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge program as a successful model for effective partnerships with minority-serving institutions toward significantly broadening the participation of underrepresented groups in the physical sciences. The program couples targeted recruitment with active retention strategies, and is built upon a clearly defined structure that is flexible enough to address individual student needs while maintaining clearly communicated baseline standards for student performance. A key precept of the program's philosophy is to eliminate passivity in student mentoring; students are deliberately groomed to successfully transition into the PhD program through active involvement in research experiences with future PhD advisers, coursework that demonstrates competency in core PhD subject areas, and frequent interactions with joint mentoring committees. This approach allows student progress and performance to be monitored and evaluated in a more holistic manner than usually afforded by limited metrics such as standardized tests. Since its inception in 2004, the program has attracted a total of 35 students, 32 of them underrepresented minorities, 60% female, with a retention rate of 91%. Recent research indicates that minority students are nearly twice as likely as non-minority students to seek a Masters degree en route to the PhD. In essence, the Bridge program described here builds upon this increasingly important pathway, with a dedicated mentoring process designed to ensure that the Masters-to-PhD transition is a successful one.


The under-representation of minorities in the space sciences is an order-of-magnitude problem, and is one of the major challenges facing the United States' science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce as a whole (National Science Board 2003). Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans comprise roughly 30% of the U.S. population, yet represent only 3% of all astronomy and astrophysics Ph.D.'s earned, hi raw numbers, this translates into an average minority PhD production rate of about four individuals per year. Put another way, each of the roughly 50 astronomy and astrophysics Ph.D. programs in the U.S. has an average PhD production rate of 1 underrepresented minority every 13 years (Stassun 2005). This pattern of underrepresentation has remained largely unchanged for the past 30 years (Data source: Survey of Earned Doctorates NSF/NIH/USED/NEH/USDA/NASA).

Similar statistics apply in earth-science and spacerelated engineering disciplines (see, e.g., Huntoon & Lane 2007). For example, in 2008, 265 PhD' s were produced in aerospace, aeronautic, and astronautical engineering. Of these, only 6 PhD's (i.e. 2%) were awarded to members of underrepresented minorities who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Significantly, only 121 of the 265 total PhD's were awarded to U.S. citizens of any ethnicity; that is, less than half of all PhD's earned in these spacescience related disciplines are now being awarded within the domestic U.S. STEM workforce (Data source: Survey of Earned Doctorates NSF/NIH/USED/NEH/USDA/ NASA).

Of course, students from other countries contribute greatly to the Nation's STEM community, and bring much to the workforce in terms of diversity. However, such students are frequently disqualified from support by federal grants, and we attract many more qualified applicants than we can serve. Finally, it is worth noting that foreign students earn almost five times as many PhD's than do African- American and Hispanic citizens of the U.S. (Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation 2005).

Thus, while commitment to diversity must be at the strategic core of the Nation's future STEM workforce, a specific focus on domestic students from underrepresented populations also has a potentially strong, practical dimension. The number of non-U.S. citizens entering the STEM workforce has dropped dramatically in the post-9/11 era. …