Since the launch of the Minority Scientists Network in February 2002 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science ( AAAS, publisher of Next Wave), I have talked to several students from underrepresented minority groups about their educational experiences, good and bad. Some of these students are having difficulties in their graduate science programs. Dealing with feelings of isolation on campus, resolving conflicts with advisers, overcoming the dreaded "research progress drought"--all these factors make earning a graduate degree in science a difficult task for anyone. For minority students, who are less likely than other students to have mentors, role models, and close colleagues, the challenge is all the greater. Without support, students are likely to fail, despite abundant funding. If minority students are isolated and then feel they have nobody to turn to for help, they are likely to leave science.
At a national scientific meeting earlier this year, one student told me about several events that she perceived as discrimination. Things got so bad that one day, she just stopped going to the lab. Discrimination is of course regrettable, even if not intended, but this is also a mentoring problem. For this student to decide that her only way out was to 'stop going,' she obviously felt she had no support system in her department.
Talking with her made me realize how fortunate I was to have great mentors. At all levels--as an undergraduate at Wayne State University, a graduate student at Ohio State, and a postdoc at Louisiana State, I received the training and mentoring I needed to set me on the career path that was right for me. Looking back on my own experiences, I realize there were two things that kept me interested in chemistry: getting involved in research early and good mentoring. Mentoring could have made a difference for the student mentioned above, as it did in mine. Some advisers have to learn to recognize problems with students and deal with them effectively, to avoid major issues later on.
Earlier this fall. I received an email from a graduate student addressing the lack of mentoring of minority students in science: "I have support from my family and friends. And, fortunately for me, I have a mentor who has been through the system. He encourages me and gives me advice. However, there are many students out there who are not as fortunate. ..." The lack of mentoring described by this student is the main reason why so few minorities earn graduate degrees in science. Mentoring is crucial to retaining minority students in science departments. Many institutions put forth a lot of effort to recruit students but little to retain them.
A dearth of good mentoring is not the only problem, though--students have to do their part as well. Getting an education is, after all, largely a matter of overcoming obstacles. Before going to any institution, students should find out as much as they can about the program. They should also talk to faculty and administrators and ask about graduation rates. Most importantly, they need to examine the institutional/departmental climate. Is the institution "minority friendly?"
If you are having problems with a research project or coursework, you should seek help as soon as possible. Talk to professors and research advisers and seek out the support that you need. Do not sit back and wait until it is too late. Your professors probably won't realize you are having problems if you don't tell them. I learned very quickly that if I wanted to earn a college degree, I had to learn to ask questions. I always feared that others would perceive me as being stupid, but I asked questions anyway. So, get the help that you need. Attending college is a wonderful opportunity. Make the most of it.
Science is a fundamentally collaborative endeavor. So, start assembling your team early. Students and advisers need to work together. Every team has junior and senior members, and each team member has certain responsibilities. Advisers have to learn to recognize when students are having problems, and science departments need to do a better job of retaining underrepresented students in their institutions. But, students have to do their part as well. So get the help you need. Talk to your professors and let them know what is going on. Earning a degree in science is not something you can do alone.