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Bridge to the Doctorate

The Challenge

Diversity in the STEM disciplines has only begun to reflect the diversity of the U.S. population.

  • The traditional path of moving students directly from undergraduate study to doctoral education has not accomplished the goal of increasing diversity in STEM, and may even be counterproductive.
  • Some evidence suggests that underrepresented students are more likely than other students to pursue master’s degrees before committing to doctoral programs.
  • The result of this is that underrepresented students are at greater risk of incurring significant debt on their path to a Ph.D.

The challenge for the University of Michigan is how to attract a new group of diverse and historically marginalized students to doctoral education in fields where they are underrepresented.

Our Approach

One avenue for enhancing diversity in graduate education has been to create sustainable transition programs by utilizing and enhancing current degree programs and certificates. In 2011, the University of Michigan received a four-year NSF Bridges to the Doctorate grant to increase participation of underrepresented minority students in STEM doctoral programs.

In partnership with the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) and the College of Engineering (CoE) we supported Bridge programs in molecular biology, ecology and evolutionary biology, applied and interdisciplinary math, and applied physics.

Although the grant has ended, Rackham along with LSA and CoE have continued to invest and grow these efforts. In 2016, the CoE formally established a program where admitted master’s students are automatically considered for a Bridges to the Doctorate award. In 2018, Classical Studies established the first Humanities Bridge M.A. in LSA, and Ross Business School launched a Bridges to Doctoral Fellows Program offering a 12-month, full-time certificate program.

Current Bridges to the Doctorate Programs at U-M

  • Applied Mathematics, Marjorie Lee Browne Scholars Program
  • Applied Physics, Imes-Moore Bridge Program
  • Bridge M.A. in Classical Studies
  • College of Engineering Bridge to the Doctorate Program
  • Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Frontiers Program
  • Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, Pathways Program
  • The Michigan Ross Bridges to Doctoral Fellows Program

In addition to contributing funds, Rackham has supported these programs in multiple ways:

  • We convene a Bridges Director’s meeting, where faculty discuss admissions, current student progress, placement, current challenges and promising practices;
  • We conduct outreach to all Bridges students by integrating them into programming designed for Rackham Merit Fellows (RMF) that provides with interdisciplinary intergenerational mentoring.

Based on graduation rates and the proportion of graduates that enter Ph.D. programs, these programs have been highly successful. Among the 2008-2017 cohorts, 123 of 128 (96%) enrolled students completed a Bridges to the Doctorate program at U-M, 89 (72%) entered a Ph.D. program, and two thirds of these students (61) entered a U-M Ph.D. program. Eight students have successfully received their Ph.D. from U-M.

What We’ve Learned

The success of these programs has been hugely dependent on the incredible investment of time and effort by faculty and departments. With over 10 years of on-campus experience, we have collectively identified the following best practices.

  • Clearly defined goal and purpose statements for Bridges program
  • Formation of a leadership team (faculty director, chair of Ph.D. admissions committee, Rackham Faculty Ally for Diversity, and/or graduate chair)
  • Leadership team should be responsible for representing the program within and to the department
  • Faculty director should receive support/compensation to serve as program coordinator and academic advisor for Bridges students
  • Incoming Bridges students should each have a transition plan establishing expectations for matriculating into the Ph.D. program
  • Programs should NOT require students to submit an additional application to the Ph.D. program
  • A broad mentoring network (e.g., faculty director, research advisor, other members of the leadership team, current Ph.D. students) for each student
  • Regular one-on-one meetings between each student and faculty director as well as larger cohort meetings to discuss academic and professional development
  • Clear set of protocols and an intervention plan for students who are struggling
  • Multiple methods for integrating Bridges students into the broader departmental community

Next Steps

Rackham is fully committed to the academic excellence of the Bridge programs as one of multiple approaches to enhancing diversity in U-M doctoral programs.

Our long-term goal is to increase the number of Bridge programs across campus, while also sustaining existing programs.

  • Rackham plans to issue a request for proposals to recruit new departments to the Bridge program.
  • We continue to seek additional sources for sustainable funding, including support from the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program.


Rackham Graduate School


  • Emma Flores-Scott, Director of Graduate Student Recruitment, Engagement, and Partnerships
  • Anna K. Mapp, Associate Dean of Biological and Health Sciences


To learn more visit the Building Bridges to the Doctorate page.