In October, the University of Michigan joined a new Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) aimed at improving the numbers of underrepresented minority faculty and postdoctoral researchers working in the STEM fields—specifically in mathematics, physical sciences, environmental sciences, and engineering.
Despite making up 30 percent of the U.S. population, underrepresented minorities comprise less than five percent of faculty, six percent of postdoctoral fellows, and 10 percent of graduate students in STEM fields throughout the country. Research has shown that structural obstacles may restrict the range of careers pursued by underrepresented scholars, and may make it difficult for them to pursue competitive faculty and research opportunities. The AGEP group, called the Research University Alliance, will work to correct this problem by developing interventions to help scholars from these groups pursue competitive faculty positions.
Supported by a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Research University Alliance unites U-M with the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford University, the University of California-Los Angeles, the California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Texas-Austin, and the University of Washington. This represents a continuation and expansion of the work of the California Alliance, an AGEP group founded in 2014 to help Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows from underrepresented minorities forge careers at universities, national laboratories, and scientific think tanks.
Rackham began participating in the California Alliance’s Research Exchange program in 2018, providing support to 19 graduate students and one postdoctoral fellow on week-long research visits to other participating institutions. Through this Research Exchange program, Rackham also hosted graduate students from Stanford and UCLA at U-M.
“The Research Exchange program provided me the opportunity to visit and present my work at the Center for Astrophysics, which enabled me to meet with potential postdoctoral mentors,” says Yeimy Rivera, a Research Exchange participant and Ph.D. graduate of the U-M Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering. “This was crucial when I decided to apply for a postdoctoral position there. I reached out to those I met during my visit to review my application, and they provided valuable feedback on the mission and goals of the institution. My familiarity with their work and vice versa also made it easier to develop a scientific proposal that focused on collaborations with the group.”
Lut Raskin, the Rackham associate dean for academic programs and initiatives, Altarum/ERIM Russell O’Neal Professor of Engineering, and Vernon L. Snoeyink Distinguished University Professor in the U-M Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, serves as the Research University Alliance principal investigator from U-M. Raskin will manage the group’s external advisory board.
“Our Rackham team is delighted that we have the opportunity to help support Ph.D. students and postdocs with building their scientific networks,” Raskin says. “We know that establishing those networks is an essential component of attaining faculty positions at top research universities.”
Rackham’s long-established expertise in and capacity for institutional research will play a key role in the Research University Alliance. John Gonzalez, the director of institutional research at Rackham, will serve as U-M co-principal investigator and lead the group’s evaluation efforts. In addition, Zana Kwaiser, the manager of associate deans’ initiatives at Rackham, will provide project management support.
The group has already identified an estimated 850 Ph.D. candidates and 107 postdoctoral fellows at the participating institutions as eligible for the new program. Participants will be able to take advantage of several resources, including:
- Research exchange — Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers can receive funding to visit any of the nine university partners for several weeks to learn new research techniques, find mentors, start new research collaborations, and learn about postdoc opportunities.
- Extensive outreach — Senior Ph.D. students from colleges and universities beyond the nine Research University Alliance schools will be invited to take part in the Alliance’s professional development activities.
- Concierge service — Free, individual help will be offered to scholars wanting to be connected to postdoc opportunities, as well as to principal investigators searching for highly skilled, ambitious postdocs.
- Online postdoc portal — A new website will list postdoc and faculty opportunities available within the nine schools, accept scholars’ applications, and forward them to principal investigators in search of prospective researchers.
- Annual retreats — Gatherings for scholars will focus on networking and professional development that leads to faculty positions, with advice ranging from how to do a chalk talk to how to negotiate a job offer to how to prepare to meet with a dean.
“Programs like the Research Exchange offer early career scientists a simple way to begin building a scientific network,” Rivera says. “Often, visits to institutions and seminars tend to be given by scientists that are already somehow connected to scientists at the institution. The Research Exchange challenges that academic paradigm by connecting graduate students to future colleagues and potential collaborators that may not already be in their network. It lifts the financial burden that would otherwise inhibit graduate students from connecting and potentially attaining positions at top U.S. research institutions.”