Stanford supports alliance of universities in diversifying STEM postdocs

Nov. 10, 2020, 11:03 p.m.

The California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate — an inter-university partnership, of which Stanford is a founding member, dedicated to helping underrepresented minority (URM) scholars advance their academic careers in STEM fields — is expanding into a nationwide consortium, as out-of-state institutions joined the coalition. 

Stanford will support URM scholars in the alliance with professional development programs, in addition to academic exchange opportunities with eight other top institutions. 

Minority faculty members constitute 26% of Stanford’s professoriate, according to the University’s 2019 Faculty Report. The percentage drops down to 6.9%, or a total of 156, for URM faculty members. The fractions in earth, natural sciences and medicine departments are even lower than the University-wide average. 

The expanded nine-university partnership, now known as the Research University Alliance (RUA), will focus on supporting URM postdoctoral fellows transitioning into the professoriate, a career phase that often disadvantages underrepresented scholars, through research exchange, outreach opportunities and career advising.

Five new members — Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, University of Michigan, University of Texas at Austin and the University of Washington — have joined the former members of the California Alliance, including the University of California, Berkeley; California Institute of Technology; and University of California, Los Angeles, in addition to Stanford. 

The national expansion of the alliance means it can connect more scholars with opportunities nationwide — in mathematics, physical and earth sciences and engineering (MPESE) fields, 27% of all URM postdocs are trained at these nine universities, according to Robin Sugiura, director of programs and outreach at the University’s Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA).

Under RUA’s new structure, each of the nine institutions has an area of responsibility, according to Sugiura. Stanford “is being tasked with developing and delivering professional development for all nine institutions,” she said.

Stanford is uniquely positioned among these universities for its postdoctoral scholars population. The University has the country’s largest postdoctoral affairs office, responsible for a sizable population of 2,465 postdocs, according to OPA’s website. It provides more than 150 workshops per year.

“We will be working to develop the complete curriculum around this program and delivering it, either through national workshops or by creating content that that can be handed over to the institutions and delivered locally, to make sure that all of the postdocs are receiving the training and support that they need to get the faculty jobs,” Sugiura said.

Diversity drops off at postdoc level

Though URMs make up more than 30% of the total U.S. population, they only constitute 5% of the STEM faculty at research universities. 

Part of the problem lies in postdoctoral training. Most faculty have postdoctoral training at Stanford, which has not always been the case, according to Associate Dean for Postdoctoral Affairs Sofie Kleppner, a co-principal investigator of the grant: “If you look at the faculty at Stanford [now], the vast majority of them had postdoctoral training, even in fields like computer science, religious studies and history,” Kleppner said.

Historically, most postdocs could expect to land a faculty position at the end of one’s term, but that is no longer the case. Nationally, only about 40% of postdocs go into faculty positions, according to Kleppner. Others end up elsewhere, often in tracks that do not require extended postdoctoral training — which usually takes at least two years but can stretch up to much longer — in the first place.

The number of URM students in MPESE fields has doubled in Ph.D. programs, doubling from 5% to 10% over the past 25 years. The fraction of URM postdocs, however, has remained at less than 3%, according to Sugiura. URM postdocs have to confront the difficulties in both establishing one’s scientific identity and tackling the unclear expectations of postdoctoral training, Kleppner said.

“The professoriate is terribly under diverse,” Kleppner added. “Currently, there have been huge strides made in K-12 training, undergraduate, and even graduate diversity. But if you look at the data, the diversity drops off precipitously at the postdoc.” 

From California Alliance to RUA

The California Alliance was created to address the lack of postdoctoral representation. The alliance was founded six years ago with a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as an intercollegiate partnership led by UC-Berkeley to increase diversity in STEM and related sectors, according to its website.

The original funding from NSF was only enough to cover fellowship for six underrepresented minority (URM) postdocs across the institutions — but members of the California Alliance eventually matched funding for many more, according to geological sciences professor Page Chamberlain, Stanford’s co-principal investigator.

Forty-five postdocs have been funded across the alliance in total, according to Lupe Carrillo, who is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. Among them was Grace Bulltail, who was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford from 2017 to 2019 before becoming a Native American environment, health and community assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Chamberlain said that the inclusion of new members will not only be a matter of scale; the new members will also bring different resources to the consortium. 

While scholarship itself is important for postdocs to secure a faculty position, developing career plans and making connections are also necessary. “Sometimes a lot of opportunities in academia or learning how to navigate academia pertain to unwritten rules or informal opportunities,” Carrillo said.

One of the key platforms that the California Alliance has provided — and the Research University Alliance will continue to provide — is Research Exchange, a program for graduate students and postdocs that sponsors weeks-long visits with faculty members at another university. 

“While they’re there, they could be prepared with elevator pitches and small job talks,” Kleppner said. “They could be prepared with questions about how an institution works, which is a really important understanding for faculty to have.”

The California Alliance has also organized retreats for professional development. Stanford hosted last year’s NSF-Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate Research Exchange Retreat as well as the inaugural one. 

The alliance has created a network that helps clarify these unofficial practices, helping URMs navigate career paths in the professoriate, Carrillo added. 

Kleppner said, “We really think this alliance is going to be incredibly helpful in ensuring that people interested in the faculty track are successful getting there.”

This article has been corrected to reflect the accurate spelling of Robin Sugiura’s name, accurate data from Stanford’s 2019 Faculty Report and the correct acronym for MPESE. The Daily regrets these errors.

Contact Tianyu M. Fang at tmf ‘at’

Tianyu Fang '24 is an Academics writer for the News section. Contact him at news 'at'

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