Fraser Lab DEIJ Journal Club - Racial Disparities in Academic Retention

Our journal clubs aim to provide an environment for continued learning and critical discussion. Based on the discussion, we also brainstorm action items that individuals and labs can implement. Our discussions and proposed interventions reflect our opinions based on our identities and lived experiences. Consequently, they may differ from the discussions held by those with other identities and/or experiences. This journal club took place among the entire Fraser lab. Due to the size, we split into three groups. Each group had unique but overlapping conversations. Below are the major points discussed by each group.

Discussion Leader: Stephanie Wankowicz, Daphne Chen, Eric Greene

Articles: “Differential retention contributes to racial/ethnic disparity in U.S. academia”

Summary and Key Points:

The top ranks of academia, particularly tenured faculty positions, suffer from a glaring lack of racial diversity(1). The cause of this lack of diversity is commonly attributed to challenges in recruitment and retention. Recruitment involves increasing enrollment of students in undergraduate or graduate programs, while retention focuses on keeping people in the ‘academic pipeline’ as they transition from role to role. Insufficient recruitment is widely recognized as a critical contributor to the lack of diversity in STEM fields; however, retention also significantly contributes to this disparity (2-4).

This paper addresses these concerns by focusing on differential retention. They frame retention through a null model, which states that if all else was equal, given the number of academics at stage i in a particular race category, there should be a proportional number of academics in that race category at stage i + 1. They examine each NIH race category’s academic career trajectory trends (5). The authors then compare the distribution predicted by this model to what is observed in NSF survey data. This comparison allows them to ask at which stage each race tends to “fall out” of the academic pipeline. The trends presented in this paper represent a significant dropout of certain races when moving from one stage to another. This was most evident from the grad school to postdoc stage, with a significant dropout of Black and Hispanic academics.

Racial Categories:

This study utilizes the NIH racial categories, which are extremely broad. We discussed how these categories oversimplify racial groups in the United States. The international scholars in the lab also provided perspective on how racial categories are a region- or country-specific issue, with many countries not discussing the issue of race due to a much more homogenous society.

Academic Career Trajectories:

The study broke down the transition from each ‘stage’ of an academic career (graduate, post-doc, pre-tenure faculty, post-tenure faculty). While this analysis removes many confounding factors, the academic career path is not for everyone, and performing this analysis with only those who want to enter the next stage of academia may highlight differences.

However, given this paper’s clear trends and the lack of survey data on career goals, adding this category will likely remain the conclusion. While racism is at the core of these disparities, we discussed specific differences at each career stage and potential solutions.

We also discussed the relative need for more career guidance support for people in the postdoc phase, including financial and mentorship. University postdoc offices often try to support thousands of trainees with only 1-2 full-time employees (6). This lack of general support isolates trainees, especially considering that many inclusive social groups in graduate programs are not found at the postdoc level (7). This can cause a much more isolating experience.

The lack of funding or support for research projects can be more relevant at the postdoc and pre-tenure phases. Research focused on different racial categories, such as health disparities research, is underfunded (8). Further, there is bias in obtaining funding (9).

Internal Lab Support:

While most of these changes need to occur on an institutional scale, we also acknowledged the significance of peer mentoring in fostering retention and support among lab members. Although being social and building relationships with lab mates can mitigate this feeling, it does not eliminate the sense of not belonging. Recognizing the value of non-lab-related peer mentoring networks, such as connections with individuals from other labs or institutions, we discussed how these external support systems can contribute to a cohesive and well-functioning lab environment. Furthermore, creating a supportive environment can help individual members see their next step in academia and expose them to career options they would not have otherwise considered. We acknowledged the need for regular conversations about careers and the next steps, as many trainees (graduate students and postdocs) tend to put off considering their future to focus on their science, and PIs should be, but are not always, proactive in initiating these conversations.

Hypotheses and potential solutions for improving retention:

We discussed the socioeconomic factors that present significant obstacles for individuals pursuing careers in higher education. These factors include the affordability of college education, wage loss during postdoctoral training, reliance on family support, costs associated with grad school interviews and applications, and the increasing financial burden of each education stage (on top of the cost of moving between educational stages). We also noted that gender plays a prominent role in many of these transitions, especially grad school to postdoc, postdoc to pre-tenure, as this is when many people in the canonical ‘academic pipeline’ have children (with fewer parents pursuing a postdoc, especially with women, as childbearing work falls disproportionately on women) (7). Moreover, the hard work of childbearing falls disproportionately on women, which presents a broad gender-specific barrier to advancement. More detailed data would provide valuable insights into the career trajectories of those opting out of academia, furthering our understanding of the challenges and reasons behind their decisions.

Open Questions:

  • How does the dropout rate from one step to another look among only those who desire to continue in academia?
  • How different does this trajectory look for different genders?
  • Why do people not move on to a postdoc or pre-tenure position?
  • There are also significant dropouts observed from pre-tenure to tenured positions. Why are universities not supporting their pre-tenure faculty through the tenure process?
  • What impact does observing a historically underrepresented professor not getting tenure have on an institution’s student population?
  • We’d love to see follow-up analyses of this data set, particularly how these trends hold up/change for different disciplines and/or institutions. Can we identify and learn from those demonstrating positive progress toward inclusive academic retention?

Proposed Action Items:

  • Advocate for increased funding and support of the postdoctoral affairs office.
  • Waiving application fees for graduate school and/or University providing travel funding up front (instead of through reimbursement)
  • Provide resources or opportunities for trainees to form peer mentoring networks, such as socials/mixers, funding for groups based on specific career/research goals, etc.
  • Bringing awareness of these racial disparities to admission committees, hiring committees, and hiring managers.


1) Research: Decoupling of the minority PhD talent pool and assistant professor hiring in medical school basic science departments in the US 2) How Gender and Race Stereotypes Impact the Advancement of Scholars in STEM: Professors’ Biased Evaluations of Physics and Biology Post-Doctoral Candidates 3) Academia’s postdoc system is teetering, imperiling efforts to diversify life sciences 4) Tenure Decisions at Southern Cal Strongly Favor White Men, Data in a Rejected Candidate’s Complaint Suggest 5) Racial and Ethnic Categories and Definitions for NIH Diversity Programs and for Other Reporting Purposes 6) Growing Progress in Supporting Postdocs 7) Academia’s postdoc system is teetering, imperiling efforts to diversify life sciences 8) Role of funders in addressing the continued lack of diversity in science and medicine 9) Fraser Lab DEIJ Journal Club - Blinding Grant Peer Review