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Attracting Diverse Talent is a Community Effort

May 28, 2020

In the past decade, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs across the US have been making a push to increase diversity within their respective fields. Like other STEM fields, statistics has many underrepresented groups. White or Asian men often occupy the high-level positions in statistics careers, which is no surprise considering that they are the largest demographics pursuing graduate-level statistics degrees. 

The School of Statistics at the University of Minnesota has been making a concerted effort to change that narrative, starting with their master’s and PhD programs. Assistant Professor Charles Doss has spearheaded this effort within the school. He explains, “Diversity covers a lot, [like gender, race, opinions, expertise, etc.], and I think that’s what makes it hard. We don’t always know how best to think about diversity, but it’s important that we try to have each of us find some way to put energy into making progress.”

Statistics Explain Statistics Degrees

The Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences is a nationwide demographic survey of universities offering PhD curricula in math-related fields. For statistics PhD programs specifically, the most recent data (from the 2015–2016 school year) illustrates the following about race and gender in higher education statistics programs.

Circular graph depicting the survey results of national statistics PhD recipients by race

Graphic depicting the survey results of national statistics PhD recipients by gender
Graphics by Chufue Yang, Backpack Student

As the data explains, graduate-level statistics programs are largely male and absent of students from Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaskan races. These are just a few of the groups the School of Statistics is trying to engage with. While this data helps illustrate the problem, the obstacle is solving it. 

“The big challenge for us, and for everyone in the STEM fields, is that there is no single place where you can just point and solve the problem,” explains Doss. He furthers, “It’s a pipeline issue, so if students are getting diverted from an early age, for any of a huge number of reasons, we can’t solve that at the university level. But on the other hand, if we don’t do anything, then students aren’t going to grow up seeing mentors who look like them.” 

Field of Dreams 

With a recommendation from the University of Minnesota School of Mathematics, the School of Statistics recently joined the Math Alliance, an organization whose mission is to support graduate-level education in the mathematical and statistical fields. They host an annual event called the Field of Dreams, which aims to introduce undergraduate students to math-related graduate programs. Yuhong Yang, the School of Statistics’ director of graduate studies, attended the conference this past fall and found it to be incredibly helpful to see how other schools with statistics programs are successfully attracting diverse candidates. “We met prospective students to learn firsthand what they cared about, and it was great to connect with faculty from other departments from all over the country,” says Yang. 

Doss is a supporter of the event as well, explaining, “The Field of Dreams event is a great one because we’re trying to see how we can improve recruiting efforts and be purposeful about it. There may be a body of students who are not aware of us, or, for some reason, haven’t been interested but could be.” The next Field of Dreams event is slated to be held in Minneapolis in November 2020. While this event is a great start, the real work comes when implementing the learned strategies.

Overcoming the Challenge

The outcomes of the School of Statistics’ increased effort have been promising so far. “We have hired seven full-time statistics professors since I started working here, and four of those seven are women. We still are far from achieving gender parity in our faculty, but it's a step in the right direction,”  explains Doss. Even though this isn’t specific to graduate students, it shows that the school is placing a bigger emphasis on diversifying their faculty to attract a more diverse pool of candidates. 

At the University level, particularly in the graduate programs, the School of Statistics has already implemented strategies to attract a more diverse pool of candidates. As Yang explains, “We have already adopted an application fee waiver for underrepresented minority students and have planned ways to mentor future minority students.”

Another way the school attracts diverse students is through their scholarships and fellowships, some of which are funded by the School of Statistics Alumni Fund. These awards provide financial support for graduate students, making it possible for those from a wide array of backgrounds to pursue a graduate-level degree in statistics. 

Yiyi Yin was awarded the School of Statistics’ Alumni Fellowship in 2017, a stipend presented to an outstanding second- or third-year student that is funded by a donation from the alumni fund. This scholarship allowed her to start research earlier in her education and focus more time on her research project throughout her degree. During her time in the school, she believes the school has made gains in increasing diversity. As she describes, “The School of Statistics is taking efforts to promote diversity in every possible way, such as hiring a diverse faculty with different backgrounds and various areas of research interests to build an inclusive school culture. This culture makes me feel comfortable.” 

Sanhita Sengupta, the 2018 Alumni Fellowship recipient, agrees with Yin. “I definitely feel that the School of Statistics is making gains to increase diversity.” As an international graduate student, Sengupta feels that the school has always created an inclusive environment dedicated to furthering her academic and career growth. “The School of Statistics is a diverse and inclusive body with good representation and equal and fair opportunities,” expresses Sengupta. 

Current Efforts for Future Results

Doss puts it best when he says, “One of our main goals is to make it clear that we think everyone belongs here, by putting energy and resources into recruiting and supporting underrepresented students. I do think there is evidence from across the country that we can succeed and that there are students out there that we would be a good fit for."

Working on this project has opened the eyes of many faculty members within the School of Statistics, including Doss and Yang, to the challenges of inspiring diversity. Doss’ biggest takeaway is that “everyone has influence over some aspect of the problem.” The School of Statistics is making a big effort to ensure that graduate-level statistics programs, and the careers that follow, are representative of the country. 

Please consider donating to the School of Statistics Alumni Fund to help attract and retain diverse candidates. 

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.