Efforts to rectify the lack of diversity in academia have led to better representation in undergraduate and graduate programs in STEM, but subsequent levels of education have not seen the same progress.

Guadalupe Carrillo, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Stanford Earth, speaking with Stanford Earth graduate student Ginny Isava (on right) and another graduate student at the 2019 retreat. (Image credit: Michael Spencer)

“We know that the postdoc is the time when efforts to retain underrepresented people lag,” said Sofie Kleppner, Stanford University’s associate vice provost and associate dean for postdoctoral affairs. “We’re committed to the future of academia and that future requires diversification of the professoriate and the postdoc.”

In pursuit of better representation in academia, Stanford has joined eight other Tier One research universities – Georgia Institute of Technology; Harvard University; University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Michigan; California Institute of Technology; University of Texas at Austin and University of Washington – to form the Research University Alliance. The Alliance focuses on increasing recruitment, retention and transition into faculty careers for postdoctoral scholars who are part of minority groups that are historically underrepresented in the fields of mathematics, physical and Earth sciences and engineering.

This Alliance is a direct extension of another project for improving diversity in academia called the California Alliance, which was established in 2014 between Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA and Cal Tech, and focused primarily on graduate students.

The Research University Alliance is part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program and funded with a $2.3 million grant from the NSF and its Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate program. Kleppner and Page Chamberlain, professor of geological sciences in the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), are co-principal investigators on the grant.

The Alliance will develop a multi-faceted set of interventions, including improving access to postdoc positions, fostering nationwide postdoc communities, sustaining an inter-institution research exchange, and helping postdocs with their career planning, training and success. In addition, Alliance activities will encourage trainees to seek and apply for postdoctoral funding opportunities on campus, expanding and supporting a diverse community across all schools. Stanford will lead postdoc professional development for all Alliance institutions.

“It’s not just about getting people in the field but making sure they find a place of belonging, and that they have an institution that supports them with what they need to thrive and succeed,” said Guadalupe Carrillo, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Stanford Earth, who was part of the original California Alliance.

In parallel, the Stanford Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) is expanding its activities and developing a sustainable postdoc recruitment plan based on the pilot program Stanford Postdoctoral Recruitment Initiative in Sciences and Medicine (PRISM). Further efforts are directed at retention, and support for academic career transitions for postdoctoral scholars who are under-represented in their fields. These goals coincide with IDEAL, and with those of the Research University Alliance. The OPA’s initiatives will also serve multiple new postdoc fellowships on campus, including the Stanford Science Fellows, the School of Medicine’s Propel Scholars, and the Stanford Earth Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which was directly inspired by Stanford’s participation in the California Alliance.

Putting postdocs first

Stanford’s role in the Research University Alliance highlights the University’s ongoing commitment to improved postdoctoral resources and training – a commitment driven, in part, by the changing nature and increasing importance of the postdoc in recent years.

Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars getting to know each other at the 2019 retreat. (Image credit: Michael Spencer)

“It used to be that if you were going into faculty positions in engineering or the natural sciences, you could just start your career after you finish your graduate degree,” said Kleppner. “Postdoctoral training is now required for almost every academic discipline.”

What is expected of postdocs also depends on the careers they plan to pursue. A career in industry, for example, often requires fewer years of postdoctoral training than one in academia, and some academic careers demand more teaching experience while others emphasize high-impact publications and funding. To help Stanford postdocs navigate this complexity, the OPA has run a workshop twice a quarter for the past two years, called Designing Your Postdoc, which explains how to apply design thinking to postdoctoral training plans.

“Our work has to go beyond helping postdocs find resources,” said Robin Sugiura, OPA’s director of programs and outreach. “We have to help them think about their goals, what they need to accomplish in their postdoc and when they are taking on too much. We also have them consider the things that are important to them – what supports their ability to thrive as a postdoc – and how they make space for those things in their lives.”

Additional tasks that the Alliance will focus on include improving outreach, developing a postdoc application portal, facilitating a research exchange between the Alliance institutions, and providing academic job market and faculty hiring support and training. The Alliance is also responsible for tracking and analyzing the results of their interventions. One highly regarded element of the California Alliance that is being continued in the Research University Alliance is the Alliance-wide retreat, an event that brings together postdocs from across the Alliance institutions to meet their cohort, present research and take part in professional development workshops.

“The idea was to build a cohort of underrepresented minority scholars, and this was a really radical idea at the time,” said Chamberlain, who led Stanford’s involvement in the California Alliance and helped organize the first retreat at Stanford in 2014. (At present, Harvard is responsible for the Research University Alliance retreat.)

“The workshops were useful for professional development – for thinking about a career in academia and funding and mentoring,” said Grace Bulltail, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies who was a California Alliance postdoctoral fellow at Stanford from November 2017 to August 2019. “Overall, it was really helpful to have it specifically geared for us as postdocs and early career researchers in STEM.”

Built on success

The current Alliance differs from the California Alliance in that it focuses mainly on postdoctoral scholars, not graduate students, and is being deployed on a nationwide scale.

Yeimy Rivera, formerly of University of Michigan, discussing her research poster at the 2019 retreat. (Image credit: Michael Spencer)

“Each of these nine universities is quite different, so it’s going to be very interesting to see how the challenges differ across universities and how these efforts work at this scale,” said Chamberlain.

If all goes well with their current program, the Alliance hopes to expand further, to 28 institutions, bringing together a more varied group of universities and, potentially, increasing focus on early-career faculty. “This type of model would be useful in many institutions, and there’s a lot more potential for research exchange and collaboration,” said Bulltail, who, as a new faculty member at a non-Alliance institution, would welcome a similar effort to help her recruit diverse postdocs to her lab.

The innovations that Stanford develops as part of the Alliance will also have a far-reaching influence within the University, both by addressing diversity shortcomings and by creating training and support programs that will be accessible to the entire postdoc population.

“The way that you ensure that diversifying the postdoc diversifies the professoriate is by giving them the support and the training they need to get from starting a postdoc to finishing with the faculty job in hand,” said Sugiura. “Everything that I do for AGEP and everything that I do in service of helping these other fellowships support underrepresented postdocs who are coming into Stanford will benefit every single postdoc at Stanford.”

To read all stories about Stanford science, subscribe to the biweekly Stanford Science Digest.