Archive for: January, 2017

Are bias- and privilege-free PhD admissions possible?

Jan 04 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

A question for my readers: if you have ever sat on a Ph.D. program admissions committee or similar (e.g. recruited Ph.D. students directly into your lab), what are the major criteria that help you pare down the applications into a short list for interviews? Here are some examples:

high GPA
prestige of undergrad institution
good GRE scores
experience working in a research lab
personal statement
great letters

Now, here's the second question: are there any of these possible criteria that do not probably select for some kind of privilege?  Obviously there are plenty of Cinderella stories of overcoming hardships (and truly, this is who we'd want in our lab, is it not?), but the reality is that broadly speaking, excelling in academia is more easily achieved when you're financially comfortable. Therefore, applicants with the time, money, and resources for internships, test prep, and independent study are generally going to be more attractive.

So the question for admissions committees and PIs is: how do we correct for this bias while still identifying applicants for whom a career in science is a the right choice? Obviously it would be great if we could just accept everyone and let things shake out, but that's not how Ph.D. programs work. It's a commitment for both the student and the mentor, and our goal in admissions decisions is to make an educated guess about who's got the best chance of coming out the other end ready to put that Ph.D. to good use. In biomedical fields, that student is often being paid and/or conducting research with taxpayer dollars, so we also have at least some responsibility to ensure that the student is productive in terms of scientific output. Once again, is it possible to tip the scales to these outcomes without privilege bias?

In my program, we don't have rotations. Students are accepted directly into labs, and so it's up to me to choose 3-4 students to interview out of the dozens of applicants who expressed interest in my lab. Since my lab is tiny and my time in the lab is limited, I would love a student who already knows how to work with animals, make solutions, and use a microscope. Plenty of applicants have these boxes ticked, either from undergraduate research or a year or two post-bac working as a lab tech. But many don't. It would be easy to just select from the former, but that's biased, right? So among the latter, how do we find those who are like little scientist butterflies who just haven't been given the opportunity to bust out of their cocoons yet? Is there any way within standard application materials to identify students with amazing potential but poor resources, or does the whole system need an overhaul?

Comment away!




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