Removing Barriers to Science

3 minute read

November 4, 2016 by Bradley Voytek

Like most US universities, UC San Diego has a strong commitment to enhancing diversity outreach and education at every level, from undergraduate and graduate programs to faculty and staff hiring. As the Diversity Chair for both the Neurosciences Graduate Program and my home department of Cognitive Science, I think a lot about both how and why diversity (broadly construed) is important in science. While I'd love to expound on the why in this post, I'm instead going to jump straight to my ideas on the how.

The point of this post is to emphasize a new project I'm trying to move forward on how we can enhance diversity in our science PhD programs.

Many of the minority and underserved students in our graduate programs come recommended to us by colleagues with whom they have worked, and/or who are identified through interactions at minority-serving conferences or research programs. That is, these students are already familiar with the intricacies and strange culture of academia.

In contrast, there are certain to be many qualified students who have never entered into or figured out how to navigate this academic stream. These students go unnoticed and never gain the exposure and encouragement, as well as step-by-step information on how to pierce the academic veil, and thus never even apply to our programs. I believe that this familiarity gap is hurting our programs and limiting the potential opportunities that those students might like to pursue. Additionally, many minority, underserved, and first-generation undergraduates are unaware that PhD programs are frequently fully funded and provide an additional living-wage stipend (granted, a wage that could be better, of course).

That is, many students mistakenly believe they will not be able to afford doctoral science education due to perceived prohibitive costs.

My proposal seeks to find a novel solution to this dilemma by taking advantage of the fact that many university and research faculty frequently travel all over the world to give invited talks to undergraduate-serving universities. Given that they're doing this travel already, we can leverage that fact to begin local, one-on-one dialogs between our faculty and local student orgs. What I'm trying to do is establish a diversity and outreach database to list contact information for local student organizations. If such a database existed, participating faculty could then identify student groups at each university or institute where they will be traveling to speak anyway.

In anticipation of their impending visit, faculty could arrange to directly meet with those student organizations to give advice on the relevant PhD program application processes, as well as provide details of funding, contact information for program administrators, identify potential PhD advisors for the students to contact, and so on. This means that, if our faculty participate, for example, UC San Diego can advertise our local student and faculty contacts. This would mean that invited speakers visiting UC San Diego can choose to meet with our undergraduate students for the same purpose.


I challenge faculty to look at this list when they travel to give talks, and I challenge PhD students and administrators to encourage visiting faculty to schedule 60 minutes with local undergrad orgs to cover the financial details and application requirements for their respective PhD programs.

I strongly believe that this kind of one-on-one, ground-level conversation between faculty and students who don't know how academia works will increase the depth and quality of our applicant pools, improving our respective programs overall.

If nothing else, I personally commit to looking at this list when I travel to give talks.