Young Researchers of Color Need Better Mentors

Universities need to train their faculty to be better mentors to students of color, and to understand these students’ vulnerabilities

Bold, colorful artist's illustration of diverse team of scientific researchers looking into microscopes

When I started the physics Ph.D. program I was so excited about, I realized I was one of the few Black graduate students in the department and the only Black woman. I wasn’t surprised. I already knew Black women made up less than 1 percent of the physics doctorates in the U.S., but nevertheless, I soon started feeling isolated.

These feelings became even harder to navigate by the end of my first year, which coincided with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many people around me were silent and seemed unaffected by the force of its revelations, which were so meaningful to my life and identity. Alone in this silence, I felt I didn’t matter to my peers and that I had to minimize my identity as a Black woman if I wanted to fit in as a graduate student.

During my second year of grad school, I talked about my feelings to my mentor, a postdoc and woman of color in my department. She suggested I reach out to the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), an organization that works for the well-being of Black physicists. I joined several virtual NSBP events and immediately found a sense of belonging. It was the first time I met so many people who could relate to the social challenges and mental struggles I have experienced as a physicist.

I am thankful that my mentor recommended NSBP. It is a like-minded community that I can lean on during difficult times. However, I am also frustrated that I only got to know them in my second year of grad school, five years after I started my physics career. If my previous mentors had been more aware of the lack of diversity in our field, they would have prepared me better for this. If I had known about NSBP sooner, I could have felt this sense of belonging years earlier.

My story is not unique. Unmet needs for mental health issues are prevalent among Ph.D. students but even more prevalent among those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). For example, Black students are 73 percent less likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues compared to white students, and Asian students are 51 percent less likely to seek therapy compared to their white peers. University leaders and faculty members of Ph.D. programs have a responsibility to create a more inclusive and mentally nourishing environment. They need to become the mentors that young researchers of color need.

Besides the usual stressors that come with academia, BIPOC students must deal with racial discrimination, targeting the essence of who they are. A study from 2018 found nearly all BIPOC students in their sample have experienced racial microaggressions, which were associated with being more than twice as likely as white students to experience depression. This is not only hurting students; it is hurting research. Another study found that microaggressions also cause BIPOC students to become less engaged in their programs.

The problem is worse among Ph.D. STEM programs. Historically, STEM programs have lacked racial and ethnic diversity, and very few of them have resources available to support the mental well-being of marginalized students.

Universities must allocate enough resources to build a robust mentorship environment within STEM graduate programs. A good example are University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) programs. In Duke University’s UCEM program, several people at the administrative and departmental levels are involved in cultivating a strong minority-conscious mentoring environment. They have a designated “faculty champion” for each STEM department who advocates for inclusive mentoring with the rest of the faculty members.

The resources of Duke’s UCEM program are available for all underrepresented students in the University’s STEM Ph.D. programs. The program also publicly shares its practices online so that other universities can benefit from this information. Large universities have enough resources to implement something like this.

As Duke’s program shows, the responsibility for supporting minority students should not be limited to minority faculty. Equipping all faculty with multicultural competencies, and recognizing the importance of identity-based organizations, will create a stronger environment of support and mentorship. This could increase awareness of more subtle discrimination practices, such as microaggressions, that can harm BIPOC students’ mental health.

Do you remember Ralph Yarl? He is the Black 16-year-old boy who was shot in April for accidentally knocking on the wrong door to pick up his siblings in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo. As a Black person in this country, I cannot help but think about his story and the countless others like it on a daily basis. It saddens me to think that, based on my past experience, many of those around me in my academic bubble probably do not carry this same weight and do not recall what happened to him only months later.

When tragic events, such as the shooting of Ralph Yarl, reach national news, I find solace in the Black physics community. It is a space where I can be surrounded by people who fully understand me without having to explain myself. I find comfort in being able to see that I am not alone. And I hope other researchers of color can find similar avenues of support. If universities take responsibility for maintaining the funding and stamina for these types of mentorship programs, the mental well-being of BIPOC Ph.D. students could immensely improve.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.