Before applying for your dream science job, Google thyself

By Adam Ruben

Original source

Earlier this month, a professor took to Twitter with a request. She wrote, “Dear Academics on the job market: Please make a google scholar page for yourself. Sincerely, Search Committees everywhere.”

In the Twitterstorm of comments that followed, some respondents thanked the professor for the inside-track information. But the suggestion rubbed others the wrong way, and not just because of its haphazard capitalization. To them, the comment’s tone seemed to admonish them for failing to do something superfluous and seemingly arbitrary. A Google Scholar page? I mean, OK, but why?

It’s no wonder job applicants have so many questions about what potential employers are looking for. You think you’ve submitted a polished CV and a brilliant cover letter—then suddenly you learn that you also need to make yourself look presentable online. It may seem like overkill. But the reality is that if you get far enough in the job application process—whether inside academia or out—someone is likely to Google you. With that in mind, here are some tips for sanitizing your online presence so that you can look presentable to hiring committees everywhere.

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Make absolutely sure you have a [INSERT NICHE PROFILE SITE HERE] page. What, you aren’t on ResearchGate? Then how do you connect with other scientists socially but in a restrained academic way? You don’t have a Google Scholar page? You’re not using Publish or Perish? What’s your ORCID ID? How often do you update your profiles on LinkedIn, Monster, Indeed, and BioSpace? Have you joined Inspire and Publons and bioRxiv and GitHub and Surely you know that every single hiring committee is going to search all of these sites, and if you’re not active on their favorite one, you’re not a serious scholar. Just be sure not to waste time on these sites at the expense of maintaining your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia pages.

Google thyself. Want to see what your prospective employer can see? Simply try to search for yourself the way they will. Don’t forget to search images as well. It would be unprofessional and creepy for an employer to search for you this way, so you know they will.

Try Bing, too. No one uses Bing because they want to use Bing. But some people use Bing because it’s the default search engine for Internet Explorer, and they use Internet Explorer because they are in their 80s. Remember that different search engines may give different results, so check a few.

Plead your case. If your friend wrote an unflattering blog post that mentions you, it might be within your power to convince them to delete the post—or at least your name. But you can’t just send a friendly email to Google and have the company take down everything you don’t like on the internet. A more effective approach is to physically travel to northern California and run through the nearest tech office plaza pointing at the offending post and yelling, “TAKE IT DOWN TAKE IT DOWN TAKE IT DOWN” while waving your arms like a Muppet. This will ensure that the post in question is no longer the most embarrassing thing about you on the internet.

Change your privacy settings on social media. This foolproof method will keep your posts visible only to friends, friends-of-friends, and anyone to whom you granted permission by accident. Don’t accept new friend requests from accounts that are clearly prospective employers trying to sneakily learn about you: “Hello, close friend! My name is HR Admin. Let’s be buddies online so we can learn about each other using the least secure settings!”

Scan social media for youthful follies. Did a friend post a photo on Facebook showing you doing a keg stand in 2009? Untag yourself. Did you check into a Hobbit-themed escape room once on Foursquare? Uncheck it. Did you publicly Venmo a friend for Nickelback tickets? Discard your computer. Don’t think of these changes as revising history; think of them as presenting your best, most dignified, and least authentic self.

Don’t forget older accounts. Your TikTok profile isn’t the only page that can be found on the web. Remember to deactivate accounts you created years ago on sites you thought were going to be amazing. This includes your Myspace profile and, if you can still find it, your Geocities account—whatever the heck that did.

Make yourself look professional. It’s not just a matter of deleting old stuff. Actively portray yourself as the consummate professional who you know yourself not to be. Post scientific journal articles! Discuss academic matters on a career-focused blog! Follow boring science organizations on Twitter! Portray this as your normal life. This is important, because no laboratory wants to employ a well-rounded human.

Got cats? Yeah, tone down the cats.

Never, ever post anything anywhere about hating your job. I used to work with someone who not only filled her Facebook feed with complaints about her stupid job and her stupid boss and her stupid lab work, but she even posted these complaints during working hours. You never know where potential future employers will materialize; they may even come from within your Facebook universe. Why would they want to hire you after seeing a pattern of negative comments? If you truly need to vent, the most secure way is to write your thoughts at the end of a Word document containing your dissertation, thus ensuring that your computer will delete the file before you think to back it up.

Hire a professional reputation manager. For a mere several thousand dollars, you can hire a smarmy sleazeball to trawl through the internet and beef up your search results with posts that amount to nothing more than distractions and lies. This is what we’ve come to, people. Do yourself a favor, though: Before employing a reputation manager, Google them.

You know what? Just don’t use a computer, ever. When in doubt, this is the only surefire method of keeping your online presence crisp and professional. Also don’t use a phone, end your friendships with anyone who owns and uses an internet-enabled device, and be sure to regularly change the aluminum foil in your hat.

Sanitizing your online presence is something previous generations never had to think about. Then again, they also couldn’t press two buttons on a glass rectangle and summon a taxi delivering tacos, so I’d say we’re doing pretty well in general.

But the good news is that an employer’s ability to access your personal secrets generally only extends as far as your willingness to share them. Before you post that tweet about how you and your friends attended a meeting of the Flat Earth Society, think about whether it portrays you in the most positive light.

Sincerely, Search Committees everywhere.

Re-prioritizing mental health during COVID-19

Nearing the anniversary of the first reported COVID-19 case, the burden of the pandemic has impacted graduate students and postdocs in specific and often isolated ways. More trainees than ever before are reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety, written about here (graduate students) and here (postdocs). For graduate students, a common thread is the feeling of not being productive enough, compared to the fast-paced environment of pre-COVID academia. For postdocs, fears of losing their jobs, as contracts are often yearly and funding is not necessarily extended despite the pandemic, and being forced to look outside of academia are contributing to new waves of anxiety.

Plus, we have anxieties outside of science including election season, social injustices, financial concerns, and pandemic fatigue. Truthfully, thinking about all the burdens in the country and world make me want to never leave my bed.

As we try to adjust to our new normal, what can we do to preserve our mental health? Here are a few ideas to help cope:

  1. Be more accepting. Accept that you cannot compare your productivity before the pandemic to new. You are doing the best you can and you should be proud of yourself. Further, be more accepting of others. Understand this pandemic is a collective trauma that affects us all differently, so the people around you are different because of this, as well.
  2. Re-adjust your priorities. While you can only do so much to get that manuscript submitted, or that experiment done, there are plenty in your life you can have control over. In academia, we are used to prioritizing science over all else, but take this pandemic as an opportunity to slow down, and place yourself first. We likely are unable to work long hours, so focus on a hobby, or a goal like eating better or working out. Take control over your time not working to prevent ruminations over things you can’t control.
  3. Maintain a routine. Routines give us a sense of structure and accomplishment. They also help our insatiable need as scientists to feel busy!
  4. Practice mindfulness. For those unaware of the term, mindfulness is being present in the moment in a observational, non-judgmental way. A short list of the benefits of mindfulness is available here. Mindfulness certainly takes practice. I chose to practice mindfulness through meditation, and early on I could not get through a 3 minute meditation without becoming frustrated with myself for not focusing better. Now I can get through a 15 minute meditation with kindness and acceptance toward myself. There are plenty of ways to practice mindfulness, as shown here. For me personally, practicing mindfulness in daily life has led me to have a clearer head, less negative self talk, and has provided me tools to re-examine anxiety. Highly recommend.

Update: here‘s another great resource focusing on mindfulness during COVID!

What other tools can you think of to protect our mental health and prevent pandemic fatigue? Share them with us by emailing Morgan at

Rooting out gender imbalance in STEM

Original source

Science policy 2020 addresses part of the problem, need to tackle thinning pipeline for STEM jobs after PG

A 2017 NITI Aayog report shows that just 20% of the research and administrative staff in a select group of institutions, including the IITs, IISERs and NITs, are women.

The new science and technology policy that is expected in December will place significant weight on the hiring of women in STEM positions and support policy for them at institutes and research organisations, The Indian Express (IE) reports. The move is aimed at improving women’s representation in STEM employment. Despite having one of the best showings globally on women’s representation in undergraduate science education, just 13.9% of the total of 280,000 researchers holding STEM jobs in India are women, a 2019 analysis by Unesco shows. Contrast this with China, where women account for nearly 40% of the total pool of researchers.

One of the reasons is the drying pipeline towards the doctoral end of STEM higher education in the country. As AISHE 2018-19 data shows, while women equal men in strength at the undergraduate level in the sciences, they outnumber men (3:2) at the post-graduate level. In the medical sciences, too, they outnumber men at both the undergraduate and the PG level. Engineering, though, remains male-dominated. At the PhD level, however, men outnumber women in engineering, medical science and the sciences, though, in the sciences, the lead men have is not very sharp. The pipeline for women in STEM research, thus, seems to thin out after PG. A 2017 NITI Aayog report shows that just 20% of the research and administrative staff in a select group of institutions, including the IITs, IISERs and NITs, are women.

Some other factors behind the low representation of women in STEM employment, as documented across the globe through research, are unequal pay, dual responsibilities of managing home and work impacting career growth and becoming a serious disincentive, etc. Indian women in STEM have managed to hold their own in terms of published work despite their low strength in employment—a study analysing a sample of 27,000 papers published by Indian researchers in 2017, in the Journal of Informetrics, found that there was one woman author for every three male authors, across 186 streams. Compared to the US, the study found, Indian women researchers had a better showing in fields such as microbiology, dentistry and mathematics—for instance, in microbiology the US female-male ratio was 0.33 while India’s was 0.57. It is, therefore, not hard to imagine how much more Indian STEM R&D could be buoyed if more women were participating.

As a study published in BMJ that analyses over 101,000 clinical research papers and nearly 6.2 million papers in life sciences from across the globe, including India, finds women researchers tend to be more conservative about the impact of their research. In contrast, male researchers tend to be bolder and use buzzwords that attract more citations, more research grants and consequently, faster promotion. Over time, this has meant more male representation in decision-making bodies in the academia and R&D institutions—the NITI report too talks about the low representation of Indian women scientists in science administration roles. It also says a sample of 991 women working in STEM positions had reported 217 instances of having refused challenging career opportunities; in 72% of these cases, ‘family care’ or ‘family objection’ had been cited as reasons. While there is no such research amongst men in STEM positions, it is highly unlikely such reasons would figure at a comparable level.

The science policy 2020, as IE reports, focusing on facilitating on women for STEM employment through measures such as more promotion opportunities, leadership positions and support facilities such as crèches solves part of the problem. The more significant intervention has to be on correcting the pipeline distortion—the NITI report talks of increasing doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships for women in STEM, which could help them overcome financial difficulties in pursuing a career in research. Given how choice is skewed towards certain disciplines within STEM, the CSIR, DST and other such bodies could also think of grants to encourage women to pursue the less-chosen disciplines.

PhD students can benefit from non-academic mentors’ outside perspectives

By Derrick Rancourt

Original source

A mentor is a professional who acclimates a protégé into a profession. In the Bottegas of Renaissance Florence, upstart Leonardo Da Vinci pulverized Tuscan stone and collected eggs to make tempera for mentor Andrea del Verrocchio, who might allow Da Vinci to assist Michelangelo with his paintings.

Although this model was adopted by the research laboratories of the Enlightenment through to postmodernism, it is now faltering.

With less than 20 per cent of PhD students being able to transition into academia, the PhD is no longer a foremost career entree into the professoriate. Most PhD students no longer work alongside people whose career paths they will follow. In light of this, universities must do more to support non-academic mentorships for PhD students.

Career confidence

Some of my research focuses on the value of students procuring non-academic mentors through informational interviews. By embedding informational interviewing into curriculum, I have studied how students can learn to explore non-academic careers, connect with working professionals, seek advice and cultivate professional, mentor-protégé relationships. Through this process, students learn the tacit knowledge they often are missing, showing substantial improvements in their career confidence and well-being.

Because linear career progression is ending, forcing people to change jobs frequently, students should be taught skills to adapt to uncertain labour markets. Hence, it is important to teach students how to investigate, reflect on and test potential careers.

The concept of a “future professional self” helps expand a student’s aspirations. Career reflection fosters innovative thinking about prospects, helping to build strategies and expectations that make ambitions real. Once students know what they want to do, they are more inspired to work towards reaching their goals.

My daughter, Kate, also recently shared with me her experience as a non-academic mentor in Dalhousie University’s clinical psychology PhD program. She has also shaped my perspectives on how non-academic mentors offer PhD students the opportunity to develop meaningful perspectives and connections.

Two women sit in an office with laptops having a discussion.
Career reflection fosters innovative thinking about prospects, helping to build strategies and expectations that make ambitions real. (Christina Wocintechchat/Unsplash), CC BY

Competitive ethic

PhD students who perceive a narrowing scope of opportunities as they advance may become disillusioned with their thesis work, thus limiting their productivity and increasing their completion time.

PhD students are among the highest-achieving individuals in our society, which can be both a blessing and a curse. A focus on achievement is generally a necessary academic quality, as culture establishes researchers (and trainees by default) as “entrepreneurs” responsible for their own survival. A survival-of-the-fittest mentality has arisen in academia with the tremendous surplus of talent in the professor pool.

While competition helps to drive the university research agenda forward, we have found when we talk with current and recent PhD students and professors that this competition undermines the well-being of graduate students and faculty alike.

For many, the PhD becomes a bad deal because they do not see (and are not shown) a way out of a horrible situation — or they fear the sunk cost. PhD students often struggle to know how to navigate these situations, as the philosophy that guides their approach is often “work harder, and you will succeed.”

Strain on professor-protégé relationship

Yet, since the bare facts of the job market mean that even if PhD students demonstrate an outstanding work ethic, many will have to leave academia in search of other careers. This places tremendous stress upon the mentor-protégé relationship between PhD students and professors.

Because our universities have not systematically embedded entrepreneurship and career planning into doctoral studies, it’s not surprising if most professors believe they cannot acclimate their trainees into a profession outside of academia, like industry or government. Worse yet, some professors believe it’s not their responsibility.

A professor’s very survival may be dependent on the productivity of their PhD students. Many professors buffer their own careers by securing students’ research help with their own publications, while de-emphasizing pursuits that can better prepare students for their own futures such as entrepreneurship, teaching, outreach or internships.

A young man and an older man chat in front of a bookcase with a laptop.
Working harder is not the answer to securing future employment for PhD students. (Shutterstock)

Perfect storm for frustration, health issues

The above factors generate a perfect storm for the development and/or exacerbation of mental health problems among graduate students. Students with a propensity for achievement find themselves in a culture that narrowly defines success, a career landscape that makes it nearly impossible to achieve this success and a profound lack of support given the challenges of navigating new opportunities after graduate school.

Combined with concerns of not knowing how to transition to the non-academic workforce, supervisor criticism and/or neglect may contribute to “locus of control” problems wherein students do not feel they have control over the events that influence their lives. Research shows that such perceptions of loss of control in students can contribute to the onset of mental health issues.

The primary consequence of this mentorship approach is that it undermines students’ self-confidence, leaving many to question their self worth, as though the inability to secure work as a professor is a personal failure. Non-academic mentors may be a means of mitigating the effects of this problem.

Empathy, healthy perspectives

In addition to providing mentorship around envisioning and navigating the transition, non-academic mentors are uniquely positioned to offset the potentially damaging effects of academic mentorship on students’ self-confidence. This may be especially true of non-academic mentors who themselves completed a PhD and transitioned into successful careers beyond academia.

Non-academic mentors, especially those familiar with university culture, can provide empathy, validation and healthy perspectives. Such experiences can protect students by showing them that self-worth is not contingent on achievement, self-care is not a sign of laziness and new experiences add value to one’s life.

They can also offer alternative points of view: that success is broadly defined, academic expectations are unrealistic and failure is necessary for development. These can act as a balm for times when students’ confidence or self-worth is otherwise challenged or bruised by academia.

Kate Rancourt co-authored this article.

Why STEM Needs to Focus on Social Justice

by Daniel Block

Original source

Millard McElwee was 12 years old when Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana. Having evacuated to the relative safety of Shreveport before the storm hit, McElwee at first didn’t realize the enormity of the catastrophe. But as his family drove back to their suburban New Orleans home, the carnage was unmistakable. Trees were down. Towns all along Interstate 55 were in blackouts. Even Baton Rouge appeared to have no power. “It’s still something I vividly remember,” McElwee said of the outages. “You could tell the difference, even in the cities during the day.”Check out the complete 2020 Washington Monthly rankings here.

While McElwee’s own home was without electricity for a month, he was still lucky: Located north of the city, his house hadn’t flooded. Many of his relatives, who lived in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward and Metairie, weren’t so fortunate. Some moved in with McElwee temporarily. At one point, his family’s two-bedroom house and office trailer hosted 13 people. They depended on canned water and National Guard–issued ready-to-eat meals, or MREs.

“It was nasty,” McElwee said of the meals, which are used by the Department of Defense to sustain troops in combat. He chuckled. “It was nasty back then when they gave it to us. It was nasty years later when we tried it again to see if it would get any better.”

Eating the foul-tasting MREs is one of McElwee’s most striking Katrina memories. But it’s hardly the only facet of the storm that left a lasting impression. McElwee remembers engineering experts from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, coming to the city to assess what had gone wrong. He recalls talking with his father about why the levees and the Army Corps of Engineers had failed so badly. It gave him a new goal: to become an engineer himself so he could better protect people from catastrophes. 

After the storm, McElwee dedicated himself to his classes, becoming a straight-A student. He began looking at the engineering programs of various universities. He visited MIT’s website daily. Doing so helped him find the school’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science program—a renowned and selective academic camp for teenagers from underrepresented communities. McElwee, who is Black, attended, and then went on to study civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Now he is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he works on quantifying how natural disasters impact communities of color. 

“Natural disasters don’t discriminate,” McElwee, now 27, explained. “But we do know there are disparities in the responses and reaction times.” His job is to figure out how large the disparities are and why they exist. To that end, in 2019, McElwee built a mathematical model that predicts how floods impact travel times in New Orleans. It’s the first to explore the reasons these times go up more for minorities. One explanation for the discrepancy, he found, is that marginalized groups typically have to travel farther for work. But another is that the infrastructure in their neighborhoods is more vulnerable, and once it’s damaged, authorities are slower to fix it. Minorities “typically live in communities that haven’t had as much investment in terms of recovery of the network,” McElwee told me. “Previous natural disasters have shown that these areas are usually not serviced as quickly.”

McElwee’s work fits into a broader trend among Black people in STEM fields. According to experts, scientists of color are more likely than their white peers to work on problems with a clear relationship to issues of equity. “There have been several studies that have shown that Black students in particular, and students of color more broadly, tend to pursue careers that are going to allow them to have some sort of social justice orientation,” said Tia Madkins, an education professor at the University of Texas at Austin. In a 2015 study of 2,697 undergraduate STEM students, more than 50 percent of under-represented students of color said working for social change was either “essential” or “very important” to their career goals. For others, the figure was just 37 percent.

But, unfortunately, there aren’t many Black students in the STEM fields. Black people are 12 percent of the U.S. population and 13.3 percent of its undergraduates. Yet in recent years, they have received just 4.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in math, 4.5 percent of those awarded in computer science, 4 percent of those awarded in civil engineering, 3.7 percent of those awarded in chemical engineering, and 3.1 percent of those awarded in mechanical engineering—percentages that have barely changed over time. Among graduate students, the disparities are similarly dramatic. Black Americans, for example, make up just 4 percent of all doctorates awarded in engineering fields.

STEM majors earn more than most other majors, and the dearth of Black students in these disciplines is part of why Black college graduates on the whole make so much less than their white counterparts. (Though it’s certainly not the only reason; Black STEM graduates earn less than white ones in the same industries.) It has led many academics to explore why so few Black students study technical subjects. The answer is complex, with structural causes that can date back to elementary school. But according to interviews with multiple Black academics, it’s about far more than just K–12 education. Black students’ disproportionate interest in social justice and the absence of Black STEM majors are causally related. In their courses and jobs, most STEM faculty and employers do not make social change a focus. And for many Black students, that’s a serious problem.

“There is strong professional and personal dissonance that makes it difficult for them to stay in STEM fields,” said Ebony McGee, a professor at Vanderbilt University who researches Black students’ professional motivations. These students are leaving the sciences, she told me, “not because they cannot do the work but because they cannot see themselves in traditional STEM fields.” McElwee, in other words, is an outlier in engineering not just because of his skin color. He’s an outlier in engineering because of his research.

That’s unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of which is that some of the greatest injustices in American society need technical solutions. Building offices and apartments that are greener will require clever engineering. To make online education more effective, especially for communities that lack reliable internet access, the U.S. will need socially minded computer scientists. Fixing health care inequities demands better medical expertise and technology.

But distressing as it may be, the current tendency for STEM academics to ignore social justice presents a major opportunity. If Black STEM students are disproportionately interested in using their degrees to make the world more equitable and fair, then STEM departments can attract and retain more Black students by making these themes central to their curriculums. Doing so will have two sets of benefits: It will help Black people enter well-paying professions, and it will help create a corps of scientists and engineers focused on making a more just planet.

If you look at a list of the most popular majors for Black students, disciplines associated with public service are on top. More than 26 percent of recent health and medical administration graduates are Black, nearly double the national average. In social work and sociology, the numbers are 22 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively. In criminal justice, 20 percent of recent graduates are Black. 

These are all extraordinarily important fields of study. At some colleges, they can even pay well right after graduating (see “Colleges Where Majors Popular with Black Students Pay Well”). But these are the exceptions. Overwhelmingly, majors with explicit social justice upsides pay considerably less than STEM. It’s a fact that reflects poorly on the United States, which chronically undervalues professions dedicated to helping others. 

But it’s a fact nonetheless, and one that makes researchers concerned about the future earnings of young Black Americans. “[College] might be the only opportunity there is for them to enter the middle class,” Nicole Smith, the chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told me. While students should be free to pick their own areas of study, Smith said, it’s especially important for people of color to consider their career prospects when deciding. “Your very first job is a platform from which all of your other wages will be determined,” she said.

In explaining why so few Black students study STEM, Smith—like many other education experts—honed in on America’s segregated K–12 education system. It’s easy to see why. Institutionalized racism has shut Black Americans out of neighborhoods with high-performing schools and funneled them into districts with fewer monetary and academic resources. As a result, many Black students arrive at college without the math and science skills needed to pursue advanced STEM classes. “It’s a done deal,” Smith told me.

But while the pipeline problem, as it’s often called in policy circles, is real, it cannot by itself explain the disparity. In a 2019 study of racial gaps in STEM, three researchers followed the academic trajectories of more than 5,000 Black, Latino, and white American college students. They compared Black students, Latino students, and white students who had similar levels of academic preparation, had similar financial backgrounds, and were alike in all manner of other ways—from their parents’ education levels to their SAT scores. They found that Black STEM students were 14 percentage points more likely to switch out of STEM than white students from similar circumstances, and 15 percentage points more likely to drop out of school altogether. Latino STEM students were 14 percentage points more likely to drop out of college than similarly positioned white ones. (Notably, this pattern wasn’t present in non-STEM fields.)

“This was not a transfer and dropping-out pattern that we found among students who were underprepared,” said Yasmiyn Irizarry, a quantitative sociologist at UT Austin and one of the paper’s authors. “This was among students that were equally prepared.”

So what else is at play? Many academics cite the chronically low number of Black faculty in technical fields. It’s a compelling explanation. Research suggests that the lack of Black STEM academics means that many Black STEM students struggle to envision themselves progressing in their disciplines. One 2019 study by a collection of psychology professors and STEM researchers found that Black female STEM students were far more likely to experience feelings of belonging with Black professors than with white ones. Indeed, many Black female STEM students at largely white institutions told the surveyors they had no mentors. This has very tangible consequences. Research shows that students of color perform better on tests when faculty of color are present, and there’s a positive correlation between the number of minority faculty at a school and the likelihood that its students of color persist. 

When I spoke to Black STEM graduates who attended predominantly white schools, several said they might have left had it not been for the support of Black faculty. Raheem Beyah, for example, Georgia Institute of Technology’s vice president for interdisciplinary research and an electrical engineering professor, partially credited his success to the mentorship of Gary May, a Black engineer famous both for his work on computer-aided manufacturing and for his efforts to bring minority students into STEM fields. Beyah tries to pay it forward. “When students come into my office, I know what their concerns are, because I had the same concerns,” he said.

Indeed, simply seeing other, more advanced Black students can make an impact. Tahira Reid-Smith, an engineering professor at Purdue University, decided to study mechanical engineering on the recommendation of an older Black classmate. She opted to become an academic after watching several other Black students in her Bible study group do so. “It was implicitly inspiring,” she said.

It’s therefore not surprising that historically Black colleges and universities are the biggest producers of Black engineers and scientists. A full 27 percent of Black students with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields went to HBCUs. Several of these schools have particularly excellent track records of graduating students into high-paying jobs. According to a Washington Monthly analysis of new program-level data offered by the Department of Education, for example, Tuskegee University’s mechanical engineering graduates have a median income of $65,300 in their first year after graduating, which exceeds the median first-year income for all mechanical engineering graduates by roughly $3,000. Its chemical engineering graduates have a median income of $67,200—also well above average.

But while it’s critical that schools hire more Black STEM faculty and build communities of Black students, it still won’t be enough. Even with an aggressive push, reaching racial parity in STEM departments will take time—particularly for tenured positions, where turnover is especially slow. And while many Black faculty and older students enjoy mentoring, the process places a large, unpaid service burden on people who are already overstretched.

“I don’t think this is about patching Black students to Black faculty,” said Irizarry. Instead, she told me, STEM departments in general—and their white professors in particular—need to think hard about why so many students of color are leaving. “A commitment to self-reflection is what is lacking.”

When it comes to race, STEM professors have much to reflect on. Departments can stereotype some Black students as underprepared despite evidence to the contrary. They can make others feel that they owe any success to affirmative action. There are plenty of reasons why highly qualified students of color feel unwelcome in technical fields. 

But one of the most overlooked is the focus of the STEM community itself—and its disconnect from the lived experiences of Black students. Surveys suggest that STEM professors and professionals tend to be interested in having students acquire technical expertise for its own sake, or in order to make money and promote America’s geopolitical advantage. Black students, disproportionately familiar with the many injustices in American society, tend to be more interested in acquiring technical expertise to effect social change. 

“The people who are in most STEM programs and run most STEM organizations are not from those same backgrounds and do not have those same kinds of concerns,” Irizarry told me. Their teaching, she said, can lead many Black students to feel lost or unwelcome. 

That can be true for everyone from freshmen to nearly complete PhDs. McElwee, for example, told me that both he and other Black, socially minded engineering students encounter pushback against their work. “I’ve had some Caucasian advisers or have heard of other Caucasian advisers saying, ‘Is this really important? How is this technical?’ Which is sometimes a little bit discouraging, because in addition to championing our own research, we have to defend these things being worth studying.”

But the worthiness should be evident, because the applications are everywhere. The city of Flint used a machine-learning algorithm to find lead-tainted water pipes. After Michael Brown’s shooting in 2014, three Black teenagers built an app that lets people rate their individual interactions with the police. Academic engineers are at the forefront of figuring out how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps the most technically challenging and politically urgent problem on the planet. This work helps the underserved in particular, but it also helps people in general. Everyone will in some way have to contend with the consequences of a dangerously changing environment.

Indeed, the upsides of socially conscious, diverse STEM grads should be apparent to even aggressive for-profits. Electric car sales are rising, and with better technology, consultancy firms believe that such vehicles will become extremely lucrative for auto manufacturers—while also helping fight climate change. Skin care companies could tap into a bigger market if they hired Black chemists who have thought at length about how cosmetics impact darker tones. Reid-Smith of Purdue got funding from Procter & Gamble to investigate how women can more effectively style curly hair. 

“A lot of women have gone natural, which means [they’ve] stopped putting chemical relaxers in their hair to permanently straighten their hair,” she explained. Instead, many have turned to blow dryers and flat irons to adjust patterning. But using too much heat can also permanently change hair patterns in unwanted ways. “There’s thousands and thousands of women trying to do tutorials on how to prevent heat damage, and I’m like, ‘You know, mechanical engineers study heat transfer. This would be an interesting, fun project to work on at a research level.’ ” 

Much of Reid-Smith’s career is an example of how the hard sciences can be used to make the world a better place. She works, for example, to examine how engineers and scientists can be more compassionate in the design of products and machines, including in the health care field.

“One need not be in a nonprofit to motivate social justice concerns,” Irizarry said. “An engineering firm that has a diverse group of engineers will be a lot more creative in how they think about the infrastructure of a particular community, which can improve social justice concerns while getting contracts and getting paid.”

It is, of course, unfair to make Black academics and professionals responsible for getting the STEM community to care about justice. Their white counterparts need to also see why these topics are important for the world—and why bringing more people of color into STEM fields is itself critical to making the U.S. more equitable. And one upside of having more socially conscious STEM curriculums is that all incoming students, not just Black ones, will be more exposed to the progressive applications of their subjects. The U.S. needs more engineers, mathematicians, and scientists of all backgrounds to focus on tackling problems like gun violence and environmental disasters. If STEM teachers and colleagues emphasize such issues, that’s more likely to happen.

But for now, many Black researchers are leading the charge. McElwee’s ultimate career goal, becoming a professor himself, is motivated by a desire to serve his community and bring more people like him into engineering. “I’ve yet to have an African American science, technology, or math professor at Carnegie Mellon or Berkeley,” he said. “I want to be part of the solution.” To that end, he’s taught for the last several years at Carnegie Mellon’s free summer STEM program for underrepresented high school students—the Summer Academy for Math and Science (SAMS)—an analog of the one he attended at MIT. He described it as the “excitement of his year.”

Much of his teaching is focused on showing students that STEM is fun. His pupils build popsicle stick bridges that can support hundreds of pounds and design pinball machines. But he also brings up themes of social justice. In one class, McElwee had students look at the effects of natural disasters, much as he does. That included talking about how they impact people of color. “The overall course was looking at various types of disasters, but also making them aware that there’s a ton of literature out here about communities that are disproportionately affected,” he said. “Even in the SAMS program, I try to distill those nuggets.”

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