“Mentoring is not created equal”: Doctoral STEM Faculty Perceptions of Mentoring and Implications for Underrepresented STEM Learners.
In a global economy where change is inevitable and innovation places an individual at the forefront of the job market, it is important that higher education continues to evolve. The U.S. has benefitted from its investment in science and technology at various levels of learning, resulting in job creation and an increase in global commerce with the exportation of goods around the world (May & Chubin, 2003). The ability to continue meeting the demands of business and globalization is contingent upon the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) expanding. This expansion cannot occur without the creation of a more diversified workforce that results from an equitable representation of racially minoritized groups, a representation contingent upon an increase of underrepresented minority students (URM) receiving undergraduate and terminal degrees in STEM. In 2015, over 225,500 graduate STEM degrees were awarded in the U.S.; 181,000 being master degrees and 44,500 were doctoral degrees (NSB, 2018e, 2018f, 2018g). According to the National Science Foundation (2018) URM graduate students only earned about 9% of the overall doctoral degrees awarded in 2015. This evidence suggest that STEM doctoral programs in the U.S are severely deficient in representation from students of different racial and ethnic groups. To reverse this disturbing historical and contemporary trend, universities should pay close attention to the retention of URM students.
Scientist Identity Development Theory (Guy, 2013) serves as the theoretical framework. This theory says that there are two important components in understanding science identity-- self and other. “Identity congruence speaks to the space between how black men see themselves and how they see other scientists” (Alston, et al. 2017, p.50). Based on the experiences of Black male persistence in STEM, Guy (2013) advanced an understanding of racial identity in science that ignites a compelling argument that could be applied to all URM students in STEM. Though science identity receives less attention that underrepresentation, its development, particularly in racially minoritized students, nonetheless is an important aspect of creating more equitable outcomes in STEM (Ruiz & Schunn, 2018). One must consider the stereotypical ideas of what guides the understandings held by self and others of what a scientist ‘looks like’. Alston (2017) notes “Scientist stereotypes are perpetuated when racial and sexual diversity are not fully embraced by both industry and academia” (p. 50). These institutionalized and personal biases prove to be detrimental to those who don’t fit the “white coat image” (Guy, 2013).
One way to cultivate understanding of scientist not based whiteness, hegemony, and perceived inferiority of the “other” is by developing mentors who have the capacity to be culturally responsive. Effective mentoring is recognized as being an important component in the academic and professional development of women and minority students (Dawson, Bernstein, & Bekki, 2015). However not all mentoring is created equal. According to Taylor and Anthony ( 2000) and Patton (2009), higher education professionals identified specific approaches to mentoring that improve the mental and psychological development of URM students, specifically African-American students. Some of these approaches include proving subject matter support such as providing pertinent information about the area of field that the mentee is majoring in or is interested in. This includes career choices and historical background (Guy, 2013) Other approaches include finding a mentor that has a similar cultural background or shared experiences with the mentee (Patton, 2009). This provides the mentee with more comfort in knowing that he/she or they can identify with their mentor. Gay (2002) acknowledges that using a culturally responsive approach, with regards to mentoring, requires more thorough knowledge of the mentees’ specific culture and ethnic background. In other words, using a generalized approach to mentoring could prove to be counterproductive in retaining these students. Effective mentoring helps to build STEM identity and contributes to more equitable representation of women and minority students in STEM (Dawson, Bernstein & Bekki, 2015).
To better understand the nature of STEM doctoral mentoring, a qualitative interview research study was conducted. This qualitative research study is part of an ongoing research project and is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1820536 182058 and 1820582. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This research study interviewed faculty who serve in leadership positions at the departmental level about their perceptions and experiences of STEM doctoral mentoring. This study took place in a large university in the southeastern region of the U.S.and was guided by the following research question: How do STEM faculty mentors’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions align with culturally responsive mentoring? The participants included three graduate program directors (GPD) and six Department Heads within specific STEM departments. The data collection included semi-structured interviews that were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed via the comparative comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The preliminary findings of the data suggest that the culture of science plays a role in the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of STEM Doctoral Faculty Mentors. There were three themes that were identified: role ambiguity, preparedness and culture of doing. Within these three themes we discovered that the terms mentoring and advising were used as if they were mutually inclusive. This misunderstanding may contribute to the confusion of the primary responsibilities of a mentor. This further insinuates that lack of knowledge among the senior faculty muddles their understanding of mentoring, thus undervaluing the importance of culturally responsive mentoring. The second theme in the analysis explains how being prepared to mentor is key to a successful mentorship. The data suggests that faculty need to be intentionally prepared to mentor. This might include workshops, modeling, experiences with URMs, and talking with people differently located.The culture of doing was the last theme that was developed out of the data analysis. This theme explains how the culture of science is predicated on doing hence the culture of doing requires less attention on the person and more attention to the work (doing). Human beings are not developed in this process human doers are. But culturally responsive mentoring emphasizes the person first. Mentoring that is not person centered, engaged in by persons with culturally responsivity competencies and knowledge, and those who understand the multi-faceted nature of mentoring are inadequately prepared to meaningfully engage mentoring URM STEM doctoral students. Intensive training, expanded knowledge, and intentional encounters with those often “othered” is needed to make a positive difference in the lives of URM STEM doctoral students.
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