The complaint that “there just aren't enough qualified minority candidates” is frequently heard with respect to faculty diversity in academia. In fact, the number of biomedical Ph.D. scientists from under-represented minority (URM) groups has grown exponentially in the last 30 years—but this growth in the minority talent pool did not lead to a corresponding increase in the number of minority faculty hires, a new study to appear in eLife shows. This suggests that although programs to increase diversity at the undergraduate and graduate levels have been largely successful, new interventions at a slightly later career stage may be required to increase faculty diversity, the researchers say.

Today, nearly 900 Ph.D.'s in the basic biomedical sciences are awarded annually to under-represented minorities, and that amounts to more than nine-fold growth since 1980. “There has been an assumption by many institutions that there simply isn’t a pool of qualified minority candidates,” said Hannah Valantine, NIH’s Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity. “But the data are quite compelling.”  Despite this growth and the growth of the overall population of assistant professors, the number of minority assistant professors in basic biomedical research actually fell slightly between 2005 and 2014.

Using a modeling approach, a team lead by Kenneth Gibbs of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and David Broniatowski at the George Washington University investigated the potential effects of various interventions to try to increase diversity at the faculty level. They show that producing more minority Ph.D.'s alone is not sufficient to increase diversity in the professoriate..

It’s not enough to grow the talent pool; there need to be mechanisms to connect the talent pool to the faculty job market, explained Gibbs. One way to do that is to “provide people with tools, like a systematic search tool, to find those candidates and actively recruit them when you have positions, or even before you have positions,” said Valantine. Another strategy is for departments to form relationships with this pool of candidates even before positions open, so that the candidates get to know the institution and get a sense of whether or not they would like to work at that institution as an assistant professor, Valantine said. A third intervention is to offer education and training in the hiring departments to counter implicit bias, she added.

Ph.D. graduates must also choose to enter the faculty job market. That's tricky because it requires digging deeper into the cultural and social reasons why Ph.D. graduates make the career choices they do. Gibbs's previous research showed that, controlling for factors that are known to be important (e.g., publication record, advisor, prestige of doctoral program, etc.), women and minorities are 36 percent less likely than white or Asian men to indicate interest in faculty careers at research universities. Some of the factors that make a faculty career less appealing to women and minority groups include challenges in work-life balance, challenges in engaging in research as well as other activities that resonate with one’s values, and an environment that sends the message that one doesn’t belong, Valantine explained.

“To get scientists of any background to transition to the faculty job market, there have to be jobs that they actually want to have,” explained Gibbs. “The entire scientific community needs to think critically about why people make those choices. In particular, we have to ensure that the jobs and environments appeal to and are supportive of scientists from a wide variety of backgrounds,” he said.

Of course, candidates must not only choose to pursue a faculty position, but also successfully navigate the hiring process. Lack of data about applicants and outcomes make it challenging to design interventions in this arena. Often, it is hard to know the composition of the applicant pool because sharing information about gender, race, and ethnicity is voluntary, and many applicants choose not to share. So it isn’t clear whether minority candidates are not applying to faculty jobs, or whether they are applying but aren’t making it to the shortlist. And if they aren’t shortlisted, it isn’t clear whether that’s because of implicit bias.

“I think it is fair to say that there is consensus in the intent of implementing hiring practices which reduce or eliminate any possible bias in the process and increase faculty diversity,” said Yale neurobiologist Daniel Colón-Ramos. “But we lack the data. We lack evidence-based interventions and analyses of impact of best practices. So, while I believe there is clarity in terms of the goal, there is confusion in terms of the implementation.”

But there is reason for optimism, says Gibbs, because the talent pool exists—we just need to tap into it. “The silver lining of the study is that academia now has the trained talent pool to hire URMs,” said Colón-Ramos. “The problem, therefore, has changed from when it was originally formulated decades ago.”

The numbers are already there. The 150 institutions that are members of the American Association for Medical Colleges hire approximately 1000 assistant professors each year. Minority Ph.D.'s represent about 10 percent of total Ph.D.'s awarded annually, so to attain parity with the Ph.D. pool, those institutions need to hire about 100 minority assistant professors each year. “If two-thirds of the AAMC institutions hired and retained one under-represented minority faculty member per year, over six years, there would be parity in one tenure cycle,” said Gibbs. “We have exactly what we need right now to make a positive change in a relatively short period of time.”