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Affirmative action in admissions and supporting students of diverse backgrounds


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Hi all,

I'm using a throwaway because of the small probability that I could be identified by my profile, and I want to be really honest. I'm a domestic white female Ph.D. student in a fairly high ranking statistics department, and I've gotten the sense that I was likely admitted despite my relatively weak academic background for diversity reasons. I’ve gathered that the department views admitting me and other “diverse” applicants as a way of protecting appearances, and that they are indifferent toward our success in the program (this is supported by the fact that most of the students who've been asked to leave the program for academic performance reasons have been women). I want to add the disclaimer that I fully support affirmative action (when coupled with an institutional commitment to the success of people from diverse backgrounds), that I acknowledge the cultural and systemic disadvantages that women face especially in STEM, and that I realized that being a white U.S. citizen is a huge advantage.

To be specific, I'm growing frustrated with my department for not offering much in the way of support for bringing me up to speed academically. When I’ve brought up my academic struggles with professors and the program coordinator, they have been generally dismissive, and really only suggested that I “not give up”, that I seek help from my peers, and that I spend more time reading the textbook (as if all my time isn’t already devoted to studying). Let me be clear that I’m not asking them to hold my hand through everything, but rather suggesting that if they’re going to admit students who don’t have the requisite background, they should offer resources such as tutoring, extended office hours, lower-level classes, or extended funding for people who might need longer to get through the program. I realize they want to keep academic standards high, but I believe that part of doing that is recognizing the value diversity brings to an intellectual community and providing the necessary support to retain students, especially those belonging to marginalized groups.

In other words, I feel the department is trying to protect themselves from accusations of sexism in admissions, while demonstrating no actual commitment to the success of women in the program. I should be clear that I am not suffering from impostor syndrome (though I do sometimes experience that), because I am demonstrably less qualified than many of my colleagues in the program.

I guess I’m saying all this mostly to get it off my chest and hopefully to start a conversation, but I will ask for one piece of advice. A faculty member recently asked for anonymous feedback on the department culture. However, I fear the department is too small for the google form’s anonymity to be meaningful. Is there any way I could convey some of my concerns without sacrificing my reputation? 

(I’m sure my feelings will hardly be a revelation to many people reading this - I will add that I went to a historically women’s college for undergrad so I have been largely sheltered from the reality of sexism in academia until now)

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Hi, I'm an U.S Asian male, so I hope I don't come off as mansplaining. Your situation definitely sounds very painful and maybe fits into larger problems of University administration. There seems to be a principle-agent problem when it comes to diversity. Most pressure to diversify comes from administration and maybe a few faculty members, but the day-to-day operations are left to your average professor 95% focused on research. So unless the majority of faculty  are super passionate,  departments can't really do much above the minimum to keep the administration happy (and how is the administration supposed to know that measure theoretic probability is super hard lol).

At the risk of sounding like all the other people you talked to, I hope you don't get too discouraged. I honestly don't see white women benefiting that much from AA at the graduate level. There are  a lot of fully qualified, exceptional women applying to Stat PhD programs and the admission statistics reflect this. Adcoms will not admit unqualified people no matter what the administration says because  ultimately its the department that is shelling out a lot of money for you.  You are probably qualified, maybe not overqualified, but qualified nonetheless.

Admissions are super random, and not completely based on visible factors. It's likely you really impressed your recommenders and they wrote killer things about your potential that are separate from your mathematical ability but are just as important.

On ways to raise concerns, maybe try the diversity dean/officer/secretary. They'll advocate for you without naming you and professors expect that type of stuff from them without looking into it.

Also to comment on your concerns that your peers look better than you on paper. I look like I have a a decent math profile from an Ivy league. But I'm actually not good at math/analysis, we just have a ridiculous amount of grade inflation.

Edited by trynagetby
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13 hours ago, trynagetby said:

I honestly don't see white women benefiting that much from AA at the graduate level.

I would have agreed with you until recently, but after learning about all the women failing out of my program, I suspect they treats male and female applicants a little differently. Of course I'm sure that many highly qualified women applied and were rejected, and I feel for them and the randomness of admissions, but I think it's possible that many more highly qualified men were rejected.

13 hours ago, trynagetby said:

Adcoms will not admit unqualified people no matter what the administration says because  ultimately its the department that is shelling out a lot of money for you. 

Complicating this is the fact that the adcom nominated me for (and I received) a fellowship from the graduate school, which means the graduate school pays my tuition and stipend, not the department (at least for the few couple years of the program). This fellowship is intended for "diverse" students, and at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I can't help but wonder if the adcom takes into account likelihood of failing out of the program when nominating people for the fellowship, so they can avoid "wasting" money on people who are going to leave. (This is supported by the fact that a significant proportion of the people who've left the program have also been recipients of the fellowship). But I may be reading too far into things.

13 hours ago, trynagetby said:

On ways to raise concerns, maybe try the diversity dean/officer/secretary. They'll advocate for you without naming you and professors expect that type of stuff from them without looking into it.

That makes sense, I'll look into that! Thanks.

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1 hour ago, bayessays said:

I'm wondering if you happen to go to one of a few more theoretical top departments.

No, I don't think my department is considered particularly theoretical. It seems to me that a considerable proportion (though probably less than half) of faculty/students in the department are doing applied work. 

1 hour ago, bayessays said:

Is it possible some of the domestic men feel the same way? In my experience, the international students are vastly more qualified in general, and domestic students are the ones who often fail quals, but I haven't noticed a gender performance gap. 

I agree about domestic students being generally less qualified. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like domestic students tend to be less qualified because grad programs have more spots for U.S. citizens because we can receive NSF, NIH, and other federal grant funding. I think it's true in my department that many of the domestic men feel less qualified than international men, but I have also spoken with some international women who also feel underqualified even compared to domestic men in the program. I could be wrong though; my evidence about the qualifications of international women in the department is purely anecdotal, while my evidence about domestic women being disproportionately likely to be academically dismissed is based on direct statements from the faculty and senior students to that effect. 

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I'm sorry to hear that you are dealing with this. I don't really have much advice on how to rectify the specific issues with your department, but I do want to make a few observations.

1) It is true that international students typically have more extensive math backgrounds and are thus better prepared for the rigors of PhD coursework in statistics (e.g., it's commonly the case that a lot of international students have already taken classes at the level of Casella & Berger mathematical statistics, measure theory, etc., so in some sense, they already know the material in first-year courses). However, the gap between international and domestic students tends to narrow considerably by the third year, sometimes by the second. And by the time you start research, the majority of students are going to start out at the same level (i.e. not really knowing what they're doing).

2) If you make it past coursework and quals, then it's really the research that matters. This is what determines if you can earn your PhD -- and if you opt to stay in academia, this is what you will be judged on, not whether you earned an A or B in a core class (and if you're interested in teaching as LACs/regional comprehensives, then they will also judge your ability to teach and engage with undergraduate students). It is not unheard of for top-performing students in classes to struggle with research and take longer to finish, or for students who barely made it through quals to find their groove and excel at research. I've seen that firsthand at my own PhD institution where somebody who won "Outstanding First Year Student" struggled immensely with research and took a long time to finally finish. And other students who failed quals twice (failed first year exam once and failed PhD qualifying exam once) were still able to finish -- and even landed a TT faculty position later.  

3) Those of us in academia have all failed. Even if we didn't fail classes, we probably got papers rejected, grant proposals rejected, turned down for postdocs and faculty positions we applied to, etc. So if you're 'struggling' and faced with failure, you're definitely not alone.

I hope that you are able to resolve your difficulties. It is a tough situation to be in, and I am not really sure how to resolve it. Just know that if you can manage to get through the coursework, it's not all hopeless. 

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Here's a hot take on how I think academic institutions SHOULD operate in an IDEAL world. 

1) Admit any one who wants to attend based on a college entrance exam (kind of how its done in some foreign countries)
2) In specified periodic time intervals, there are qualifying exams to be taken. Those that fail below a certain cutoff will have to leave the school (analogous to PhD exams) 
3) Those that can finish all the coursework and pass all the exams are able to graduate (schools graduate too few/too many students a year should be audited for quality of education)

This is not to say problems with AA and gender bias would disappear, as those with the privilege of accessing resources from a younger age would still benefit - they always will. But this way opens up a larger playing field, where everyone has a chance to succeed, and whether a student can study at an institution is not dictated by a biased admissions committee who decide your capability to succeed based off of a few pieces of paper.

And this way, instead of diversity becomes a moot point, and they would admit you based on your capabilities that you will prove yourself rather.

This is just my hot take, please don't downvote me into oblivion. I understand that there resource constraints that render all of these steps infeasible. But something just doesn't sit right with me in the current way admissions in grad and undergrad are handled. 

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This doesn't address everything in your post, but something to maybe keep in mind: I've found men to be much less forthcoming about their struggles in school, especially in a competitive grad school environment. Additionally, men, like myself, have been systematically "affirmed" by society of their ability to perform in STEM programs, which gives many a confidence that is often misplaced. This is just to say that when you are taking the "temperature" of your classmates, the observed states of men are probably less informative of the hidden states than they are for other students(excuse the hidden markov model terminology). 

 

 

Edit: As an aside, covid-19 is definitely exacerbating inequity in academia. I have also found, like most others, I struggle much more in online math and statistics classes than in in-person ones. I hope you can stick it out until things return to a more "normal" situation. 

Edited by Euler17
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13 hours ago, Euler17 said:

This is just to say that when you are taking the "temperature" of your classmates, the observed states of men are probably less informative of the hidden states than they are for other students(excuse the hidden markov model terminology). 

That makes sense, I'll keep that in mind. 

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16 hours ago, TroyBarnes said:

1) Admit any one who wants to attend based on a college entrance exam (kind of how its done in some foreign countries)
2) In specified periodic time intervals, there are qualifying exams to be taken. Those that fail below a certain cutoff will have to leave the school (analogous to PhD exams) 
3) Those that can finish all the coursework and pass all the exams are able to graduate (schools graduate too few/too many students a year should be audited for quality of education)

Of course I generally agree that in a perfect world, a meritocracy would be ideal. An of course we should admit/retain all qualified students, rather than making weird arbitrary decisions about who gets to go to the best universities. See this podcast episode for a more eloquent explanation of my feelings http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/32-the-tortoise-and-the-hare

16 hours ago, TroyBarnes said:

This is not to say problems with AA and gender bias would disappear, as those with the privilege of accessing resources from a younger age would still benefit - they always will.

Yeah, I think this is the kicker. AA is meant to level the playing field by accounting for those privileges. Some people (I'm thinking in particular of conservative economist Glenn Loury) think we should redirect all resources currently being directed at Afirmative Action at the university level toward correcting developmental disparities that occur earlier in life -- e.g. preK access, primary education, literacy, etc. I personally think AA is largely a good thing, I just think it needs to coincide with larger institutional commitment to diversity.

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@stemstudent12345

Sorry you're going through that. A bit of pragmatic advice: Just find a prof or two who support you, that's all it takes; cram the patterns of past quals. Not worth wasting your mental health on this, *really*. You'll be done with quals soon enough and you'll be able to pursue your own exciting and beautiful research, and from then on nothing else will matter. @Stat Assistant Professoris spot on. 

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On 2/15/2021 at 11:41 AM, TroyBarnes said:

Here's a hot take on how I think academic institutions SHOULD operate in an IDEAL world. 

1) Admit any one who wants to attend based on a college entrance exam (kind of how its done in some foreign countries)
2) In specified periodic time intervals, there are qualifying exams to be taken. Those that fail below a certain cutoff will have to leave the school (analogous to PhD exams) 
3) Those that can finish all the coursework and pass all the exams are able to graduate (schools graduate too few/too many students a year should be audited for quality of education)

So you believe that test-taking ability is the only important indicator of research potential? Did you know that many people with learning disabilities, adhd, or anxiety disorders tend to systematically underperform on tests, regardless of their intelligence, creativity (actually more creative individuals may very well perform worse in a testing environment, all else equal) or research potential? It seems you’ve only thought about yourself in writing this, which is uncharacteristic of a good researcher.

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On 2/15/2021 at 2:41 PM, TroyBarnes said:

Here's a hot take on how I think academic institutions SHOULD operate in an IDEAL world. 

1) Admit any one who wants to attend based on a college entrance exam (kind of how its done in some foreign countries)
2) In specified periodic time intervals, there are qualifying exams to be taken. Those that fail below a certain cutoff will have to leave the school (analogous to PhD exams) 
3) Those that can finish all the coursework and pass all the exams are able to graduate (schools graduate too few/too many students a year should be audited for quality of education)

This is not to say problems with AA and gender bias would disappear, as those with the privilege of accessing resources from a younger age would still benefit - they always will. But this way opens up a larger playing field, where everyone has a chance to succeed, and whether a student can study at an institution is not dictated by a biased admissions committee who decide your capability to succeed based off of a few pieces of paper.

And this way, instead of diversity becomes a moot point, and they would admit you based on your capabilities that you will prove yourself rather.

This is just my hot take, please don't downvote me into oblivion. I understand that there resource constraints that render all of these steps infeasible. But something just doesn't sit right with me in the current way admissions in grad and undergrad are handled. 

If any stats program decided to do this, you would instantly know to avoid it because this is, by definition, extremely horrible statistics.

The goal of an admissions committee is to try and pick the candidates that has the highest future success (of which is measured to whatever the committee decides to chose) subject to a series of resource constraints. Ultimately there is a regression problem involved: trying to predict future outcomes given the applicant profile. You are proposing for the committee to throw out all covariates that may have predictive power on the outcome and replace it with a single measured value (the proposed test score), whereas any statistician with half a brain would propose the exact opposite.

The admissions committee may not be running a linear regression or some ML algorithm to try and predict what will happen to candidates in the future, but the point still stands. Having more than just one feature to look at is often superior to only looking at one feature and trying to predict with that.

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17 hours ago, Cophysneurec said:

So you believe that test-taking ability is the only important indicator of research potential? Did you know that many people with learning disabilities, adhd, or anxiety disorders tend to systematically underperform on tests, regardless of their intelligence, creativity (actually more creative individuals may very well perform worse in a testing environment, all else equal) or research potential? It seems you’ve only thought about yourself in writing this, which is uncharacteristic of a good researcher.

I am well aware that test-taking ability as you seem to define it, is not the most important indicator of research ability. Your statement about those with learning conditions systematically underperforming is valid for those taking highly structured time pressured exams with closed ended problems, designed to be evaluated on a strict set of standards; there are plenty of studies about it. 

Nowhere did I suggest people should be evaluated on such exams, though today it very much is at the undergraduate level. One method for examination is in grant writing/fundraising, which should be a key skill of a researcher. In one of the programs in bioengineering, their qualifying exam consisted of writing a grant proposal in a simulated environment over a semester. The students were then evaluated on how well they were able to convey their ideas, and some could not proceed with the program. This would be one example of a potential "exam." Regardless of learning conditions, poor communication skills can only hurt.

Further, rec letters, GRE, and GPA are one of the biggest factors in admissions already, Typically, faculty prefer to write for students who perform well in their courses (scored well in coursework and made a good impression) - granted I have seen rare occasions when faculty write for poorly performing students (made a good impression). By your logic, do you suggest to remove all metrics based on testing? After all, those with the learning conditions you listed are at a disadvantage already in the current system. My proposed exam strategy, though ill-defined, is not restricted to exams in your narrow definition, and it is ultimately up to the discretion of the university on the content of the exams. 

Testing in the traditional sense is never a good way to assess research ability, and this is well known fact. Gradcafe is an online forum, where people may express ideas in an informal manner, and should never qualify as evidence for research ability. Your inability to discriminate where people state opinions and where research capability is demonstrated, as well as your amiss ad hominem statement about my research ability is highly uncharacteristic of a professional let alone successful researcher.

8 hours ago, icantdoalgebra said:

You are proposing for the committee to throw out all covariates that may have predictive power on the outcome

You're also missing the point too. stemstudent12345 rightly understood it to be a meritocracy based system. Adcoms trying to predict whether students will be successful the way it is done today, is subject to a lot of bias, e.g. being a certain race may cause certain members in the adcoms to view your application more favorably/unfavorably. Using your model analogy, what good is a model that evaluates covariates with a bias? I do not suggest throwing away all covariates, but replacing them with ones that are less subject to bias, and more indicative of merit. Exams take on many forms, and each one should be designed to indicate a student's research potential and likelihood for success, which should be determined by the universities and exam committees themselves. And I've acknowledged that there are resource constraints making this infeasible. 

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I think I understand what @TroyBarnes is saying. I think the original post was about AA though, and I think its a difficult topic to address, since everyone thinks they worked hard to get where they are, and rightly so. So for admissions committees to disregard these small nuances is wrong. 

Making it a pure meritocracy does not solve the problem's that AA aims to solve. For example, my uncle worked part time while studying in school to cover life's expenses, while my other uncle had everything paid. They both later applied to the same graduate school with similar academic profiles, but arguable my first uncle worked "harder" since there was more he had to juggle.

On the other hand, admitting for the sake of diversity alone is also wrong. Some jobs use ethnic background as a proxy for AA, but we know its not solely about race. As OP may suggest in the academic setting, it may even get to a point where the department doesn't care for the student's success so long as other students are successful and the DEI quota is met. I'm sorry you're going through that OP, you sacrificed a lot of be where you are now. I hope your department takes note of your plight and does something in your favor about it.

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1 hour ago, TroyBarnes said:

1) Admit any one who wants to attend based on a college entrance exam (kind of how its done in some foreign countries)
2) In specified periodic time intervals, there are qualifying exams to be taken. Those that fail below a certain cutoff will have to leave the school (analogous to PhD exams) 
3) Those that can finish all the coursework and pass all the exams are able to graduate (schools graduate too few/too many students a year should be audited for quality of education)

So you're proposing "a college entrance exam (kind of how its done in some foreign countries)" (point 1). And then you said "Nowhere did I suggest people should be evaluated on such exams," referring to timed, closed problems, on strict standards.

So logically, your entrance exams would be untimed, or consist of open problems, or not be standardized. And these exams would be like those in some foreign countries, so supposedly there are countries that operate like this (not just at one program, but some country's programs operate like this). What countries do this?

 Then presumably students would have to take standardized qualifying exams (point 2), because if they are not standardized across programs your (point 3) is entirely nonsensical. So these routine qualifying exams would be untimed, or consist of open problems (based on your own response, since they would be standardized). If your audits do nothing, no program would comply. So you would need to punish them for poor performance by your metrics. How? Funding? How is funding determined when all programs are expected to perform above the same threshold? Do government grants then take into account the compliance rating of a given program? Ok, but this doesn't work. The tests are untimed, remember? So the program can simply instruct students on the exam material during the exam... Or if not, the exams consist of open problems, which makes no sense (timed exams where students are expected to solve open problems in order to stay in the program??). How do you even construct fair exams containing open problems that are standardized by field and timed??

 And schools would be audited for low graduation rates by some overarching body (point 3) so you are advocating for centralized control of the graduate educational system. So many issues with this. Who decides what areas of research in a given field are worth evaluating?  These questions are hard enough at the K-12 level. 

Quote

One method for examination is in grant writing/fundraising, which should be a key skill of a researcher. In one of the programs in bioengineering, their qualifying exam consisted of writing a grant proposal in a simulated environment over a semester. The students were then evaluated on how well they were able to convey their ideas, and some could not proceed with the program. This would be one example of a potential "exam." 

[...]


Further, rec letters, GRE, and GPA are one of the biggest factors in admissions already [...] By your logic, do you suggest to remove all metrics based on testing?

How do you evaluate students on "grant writing" in a standardized way across institutions? If you do not standardize this process, what incentivizes programs to invite audits upon themselves due to low graduation rates? What is comparative advantage?

Exam is a very misleading term as you are using it. Perhaps evaluation would be more appropriate? 

rec letters: based on ability to get along well with superiors and peers, grades, testing, research experience.

GPA: based on aptitude, consistency of work ethic, testing, and whatever else.

Of the three you listed, two reveal much more about an individual than how they perform on tests. My logic never indicated that testing should not be considered in the evaluation of an applicant or progress assessment of a graduate student. I simply pointed out that test scores alone can fail to capture many important facts regarding someone's research potential. 

So far you write like a flopping fish, this way and that, with no clear direction, although any which way you flop you are confined to a space with no practical arguments as Mao Zedong smiles upon you. 

Edited by Cophysneurec
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First off, I have to say that I haven't read the other replies extensively, so apologies if I'm repeating what others have already said.

I'm a new PhD student from a 'diverse' background, and I understand a lot of what you're saying. I've felt a lot of the things you're feeling now (lack of preparation, unease in voicing my concerns) and I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with them myself. I entirely agree that not enough time and effort is put into supporting underrepresented/disadvantaged students. I've also thought a lot about the psychological effects of affirmative action for students who benefit from it; even if you're as qualified as your peers, you often feel as though you have something to prove and have ground to make up. Not to mention how it might affect how other students and faculty view you. You also may feel like a sort of sacrificial lamb, testing the waters for folks after you and trying to make things better, often at your own expense.

With that said, I think I want to focus a bit more on your situation. These issues aren't going away any time soon unfortunately, so you'll have to learn to operate within these constraints. With regards to the classes you're struggling in, I think the advice you've gotten so far is about as good as it gets. I really think working with other students is where you'll get the vast majority of your help though. It's cliche, but ask all the questions you need answers to (I'm working on this myself). In theoretical courses I've found that there's a few tricks, theorems, methods, etc. that are hard to know to use if you haven't had a LOT of math experience. Asking people what they did and why helps you start to fill your arsenal. 

With regards to your actual question, I agree there's a good chance that it'll be difficult to maintain your anonymity while raising your concerns. I think if you want your concerns heard honestly you'll have to take that risk. It's almost like a balancing act; you want to critique but you also don't want to come off as antagonistic. That's hard to do! But I think the best path forward is getting allies. Within in the department, try to find students, faculty, and staff who agree with you and are sympathetic to your concerns. They can exert power where you may have none, take a bit of the load off your shoulders, and give insight into what can change and how to change it. It's not easy to find folks who are willing to help, and you have to be a bit careful how you go about it. Outside the department, look for people and organizations who are already working on the problems you see, for example diversity offices/officers, grad student unions, women in STEM groups, and possibly some administrators. These people will already know how the systems of the university work, and they'll be able to advise you on how to approach your situation. They may even have some knowledge of your department. The separation from your department is also great benefit since you can speak candidly with a much decreased risk of word getting back to faculty. 

On a final note, earlier today a friend mentioned how one department viewed failure. The faculty said something along the lines of, 'When a PhD student fails, we see it as a failure on our part, not the student's.' I think the sentiment is true for all departments, even if the faculty don't see it this way. The series of women who've left your program supports this idea. So whatever happens, you haven't failed, the department has. 

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I was admitted to a very good program years 10+ years ago. Admissions were less competitive then. Before the fall semester, I emailed all the profs and for their syllabus so I could see what topics they would cover. I immediately recognized I had a few weaknesses:

  • I only took one semester of linear algebra way back freshman year of undergrad, and I didn't do particularly well
  • I didn't have a good foundation in theory in statistics

I realized it was going to be rough. So I bought a Linear Algebra textbook and Casella/Berger and studied for 4-6 hours/day from June-August prior to starting the PhD. I watched online lectures, did problem sets, etc. This gave me an enormous boost my first year in the PhD program and made the qualifying exam a piece of cake down the road.

The point I'm making is that you've gotta get on this yourself. The profs I had in my first and second year couldn't care less if someone was struggling in their coursework - they cared about cranking out publications and getting their PhD candidates competitive for academic jobs. When we did the written quals, graders didn't have the names of the students on the exam paper, and each of the 8 problems was graded by a different faculty member to wash out any biases. There was no affirmative action on the written qual.

Our cohort started at 6/4 men/women. 3 didn't make it and coincidentally they were all women (2 American and 1 Chinese). The Chinese woman had mental health issues while 1 American woman failed the written qual 2 times and the other never got into the groove of research and left before her oral prelim.

On 2/15/2021 at 1:26 PM, Stat Assistant Professor said:

I'm sorry to hear that you are dealing with this. I don't really have much advice on how to rectify the specific issues with your department, but I do want to make a few observations.

1) It is true that international students typically have more extensive math backgrounds and are thus better prepared for the rigors of PhD coursework in statistics (e.g., it's commonly the case that a lot of international students have already taken classes at the level of Casella & Berger mathematical statistics, measure theory, etc., so in some sense, they already know the material in first-year courses). However, the gap between international and domestic students tends to narrow considerably by the third year, sometimes by the second. And by the time you start research, the majority of students are going to start out at the same level (i.e. not really knowing what they're doing).

I can say this has been my experience as well. The gap between US and international students narrowed bigly by year 3 and when looking at academic job placements in our cohort, the guy that got the "best" academic job was from the US, and he failed the qualifying exam the first time he took it.

Edited by statsguy
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12 hours ago, statsguy said:

The point I'm making is that you've gotta get on this yourself. The profs I had in my first and second year couldn't care less if someone was struggling in their coursework - they cared about cranking out publications and getting their PhD candidates competitive for academic jobs.

I agree with you in practice. Of course I understand that faculty can't walk me through every derivation and teach me the properties of the trace of a projection matrix. My point though is a more idealistic one, which is that when a department has a pattern of admitting people without the necessary prerequisites and then watching those people fail out without a second thought (and most of those people happen to belong to a marginalized group, in my department's case women), they are doing nothing more than wasting people's time in the name of making themselves look "diverse" in admissions.

The argument that the solution is for the people being admitted without the necessary background to simply work twice as hard as their counterparts (who are already working extremely hard) in order to be successful strikes me as unrealistic. In my case, I was trying to make ends meet financially the summer before I started, and spending 5 hours a day studying would have been impossible. Now that I'm in the program, I study constantly just to keep my head above water in my courses, and self-studying all the prerequisite material on top of that has not really been feasible (though I'm certainly trying). My point is that this is where I think the department should step in to help their admits, "diverse" or not, be successful. Your story actually gives me a good idea -- perhaps the department could offer funding for a summer review course before the program for those who need it.

12 hours ago, statsguy said:

Our cohort started at 6/4 men/women. 3 didn't make it and coincidentally they were all women (2 American and 1 Chinese). The Chinese woman had mental health issues while 1 American woman failed the written qual 2 times and the other never got into the groove of research and left before her oral prelim.

This certainly may have been a coincidence; I don't know your department or the people in it. However, I would urge you to consider the possibility that it may not have been. Sexism and other kinds of prejudice in academia can be quite insidious, and just because you don't think there was any bias doesn't mean women weren't treated in subtly different ways that might have influenced who didn't continue in the program. For example, is it possible that the women in your program were pressured to take on more service work and thus had less time for research? Or that advisors might have been ever-so-slightly more encouraging of a male student with mental health issues to seek treatment and take a leave of absence rather than quitting totally? Those are just two of a million ways this might not have been the coincidence you think it is (or it totally might have been a coincidence, I don't know, just urging you to to think about it. It would be interesting to give faculty/staff in our departments the gender-science test here implicit.harvard.edu). 

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4 hours ago, stemstudent12345 said:

 Your story actually gives me a good idea -- perhaps the department could offer funding for a summer review course before the program for those who need it.

This sounds like a great idea. Economics programs hold a ‘math camp’ during the summer before the first year, and I have heard it can be invaluable.

 

I have another thought on this issue, and I want to preface it by saying that creating opportunities for disadvantaged individuals to pursue higher education, elite careers, or what have you, is extremely important and valuable for everybody over the long term. My thought is basically just this: how much of this burden should fall on universities and their faculty? It seems like preferential admission of disadvantaged people can be a source of hope of opportunity and possibility  for the younger generations (particularly helping those who would feel forsaken by birth or by consequence of some event), and those who succeed in the system can later become role models who guide those facing similar difficulties. 
 

I wonder though if creating disruptions at the frontier of research is really the best way to do things. My feeling has been for some time that we need to ramp up free, quality education at the k-12 level with free clubs and activities for all students, better systems to identify gifted students, free daycare programs so that teenagers are not expected to care for younger siblings, free associate degrees and perhaps more. I understand that women tend to face difficulties with differences of communication styles when in majority male environments. Maybe I am blind, but I have not noticed any discrimination towards women in math or science among my peers. It seems to me there is a certain stigma around becoming an engineer or mathematician that evokes a very nerdy numbers obsessed and un-feminine stereotype. But is this stereotype just a function of the subject matter? Is it pernicious in some way? I feel that these career paths also tend to turn off the most masculine men who would not mesh with this stereotype either. I keep hearing about data in Norway showing greater behavioral divides between the genders resulting from greater gender equality, and I really wonder if women face exogenous (others discriminating against them) difficulties with higher math/engineering, or if many women happen to have personalities that don’t always mesh so well with the lifestyle of a math geek or engineering nerd. Sorry for rambling, I’m not trying to impose my view on anyone, but I’m hoping for your thoughts and feedback as my perspective is of course limited.

 

I would just like to add that I think there’s a good chance that women tend to be slightly more gifted in stem areas (based on higher overall college and especially k12 achievement). And I think it would be wonderful for the scientific community of there were more women involved. But even with that, the proportion of women in the medical fields is very high as far as I know. 

To the poster above, please consider the validity of that test. Aside from that, interventions based on such a test have been shown to have net zero or net negative effects. It seems like bunk science to me. Maybe a better measure is needed. 
http://www.hcdi.net/reliability-and-validity-of-implicit-association-test/

Edited by Cophysneurec
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4 hours ago, stemstudent12345 said:

I agree with you in practice. Of course I understand that faculty can't walk me through every derivation and teach me the properties of the trace of a projection matrix. My point though is a more idealistic one, which is that when a department has a pattern of admitting people without the necessary prerequisites and then watching those people fail out without a second thought (and most of those people happen to belong to a marginalized group, in my department's case women), they are doing nothing more than wasting people's time in the name of making themselves look "diverse" in admissions.

The argument that the solution is for the people being admitted without the necessary background to simply work twice as hard as their counterparts (who are already working extremely hard) in order to be successful strikes me as unrealistic. In my case, I was trying to make ends meet financially the summer before I started, and spending 5 hours a day studying would have been impossible. Now that I'm in the program, I study constantly just to keep my head above water in my courses, and self-studying all the prerequisite material on top of that has not really been feasible (though I'm certainly trying). My point is that this is where I think the department should step in to help their admits, "diverse" or not, be successful. Your story actually gives me a good idea -- perhaps the department could offer funding for a summer review course before the program for those who need it.

This certainly may have been a coincidence; I don't know your department or the people in it. However, I would urge you to consider the possibility that it may not have been. Sexism and other kinds of prejudice in academia can be quite insidious, and just because you don't think there was any bias doesn't mean women weren't treated in subtly different ways that might have influenced who didn't continue in the program. For example, is it possible that the women in your program were pressured to take on more service work and thus had less time for research? Or that advisors might have been ever-so-slightly more encouraging of a male student with mental health issues to seek treatment and take a leave of absence rather than quitting totally? Those are just two of a million ways this might not have been the coincidence you think it is (or it totally might have been a coincidence, I don't know, just urging you to to think about it. It would be interesting to give faculty/staff in our departments the gender-science test here implicit.harvard.edu). 

The department hooked you up with a fellowship, specifically for disadvantaged students. That's easily worth 10-15hours/week. Most of us had teaching assistantships and they were really annoying. Grading, teaching labs, answering student emails everyday, office hours... it was a major distraction. Perhaps they see potential in you and think you could use the extra 10-15/hours week to catch up? To say they don't support you at all seems like a stretch.

The women in our department were actually less pressured to "take" service work (not that we had a choice) and more likely to get a fellowship that didn't require teaching. And to be blunt, most of the US women in our department were from fairly affluent families, went to good expensive private colleges. At the same time, we had a guy who grew up in a trailer in rural Alabama, went to a weak state school, and ended up being one of the department legends since he absolutely crushed research and got a really prestigious post-doc and later TT position at a top-15 school (he recently got promoted to Asoc prof). He struggled big time his first year, failed the qual the first time, but with 70-80 hours/week year-round, he shined. Yet he had none of the advantages a woman from a middle-class family has like women-only fellowships or affirmative action.

We can theorize all we want but practically speaking, it's not going to change your situation. Spending time pondering the fairness of the situation is fine, but ultimately it's not going to get you the PhD. My suggestion is to hunker down and study hard, hard, hard. 60-80hours/week minimum. Study during winter and spring break. Take a few weeks off in the summer and then hit the books again. The PhD requires a high-degree of self-sufficiency. When you do your dissertation/research down the road, you'll be pretty much on your own. Take up a hobby that you can do for 1 hour/day like running, walking, cycling, cooking etc. to burn off some steam.

One final piece of advice would be to wait before making too much noise. Give it at least one full year. Things may start to "come together". Causing too much noise (unless of course, you have a clear example of sexism/anti-woman bias in the department) is not going to win you any friends among the faculty. Right now you're speculating.

I'm done with this thread- best of luck!

 

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29 minutes ago, Cophysneurec said:

My thought is basically just this: how much of this burden should fall on universities and their faculty? 
 

I wonder though if creating disruptions at the frontier of research is really the best way to do things. My feeling has been for some time that we need to ramp up free, quality education at the k-12 level with free clubs and activities for all students, better systems to identify gifted students, free daycare programs so that teenagers are not expected to care for younger siblings, free associate degrees and perhaps more.

Hmmm, I agree that there definitely needs to be changes in how things are run well before the post-graduate level (see my earlier comment about conservative economist Glenn Loury and redirecting energy toward correcting key developmental inequalities early in life). However, at the risk of overanalyzing, I think it's interesting that you use the words "burden" and "disruptions" to describe basic inclusivity efforts. I 100% agree that faculty are doing invaluable work on research and that should be their priority. However, having diverse communities makes research better for everyone (even in fields where it's not traditionally valued, like STEM fields). (I haven't actually read it yet, but this article has been on my list for a while and may or may not support my point). Even if I didn't believe that everyone deserved the opportunity to at least work hard and pursue their interests as far as they were able, I would at least recognize the utilitarian value in not discounting huge amounts of natural talent and potential for hard work among people who happen to belong to certain racial/gender/etc categories. 

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5 hours ago, stemstudent12345 said:

when a department has a pattern of admitting people without the necessary prerequisites and then watching those people fail out without a second thought

Is the department admitting students who haven't taken calc 2 and linear algebra?  I just can't imagine people don't actually have the background to succeed.  You can get an entire undergraduate math education by watching YouTube videos for a couple days.

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2 hours ago, statsguy said:

The department hooked you up with a fellowship, specifically for disadvantaged students. That's easily worth 10-15hours/week. Most of us had teaching assistantships and they were really annoying. Grading, teaching labs, answering student emails everyday, office hours... it was a major distraction. Perhaps they see potential in you and think you could use the extra 10-15/hours week to catch up? To say they don't support you at all seems like a stretch.

I know statsguy said they were done with this thread, but I think it's important I respond anyway. I'm very grateful for my fellowship! I don't want to discount that as an important factor that if I do succeed, will have contributed to my success. Also some folks in my department have been very supportive in trying to help (mostly my fellow students) and I don't want to discount the work they've put in. I never said that they "don't support [me] at all." I said they don't provide enough support for helping me get up to speed.

2 hours ago, statsguy said:

The women in our department were actually less pressured to "take" service work (not that we had a choice) and more likely to get a fellowship that didn't require teaching.

I didn't actually mean teaching as service work, because teaching is something you do directly for pay. I meant service work as in things that don't get paid, like helping organize admitted students day or organizing social events. Obviously men do these things to, it just is sometimes the case that women are pressured to do more of them.

2 hours ago, statsguy said:

Yet he had none of the advantages a woman from a middle-class family has like women-only fellowships or affirmative action.

Am I from a middle-class family? That's news to me. Also worth mentioning it's definitely not a gender-specific fellowship. Affirmative action is certainly an advantage, but I'm sure you know it's meant to correct for other disadvantages that occur before/during admission, not to give anyone an unearned advantage. (EDIT: I realize I got a little defensive here when statsguy probably wasn't referring to me at all but rather to the women in their cohort. That was my bad, I was feeling frustrated. My point about affirmative action stands. )

All in all, hard work is really important! I don't mean to discount that (and I fully realize that practically-speaking, I need to put in the hours, which is what I am doing and will continue to do). I'm just hoping to have a conversation about some of those systemic and interpersonal factors that make it harder for some people than others. Socioeconomic status is one of those factors, so it's great to hear you know someone from a low-SES background who went on to be really successful in academia. However, his story is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule. 

Edited by stemstudent12345
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1 hour ago, Cophysneurec said:

Maybe I am blind, but I have not noticed any discrimination towards women in math or science among my peers. It seems to me there is a certain stigma around becoming an engineer or mathematician that evokes a very nerdy numbers obsessed and un-feminine stereotype. But is this stereotype just a function of the subject matter? Is it pernicious in some way? I feel that these career paths also tend to turn off the most masculine men who would not mesh with this stereotype either. I keep hearing about data in Norway showing greater behavioral divides between the genders resulting from greater gender equality, and I really wonder if women face exogenous (others discriminating against them) difficulties with higher math/engineering, or if many women happen to have personalities that don’t always mesh so well with the lifestyle of a math geek or engineering nerd.

It's totally possible that you just have better peers than I do and that they aren't discriminatory! Unfortunately that's not the case in my department. I guess I would say that different numbers of women earning Ph.D.s and becoming professors in STEM fields isn't the only evidence of discrimination in the field, so I don't really find the argument that the discrepancy is due to personality differences compelling. There's a huge body of research on things like implicit bias, interruptions in meetings, subjective credibility of authors/teachers based on gender, etc. (not all of which depends on the Harvard IAT) which I think all important to consider. 

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