PhD students have led a successful push for greater inclusivity of under-represented groups in science, technology, engineering and maths.
Above, GRIT co-founders Cody Hernandez, Christina Roman, and Mat Perez-Neut, PhD students at the University of Chicago in Illinois, take a break.
By Kendall Powell
Joining the ranks of more than 60 institutions and graduate programmes across the United States, the biological sciences division of the University of Chicago in Illinois has cut a standard test from its graduate admissions requirements. The decision aims to boost the likelihood of admission for minority and female applicants by levelling the playing field.
The division — which includes 16 graduate programmes with about 400 doctoral students, and admits about 75 students annually for PhD study — decided on 9 July to drop its application requirement for Graduate Record Examination (GRE) standardised test scores. The move results from a 6-months-long campaign and a 25 June letter by a group of biological-sciences PhD students at the university who maintain that GRE scores damage opportunities to include and engage prospective PhD students from underrepresented backgrounds.
The student group, the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT), argues that GRE scores do not measure the ability to thrive in PhD studies. “Our goal is to ensure that prospective students have the resilience and perseverance factor that’s really needed to survive in graduate school,” says Cody Hernandez, a GRIT co-founder and third-year PhD student in molecular genetics and cell biology at the university. He says that the traits cannot be measured by standardized test scores, but instead must come from a more holistic review of graduate applications.
The move makes the university the first major US research institution to largely drop requirements for all standardised test scores from both its undergraduate and graduate applications, starting this academic year. In June, the university announced it would no longer require SAT or ACT scores for undergraduate admissions.
In their letter, GRIT noted that the GRE is known to be biased against women, minorities and people from underprivileged backgrounds. They also pointed out that GRE scores fail to accurately predict graduate student success as measured by time to degree and total number of publications.
Vicky Prince, dean for graduate affairs for the division, says that the division faculty members who are involved in admissions had already been discussing dropping the GRE requirement and had placed less emphasis on test scores during the last two admissions cycles. But she says that GRIT members have changed the division’s culture and approach to recruiting graduate students from underrepresented groups.
Hernandez formed GRIT in 2016 with colleagues Mat Perez-Neut and Christina Roman. “There weren’t a lot of graduate students from marginalised backgrounds at the university,” Hernandez says. “Rather than just being upset about it, we wanted to learn why that was and find ways to solve the issue by working with faculty members.”
The group, which includes 36 students from 15 biology graduate programmes, facilitates “difficult conversations” between faculty members and students about the barriers to entry that minority students face and about their ongoing challenges, such as implicit bias.
GRIT also personally recruits candidate PhD applicants at national and local conferences and mentors and guides applicants throughout the admissions process. Their efforts directly helped recruit 8 of the 12 underrepresented-minority students who will begin graduate studies this autumn, according to Prince. “The challenges that minority students have had to face, such as working to pay university tuition, leave less time to do the other things that make you an attractive applicant,” including extensive research experiences, says Nancy Schwartz, former dean for graduate affairs and a faculty adviser to GRIT. She notes that the students recruited by GRIT are highly successful by any metric even if their academic records at the outset may be less strong than those of non-minority applicants.
Prince says that the quick success of GRIT is due largely to the students taking the lead on how best to recruit, welcome and support underrepresented students. “We’ve been letting the bottom-up approach set the strategy,” she says. “The students are the people on the ground who know what’s really going to work.”
National doctoral fellowship programmes at the US National Institutes of Health, US National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have also dropped the GRE requirement.
Kendall Powell is a freelance writer in Lafayette, Colorado.