At the top graduate programs, creating an inclusive and diverse student community ranks highly among other key strategic initiatives. To achieve their short- and long-term diversity goals, Universities host events ranging from diversity weekends and leadership panels to professional networking events and women’s breakfast forums. But, are there barriers to a truly diverse applicant pool the schools are missing? What about the initial contact a prospective applicant has with a program?
In a Wharton study by Katherine Milkman, to explore the treatment of prospective applicants to doctoral programs, researchers found that professors were significantly less likely to be responsive to communication from women or minority applicants -- and the level of unresponsiveness was greater within academic disciplines that tend to pay more, and at private institutions, where faculty salaries are higher on average.
The study also found that if women or minorities are not given the same level of encouragement -- or the same ability to access "insider" information -- as their white male colleagues, they may be discouraged from even trying to pursue a particular opportunity, or they may start the application process at such a disadvantage that there is no chance of catching up.
Unfortunately, as this study illustrates, strong biases still exist within higher education, but instead of getting discouraged, take action. Start by paying close attention to how you are marketing your candidacy and fit to a particular program. Even in that initial contact, you must realize that you are in a fish bowl, being watched and evaluated by faculty, alumni, current students and staff. In each and every email communication, attach a polished CV that shows you are a strong and competitive candidate; After any face-to-face or phone meeting, when someone has given up their time to speak with you, send a hand-written thank you note; Ask good questions that show you are serious and well-informed about the program’s offerings. Don’t just regurgitate information easily found on the program’s website. Dig deep into the intricacies of the program to research specific classes and recent studies done by professors. After some initial contact, attend all the prospective student events you can, and make a list of those influential admissions directors or faculty members you would like to meet. Securing a spot in a top program is highly competitive, so any step you can take to stand out is crucial.
In her study, Milkman also found that minority students got a better response from minorities of their race. “If someone in that department shares your identity, they are more likely to be an advocate or willing to help you and less likely to discriminate," she says.
Diversity initiatives are likely to be key priorities in higher education for many years to come, and schools clearly have more work to do. In the meantime, it is up to you, as an applicant and prospective student, to be aware of biases so you can strengthen your candidacy.