Institutions of higher education strive to support diversity and inclusion efforts
as they recognize the benefits at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels
(Terenzini et al., 2001; Denson and Chang, 2009; Pascarella et al., 2014; Moriña,
2017). Diversity can be defined as “the varied perspectives and approaches to work
which members of different identity groups bring” (Thomas and Ely, 1996) and inclusion
can be described as a person's ability to contribute fully and effectively to an organization
(Miller, 1998; Mor Barak and Cherin, 1998). One strategy to diversify higher education
is by focusing on creating a diverse pipeline, whereby undergraduates from different
backgrounds engage in high quality research. These experiences provide students the
ability to build competencies and achievement records that propel them to and through
graduate school as well as beyond.
Previous research has demonstrated that undergraduates who participate in research
projects and positively interact with faculty are more likely to pursue and attain
post-baccalaureate degrees as well as subsequent careers as faculty or research scientists
(Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991; Astin, 1993; Tinto, 1993; Adedokun et al., 2013;
Yaffe et al., 2014). Opportunity and mentorship are particularly critical for underrepresented
students, as previous research has found that students' interactions with faculty
members have a stronger influence on their decisions to pursue graduate education
than their initial background characteristics (e.g., socio-economic status; Ethington
and Smart, 1986; Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991; Carpi et al., 2017). While many mentors
may intend to support minority student researchers, they may not be aware of how to
do so. Thus, this paper will highlight some of the challenges faced by underrepresented
students (i.e., students of color, lower socio-economic status, LGBT) and provide
evidence-based solutions on how to recruit, select, retain students from diverse backgrounds
to promote diversity and inclusion in undergraduate research labs working toward publishable
Promoting an Inclusive Research Lab
Multiple studies have found that minority students report feeling isolated, unwelcomed,
invisible and distant from faculty (Fullilove and Treisman, 1990; Rankin, 2003; Suarez-Balcazar
et al., 2003; Love, 2008; Cherng et al., 2014). Inclusive research lab practices related
to recruiting, selecting and retaining diverse student researchers can reduce the
effects of these negative experiences.
As recruitment may be one of the first barriers faced in achieving a diverse research
lab, active recruitment efforts must complement other efforts to get diverse students
in the door. Active recruitment is defined as efforts that may aid in an increase
in applicants and have been used to attract minority applicants to different graduate
program and professions (George et al., 1997; Muñoz-Dunbar and Stanton, 1999). Researchers
in organizational psychology have found that more diverse recruitment advertisements
positively impact perceptions of organizational attractiveness, perceived compatibility,
and evaluations of the organization's image (Perkins et al., 2000; Avery et al., 2004;
Lambert, 2015; Baum et al., 2016). Based on these findings, we suggest that advertisements
for student research opportunities should include pictures of diverse students and
explicit statements encouraging students of all backgrounds to apply. Additionally,
it is important for recruitment advertisements to use language that can directly combat
some of the misperceptions about research labs that may persuade students from various
backgrounds to select-out of participating, as they feel that they may not fit in.
For example, students from lower socio-economic status backgrounds may be juggling
both work and academic demands and feel that they are not able to participate in research.
However, recruitment messages may be tailored to address this need by mentioning the
option of flexibility in hours and location for work to be conducted, if applicable.
These recruitment efforts may help to attract students from all backgrounds who typically
feel excluded from these opportunities as they signal inclusiveness through pictures
Proactive types of recruitment efforts can take place by both faculty and lab members.
For example, faculty members can engaging in mentoring behaviors during the recruitment
process. This can be done by faculty identifying and encouraging strong minority students
in the classroom to apply for research opportunities. Oftentimes, students from underrepresented
groups are anxious and feel they do not belong due to a lack of representation. Previous
work in educational psychology found that high school students express self-doubt
based on an unwelcoming culture of seeing an all-white AP classroom, even after being
accepted to these challenging courses (Belcher, 2017). However, with further encouragement
and longer discussion from mentors, 90% of those who opted not to originally take
AP courses did eventually do so. Similarly, it is likely that minority students doubt
their abilities to work in high quality research labs, but may overcome this barrier
with appropriate mentorship.
Current lab members may also take an active role in recruitment diverse students.
For example, research assistants can set time aside for community outreach events
where diverse students may be involved in, such as sports, student clubs, or special
events on campus. This can allow for the opportunity for current students to engage
in conversation about their experiences working in a lab and the benefits of research
for their future goals, specifically, articulating that they are working on publishable
research which will be instrumental for pursuing graduate education.
Biases can negatively influence minority students' experiences in being provided opportunities
in a research lab. Research has found that minority students report experiences of
discrimination and differential treatment from their advisors and from prospective
advisors (Rankin, 2003; Suarez-Balcazar et al., 2003; Shammas, 2017). For example,
faculty were more responsive to White male undergraduate students when contacted about
prospective research and mentorship opportunities compared to female or ethnically
diverse students (Milkman et al., 2015). Additionally, faculty members rated male
lab manager applicants (identical to female counterparts) as more competent and hireable,
as well as deserving of a higher salary and more mentorship (Moss-Racusin et al.,
2012). Biases are held by all, and faculty who consider themselves free from bias
(Staats et al., 2015) or who share these minority characteristics are not immune (Durso
and Latner, 2008; Herek et al., 2009, 2015).
In light of these findings, it is important for mentors to actively strive to minimize
the influence of unintentional bias. One way to determine whether selection processes
are impacted by these biases is to conduct regular audits of one's lab to ensure that
certain types of students are not systematically being evaluated more poorly than
others (Tetlock and Mitchell, 2009). To improve the fairness and accuracy of evaluations,
faculty need to set clear, objective, behavior-based performance metrics. Indeed,
more general and subjective ratings allow for a greater reliance on these subtle biases
(Prendergast and Topel, 1993; Aranda et al., 2014). Research has also demonstrated
the importance of learning about implicit biases and taking efforts to recognize and
reduce behavioral manifestations of such biases. Ignoring implicit biases will negatively
impact the validity of faculty's selection and evaluation systems preventing diverse
students from working on impactful research.
Faculty members, especially at larger institutions, often develop some type of selection
system for their research labs to engage students to support publishable projects.
This process often involves using different sources of information, including SAT
scores. However, standardized testing generally disadvantages marginalized applicants
(Roth et al., 2001; Dean et al., 2008; Fagioli, 2013) due to several reasons including
economic and socioeconomic factors, psychological factors, societal factors, cultural
factors, test constructruction, and valdiation factors (Ployhart et al., 2003; Berry
et al., 2011). As a consequence, organizational psychologists encourage decision makers
in the workplace to broaden perspectives on selection in general. McKay and Davis
(2008) argued that in addition to relying on valid, standardized selection instruments,
organizations must “expand the number of predictor constructs measured by selection
systems beyond cognitive-based tests” (p. 152). They further argue that, “personnel
practitioners should include non-cognitive constructs in selection systems to complement
organizations' diversity efforts” (p. 153). Following the model of workplace selection
practices and extending them to selecting undergraduate researchers, faculty should
conduct a job analysis to identify the responsibilities and qualifications that are
necessary to be successful in working on publishable research projects and consider
alternative ways to assess these skills.
For example, additional criteria that can be used to evaluate student researchers
may include factors, such as motivation and research interests. The Council on Graduate
Medical Education found motivation to commit time and effort to studying in high demanding
programs to be a predictor of success among medical students from minority groups
(Pacquiao, 2007). Additionally, we recommend incorporating qualitative approaches
to elicit this information by asking students to write a short essay describing their
reasons for wanting to join a specific lab, their future career plans and research
interests. Educational psychologists have found the essay approach to be useful in
assessing underrepresented students' motivation for advanced placement (AP) courses
in high school (Belcher, 2017).
To retain and support diverse students after the recruitment and selection process,
it is important for faculty to engage in mentorship, ally behaviors and encourage
diversity more broadly to promote an inclusive lab environment.
Students from diverse backgrounds report that a lack of mentorship is a challenge
in navigating their educational experiences. Previous work has found that mentoring
can be particularly vital to maintaining persistence toward a degree for African American
students (Freeman, 1999; Dodson et al., 2009; Blackwell and Pinder, 2014). Notably,
African-American students reported higher satisfaction with research-focused faculty
support than other types of mentoring (Ishiyama, 2007; Strayhorn and Saddler, 2009;
Kendricks et al., 2013; Castellanos et al., 2016).
Therefore, once students are in the lab, faculty members can take an active role in
mentorship by providing developmental opportunities (i.e., co-authorship for publications
or conferences) and feedback on research related tasks to build the skills of these
students at the undergraduate level. These mentorship relationships between diverse
students and faculty can foster research publications as well. A research study found
that faculty members who had mentored Black or students with disabilities were more
productive in publishing with their undergraduates (Morales et al., 2017). The authors
suggest that research publication success is likely due to a mentor's commitment given
that often additional time and support is needed for socially marginalized students
(Sax et al., 2002; Eagan and Garvey, 2015) and team diversity contributing to broader
knowledge and skills (Barjak and Robinson, 2008).
Mentors can also provide support for students working toward graduate degrees. The
work of several researchers suggests that providing graduate applicants with guidance
on what is being sought in professional statements, how to approach letter writers
and what to share with them, and how decisions are made can help put those with less
experience in higher education (e.g., first generation college students or graduate
students, persons from under-represented groups) in a better position to pursue graduate
studies (McKay and Davis, 2008; Sedlacek, 2017; Mathur et al., 2019). This process
provides everyone with required information and support, creating a more level playing
field for pursuing graduate education that otherwise might only be accessible to some.
Overall, faculty mentorship enables the process of engaging diverse students in publishable
research and beyond.
Promote Ally Behaviors
Allies can be both faculty or other lab mentors with similar characteristics and background
as diverse students (i.e., faculty of color) or from a majority group (i.e., White
student). Faculty can use their own positions of privilege to be allies and model
these behaviors for all lab members. To be effective allies, lab mentors can educate
themselves on the various barriers faced by each group as well as the strategies that
are most effective at supporting and advocating for these groups (Sabat et al., 2013).
This can be done by attending ally and other optional diversity training programs,
reading, and staying current on research pertaining to organizational diversity and
discrimination, participating in diversity-related events, examining one's own biases,
and the ways in which they may be perpetuating systematic inequalities, and by developing
and fostering diverse social support networks. Using this knowledge, mentors can engage
in behaviors that outwardly support diversity by proactively expressing their ally
identities and by role modeling their support for all diverse groups. Specifically,
they can emphatically state their genuine support for minority groups and diversity-supportive
causes, advertise diversity-related events on campus, and post-ally/diversity-supportive
stickers in their offices. Individuals who express their ally identities in these
ways are likely to create safe spaces.
Promoting an Inclusive Lab
The positive environment cultivated in the research lab will likely support both minority
and majority students. Mentors engaging and promoting inclusive behaviors may encourage
students with concealable stigmas feel comfortable disclosing their identities within
the research lab (Sabat et al., 2017). This will likely have a positive impact on
marginalized research assistants as disclosure of more hidden identities (i.e., sexual
orientation) has been consistently linked to improved satisfaction, commitment, and
workplace health (Sabat et al., 2017). Additionally, mentors who disclose their ally
identities are also likely to encourage majority members within the lab to feel comfortable
acknowledging or disclosing their own ally identities, which will continue to spur
a cycle of support allowing all students to thrive in the research lab.
Research has demonstrated that celebrating diversity and taking a multicultural, identity-affirming
approach is more beneficial than taking a color-blind approach in which one ignores
identity-based differences (Meeussen et al., 2014). Diversity likely already exists
in all labs when considering an intersectional framework. Engaging in discussions
regarding gender diversity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, rural/urban
upbringing, religious variations, and then seeking to diversify in specific ways (e.g.,
ethnic diversity) can help all members feel included in diversity related initiatives.
Diversity impacts all aspects of one's experiences and denying this perpetuates systematic
disadvantages faced by minority groups (Purdie-Vaughns et al., 2008; Fryberg and Stephens,
2010; Offermann et al., 2014; Bonilla-Silva, 2015). For these reasons, as issues pertaining
to diversity arise in the local or national contexts, faculty can allow their lab
to be a safe place to address them. Previous evidence has found that broader diversity
issues can impact the motivation, well-being, and performance of students, particularly
those who are underrepresented (Cokley, 2000; Pugh et al., 2008; Sliter et al., 2014;
Prewitt, 2015). Consequently, engaging in these potentially challenging conversations
in the lab can help to foster inclusion, model civil conversation, and allow the opportunity
for diverse perspectives to be shared. These inclusive practices related to recruitment,
selection, and lab management can allow diverse students to feel supported working
on high quality research.
In this paper, we have identified some ways to overcome the challenges faced by underrepresented
students including experiences of bias, feelings of isolation, and a lack of mentorship.
We have offered solutions to overcome these challenges with regards to recruiting,
selecting, and retaining diverse undergraduate researchers working toward publishable
work. As the country diversifies and the education system broadens to include online
learning, all types of opportunities, including participation in research labs should
be accessible to everyone. Together, with our collective efforts, we can move toward
more equitable educational institutions that can lead the way in providing equal educational
opportunities to all. As noted by the Dean of Harvard College at commencement, “Diversity
in the student body is important for the same reason that it is important in research.
It is the only way to advance a field… through a diversity of perspectives” (Powell,
AA, IS, RT-S, and EK worked together to create an outline for the manuscript. RT-S
identified challenges. AS highlighted recruitment and selection efforts. IS worked
on managing labs. All authors worked on revising the manuscript.
Conflict of Interest Statement
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial
or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.