This guest post from Keivan Stassun originally appeared as a message on the aas_panchromatic email list. Keivan is a Professor of Astronomy at Vanderbilt University. In addition to researching star formation, Keivan is actively involved with several initiatives to engage minorities in astronomy and space sciences. The aas_panchromatic list is an online discussion forum sponsored by the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy and its main purpose is to facilitate networking and mentorship of astronomers who are members of underrepresented minority groups.
A recent article in the APS News, Admissions Criteria and Diversity in Graduate School, is a must-read for anyone who is thinking about improving diversity in our graduate programs:
You can see immediately the consequence of lopping off the applicant pool at a Quantitative GRE score of 700: Most Asian Americans, nearly the majority of whites, and nearly the majority of men make the cutoff, whereas almost all Hispanics, Native Americans, and African Americans are cut out, as well as a clear majority of women. These statistics are from ETS, the GRE people themselves, yet amazingly this information has been largely unknown to my knowledge. Consider that it is not uncommon for physics/astronomy PhD programs to use a cutoff score of 650–700 on the quantitative GRE score, either as a matter of official policy, or more commonly as an unofficial consequence of ranking applicants by GRE score and applying a strong weight to that score.
This figure is another illustration of the same data that I find additionally compelling. While unfortunately lacking range bars, this version shows that the same effect holds when considering only those students who were Physical Science majors in college and who had undergraduate GPAs in the “A” range (defined as > 3.7).
I think these data are a rallying cry for action. The AAS could be among the first professional societies to issue a “position statement” on the proper use of GRE scores in graduate admissions, recognizing that the data should be what drives our approaches, not our desire or belief that these standardized measures are predictive of success (where success in a PhD program can be defined as just about anything, because GRE scores correlate with almost nothing!).
In the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program, we have done away with GRE scores entirely. Instead, we perform a holistic review of each applicant, and we have developed an interview protocol that probes for what the psychology research literature calls “performance character”, essentially a measure of an individual’s demonstrated ability to persist in the face of challenge (also sometimes referred to as the “grit” factor). As I’ve heard one colleague say, “Persistence is the ‘P’ in PhD!” You can find our interview protocol in the article we published in the American Journal of Physics.
How do you think our grad admissions criteria can be modified to ensure that (1) women and minority applicants are not systematically eliminated, and (2) appropriate metrics are used to identify applicants with promise for success?