Exactly How Underrepresented are Underrepresented Students?

It's well known that the geosciences are one of the least diverse fields within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Every grant proposal I've every written hammers on this, highlighting the severe lack of diversity within the geosciences and explaining that failure to recruit students of color will ultimate result in a workforce shortage. This topic is discussed at length at conferences. Every major granting agency, from the National Science Foundation to NASA has directives to increase diversity within STEM fields (and within geosciences in particular). President Obama has even spoken about the need to develop successful methods for recruiting and educating students from minority groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields. The federal government has designated African Americans, Hispanic/Latinx, American Indian and Alaskan Natives as severely underrepresented in STEM fields.

But what does "underrepresented" really mean?

I took a look at the data, provided by the annual NSF Science & Engineering Indicators Report, and found that the underrepresentation of these groups in the Earth Sciences is much worse than I had imagined.

In the past decade and a half (2000-2013), there were 6,198 doctorates awarded in the Earth Sciences. Of those doctorates, only 53 (0.86%) were earned by African Americans, 136 (2.19%) were earned by Hispanic/Latinxs, and 20 (0.32%) were earned by American Indian and Native Alaskans. To put this another way, on average, only 4 African Americans, 10 Hispanic/Latinxs, and 1 American Indian and Alaska Native earned a doctorate each year, compared to 249 white students [NOTE: I originally reported the total number, 3,481, rather than the average. This has been updated to show the correct numbers].

I've compiled the raw data, year-by-year, in the graph below. This graph shows the number of doctorates earned by underrepresented minorities. It includes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (a single category in the NSF data) and Other/Unknown.

The first time I looked at these data, I was stunned. To see the raw numbers somehow personalizes the idea of underrepresentation. I completed my PhD last year at UC Riverside, one of the only federally-designated Hispanic Serving R1 Universities in the country. While I myself fall within this dataset ("Other/Unknown," about 25 of us graduate each year), I can't remember a single Hispanic/Latinx student earning a PhD during the 8 years I was there.

Seeing these numbers also makes me think about the future of our field, and the importance of supporting and nurturing the students of color who are working towards degrees in the geosciences. If you know an African American, Latinx or Native American graduate student in the geosciences, they are likely the only student of their race or ethnicity at your university, and they might also be the only student in their cohort in the nation. This January I will starting my new position as an Assistant Professor of Geology & Science Education at Western Washington University and I'll have these data on my mind.

Here are the numbers:

You can check out more of this data at the NSF Science & Engineering Indicators Report