Recruitment vs. Retention: What's the Problem in the Earth Sciences?

Last week I wrote about the severe underrepresentation of certain minorities in the geosciences at the PhD level. The numbers were pretty dire, and this week I wanted to look at the trends in diversity leading up to PhDs. Once again, I was able to find some useful data in the NSF Science & Engineering Indicators Report. The data is categorized in a variety of redundant ways, but if you paw through the pages, you can eventually start to piece together some trends.

What I've done here is compile the percentage of degrees awarded to underrepresented minority (URM) students at the bachelor's, master's and PhD levels in: (A) All Science & Engineering fields, (B) Physical Sciences, which includes physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences, and (C) Earth Sciences. I've included Asians Americans in the URM category, even though the federal government does not, so Asian & Asian American, African American, Hispanic or Latinx, American Indian and Alaska Natives are counted as URM students here. Keep in mind that these groups account for 34.8% of the US population according to the 2010 Census.

What's clear at first glance is that underrepresentation for certain ethnic and racial groups in STEM fields starts at the undergraduate level and gets worse from there. When considering all STEM fields, URM students account for 26.48% of bachelor's degrees, 19.13% of master's degrees, and only 13.00% of PhDs. The share of bachelor's degrees is fairly close to national demographics, but the drop in master's and PhDs indicates a severe rate of attrition for URM students at the graduate level.

This pattern holds for degrees awarded in the Physical Sciences, though underrepresentation is greater. URM students account for 20.62% of bachelor's degrees, 11.40% of master's degrees and 9.13% of Phds. Looking at the NSF's data, it looks like a larger share of URM students are pursuing engineering or biology degrees than physical science.

Things get a little bit more interesting when you look only at Earth Sciences degrees. URM students account for a far smaller share of Earth Science degrees overall but there is less attrition moving through the post-secondary levels. URM students account for 9.30% of bachelor's degrees, 7.04% of master's degrees, and 5.77% PhDs. To me, this suggests that the diversity issue in the Earth Sciences is related more to poor recruitment than to retention.

This is an issue I plan to write more about in the coming weeks. I'm also interested in examining the ethnic/racial breakdown of Earth Science degrees more closely, and continuing to compare what's happening in our field to other STEM fields.