Student Review: Supporting students from diverse backgrounds applying to grad school

In the EconTEAching Seminar ‘Supporting students from diverse backgrounds applying to grad school’, Prof. Dina Pomeranz (Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Zurich and co-founder of Graduate Applications International Network (GAIN)), Carl Gergs (PhD candidate at the UCL Department of Economics and a mentor on the Economics PhD Applicant Mentoring Programme (AMP), and Gaia Dossi (PhD candidate in the Department of Economics at LSE and an AMP mentor) discuss some of the challenges and supporting mechanisms in place for students from diverse backgrounds applying to graduate schools.

Why are there mentorship programs for grad school?

As Prof Pomeranz puts it, “It is striking how few Africans there are at economics conferences and it is very embarrassing for the economics profession.” Through her comparative research between Kenya and Chile, she witnessed a dearth of Africans in the pipeline to become professors in Kenya. This is a stark contrast to the much higher participation rates by Chileans in this regard, creating a huge underrepresentation of African countries in graduate schools. Hence, this issue motivated her to co-found the GAIN programme.

Prof Pomeranz explains that there is a lack of information on the roadmap to becoming a professor and the process of applying to graduate school. Specifically, students are unaware of the requirements of a competitive application and how to do well for the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), which is a standardised admissions test requirement for many graduate schools in Europe, the United States, and many other countries. Furthermore, through his experience as a mentor, Carl found that having someone to talk to has helped many students to boost their confidence and go through with their applications.

What do the mentorship schemes mentioned in the seminar entail?

GAIN: GAIN is a 3-stage program aimed at assisting students with good grades from African countries to apply for graduate schools. It conducts webinars in the first stage to provide more information on graduate degree applications alongside homework assignments to allow students to monitor their progress. Thereafter, shortlisted applicants will be matched 1-1 with a mentor in the 2nd stage. They will receive support from mentors in preparing application materials and funding for sponsorship of application and test fees. In the last stage, alumni of the program organise calls and activities as part of peer-to-peer support throughout graduate school.

AMP: Economics Applicant Mentoring Programme (AMP) pairs current Economics PhD students with students from underrepresented backgrounds to prepare their applications to economics research programmes. During the 1-1 mentoring session, trained mentors review their mentees’ application material and are required to have at least one call with their mentees to give feedback.

What can university admissions offices do to help?

Carl argued that higher education admissions offices should explore how they can help students earlier in the process to fix the leaky pipeline. Gaia added that an easy way to help students is to try and make the information about admissions requirements as clear as possible on their website. This alone can be a huge help for applicants who don’t come from a background with lots of connections. For example, as silly as it may sound, not having an obvious deadline on the website can cause many people to miss it. The mentors from AMP both echoed for more assistance in running these mentorship schemes, such as logistical support for the administrative side of the programme.

Prof Pomeranz emphasised that the biggest game changer would be for the admissions office to scrap admissions fees for students, which can cumulatively amount to one’s monthly salary in a lower-middle income country. Furthermore, international networks like the Royal Economic Society can have a centralised advantage in lobbying for the elimination of these fees and disseminating calls for mentors. However admissions offices still need to explore further how they can filter out bad applications while reducing discrimination towards low-income applicants.

Tapping on Grassroots Networks for expansion

At the seminar, our panellists reached a consensus that there is no easy strategy to reach out to these underrepresented groups to join their mentorship.

Carl highlights the importance of avoiding the big networks on platforms to reach out to underrepresented groups. This might sound counter-intuitive; however, these networks on Twitter, for example, often becomes an echo chamber with limited reachability. AMP leverages on the network effects of other similar initiatives and individuals such as professors and PhD students in the department to refer suitable students to their programme.

Meanwhile, GAIN relies on mailing lists and word-of-mouth, which have seen growing application rates over the past few years.

These methods suggest that grassroots networks are the most effective and targeted strategy for these mentorship programmes.

Summing up

Academia, and economics in particular, still has a long way to go to reduce the underrepresentation of minority groups. A key message from this seminar is that institutions can and should do more to address this issue by working hand in hand with these initiatives to enhance their reachability and make information more accessible and explicit. As we witness these mentorships and initiatives sprout at the grassroots, our hope for Economics is to have a more diverse pool of professors and make the profession a little “less embarrassing”.

By Varian Teo

Image credit: Kelly Sikkema

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