Session Review: How to support students from diverse backgrounds apply to grad school

An EconTEAching seminar focusing on the discussion about supporting students from different backgrounds applying to graduate school took place online on 23 November 2022. During the seminar, Professor Dina Pomeranz (University of Zurich, and GAIN) together with two economics PhD students Carl Gergs (University College London (UCL), and CReAM) and Gaia Dossi (London School of Economics (LSE), and Centre for Economic Performance) shared what they have done in promoting students with diverse backgrounds and discussed the potential barriers for students with disadvantaged backgrounds in applying to graduate studies with a brief mention on how to do more to further support those students.

What potential barriers are disadvantage students facing?

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds and minority ethnics are generally underrepresented in graduate schools. It is always worth to think about why this has been the case and identify the potential barriers presented when these students apply to graduate studies. One of the biggest barriers is the lack of information as mentioned by Prof. Pomeranz during the seminar. Students who live in underrepresented countries may have little information about how to apply for graduate schools and how the admission process works. There is no pipeline which delivers the required information to these students. With the lack of information about the eligibility of a graduate program and the entry requirements, the application rate of disadvantaged students will be low. For example, the GRE is an important requirement when applying to the USA and UK universities, without getting more information about what GRE is and be well-prepared for the test, students with disadvantaged backgrounds may have low chances of applying to graduate studies. Carl also pointed out the lack of motivation of applying will prohibit students from applying for a graduate program. One way to stimulate motivation is to help build students’ confidence through mentoring, as explained by Gaia.

In addition to the information barrier, a skill barrier is also faced by disadvantaged students. Prof. Pomeranz pointed out that some highly qualified students from underrepresented countries may not be aware of their advantages in applying for further studies and it is important to spotlight these students and introduce them to possible pathways they could follow to enhance their knowledge in economics and related subjects. Moreover, funding barriers can also affect students’ further study choices. Those who come from a low-income family may require extra financial assistance from either university in the form of scholarships and admission fee waivers or by attending supportive programs with partnerships with universities to reduce the admission costs.

Possible ways to support students from diverse backgrounds to apply for graduate school

The issue of background and racial inequalities in graduate schools is a topic that demands discussion. The introduction of some supportive programs and projects involving different mentoring activities and information webinars can be one effective way to solve this problem and encourage more applications from students from diverse backgrounds. Prof. Pomeranz is the co-founder of project called GAIN (The Graduate Applications International Network) in Kenya with the aim of building pipelines for African students who would like to study for a PhD degree and improve their representation in economic conferences. It is important to carefully design the structure of a program and think about how to make it more effective. The GAIN project has three main parts. The first part lasts for three months and contains webinars aiming to share students with information about graduate school application process and give students an insight about what graduate degrees look like. Homework and assignments are also given to students to help them in preparation of tests such as GRE and prepare them for their applications to graduate studies. A group of the most qualified students will be selected to the second stage where mentoring activities will be carried out. Appointing mentees to the right mentors is an important stage in a mentoring scheme. The GAIN program mentors are matched to their mentees based on mentees’ homework and qualifications whereas some other programs may assign mentees to mentors with similar research interests. Also, to break the financial barrier faced by African students, the GAIN project is receiving funding from the Swiss government to support students’ application fees. The third part of this project involves the peer-to-peer support between African students during their studies in graduate schools to avoid students getting isolated from the community. This GAIN program highlights the role model effect. To improve the effectiveness of this program, more African experts, mentors, and alumni are being assigned with visible works and leadership positions in the program.

Supportive projects with relatively small scales and shorter lengths can also be effective. Gaia and Carl are currently the Applicant Mentoring Program (AMP) coordinators at LSE and UCL respectively. This program consists of one hour face to face mentoring with current students with the aim of helping them with admission fees and sharing information about how to apply for a PhD degree. The sessions include carefully planned activities such as reviewing application materials from applicants and getting to know their individual needs. To improve mentees’ experience, mentors undergo training and meet with admission teams to help coordinators and mentors get updates about the changes in application process. It has been found that building students’ confidence and pointing out their potential during mentoring sessions are important. Also, session organisers, can focus more on programs with longer mentoring time frames since it allows students to discover more about PhD degrees and the role of a research assistant.

What can we do more to support students from diverse backgrounds?

Carl suggested that programs such as the AMP would benefit from logistical help from universities. Given the huge number of potential participants, a lack of resources and mentors can seriously reduce the effectiveness of the programs. Moreover, Gaia mentioned that admission teams can work more on improving their website layout and appearance to make information as clear as possible to students. Possible visa problems may also be of concerns. Prof. Pomeranz pointed out that given the amount of funding they received, the GAIN program will need to limit the number of universities a student can apply since they cannot cope with all the admission fees. This limitation of choices may require students to decide which programs they are going to apply to more carefully. Furthermore, larger international networks and organizations such as the Royal Economic Society, can help to circulate program information and help reach to target mentees or even provide financial help. Individuals such as professors and PhD students can also be reached and invited to join our programs and be our mentors and speakers.     

By Gloria Guo

Image credit: Kimberly Farmer

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