Building the Pipeline

The significant and persistent lack of racial diversity in the field of physics, in our Department, and in each of our divisions is the result of systemic racism both at home at MIT and more broadly throughout our nation and its history.  It is far past time that we step up and join the efforts disproportionately spearheaded by Black women activists toward rectifying this inexcusable status quo. Underrepresented groups in physics of course include racial minorities, women, LGBTQ+ physicists, and physicists marginalized in various other aspects of their identity. But, at this moment, we want the Department to take a particularly close look at Black physicists, who have been severely affected by the legacy of white supremacy inside physics and whose numbers have remained shockingly stagnant over the past ten years compared to other underrepresented groups in our Department. 

Recommendations - Faculty and staff level

Recommendations - Student level

Recommendation 3. (Immediate action requested)
That the Department hire a staff member specifically devoted to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as requested in the BSU/BGSA petition

We are grateful that the current faculty and staff in our Department are kind and caring people, who have in the past (and who we are certain will in the future) make headway in improving our Department. 

Notwithstanding, the primary requirement for becoming a faculty member in our Department is a physics Ph.D., which historically has required no formal education in matters of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Likewise, we have no staff member whose role specifically focuses on matters of climate, representation, and fostering inclusivity. 

To facilitate faster and better progress on overcoming longstanding issues in our Department of nearly a thousand people, it would be helpful to hire someone whose full-time job is to specifically focus on improving DEI and who has experience in these areas through their formal education and prior employment. This person can bring valuable expertise to existing department committees and initiatives, assist the Department in regularly aligning its policies with the most recently developed best practices, and interface with students. This staff member can work and coordinate with school-level or other department DEI staff, the ICEO, OGE, and other relevant offices on campus. 

We reiterate that a single person cannot fix our Department; it will take hard work from each and every single one of us to create lasting and meaningful change. The purpose of DEI-focused staff is to assist, expedite, and simplify that process. 

Recommendation 4.
That the Department periodically examine trends in hiring by Division and implement corrective measures as necessary. 

The Department has seen significant improvement in recent years in the recruitment of physicists from underrepresented groups. However, hiring happens at the Division level, and not every Division has made uniform improvement across all measures of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, Astrophysics has not admitted a Black graduate student in at least a decade. ABC is the largest division in the Department encompassing many research areas, and yet it only has a single woman faculty member. Certain Divisions are reputed to have better climates than others for underrepresented physicists. The Department should research best practices for recruitment and hiring for each career level and ensure that they align with current policies, programs, and practices in each Division. Furthermore, we strongly recommend that the Department and Division leadership look at their records together and share information and initiatives to help one another address disparities between Divisions. 

For example, one of the outcomes of the June 10 discussions in the CTP is that in the postdoctoral hiring process, the CTP will now designate “a faculty member explicitly assigned to monitor equity/diversity issues, and at minimum ensure a second read of all files for candidates who are known to be URM.” We recommend that the other theory divisions follow suit, and further recommend that experimentalists consider what sorts of checks can be implemented to ensure equity in their postdoctoral hiring process, which tends to happen at the research group level. (See also Recommendation 22.) The Pappalardo Fellowship program is also an important pipeline for future physics faculty, and it is important to ensure that it is contributing to equity in our community. We recommend that the Department review its processes and procedures for awarding Pappalardo Fellowships in relation to current best practices.

Recommendation 5.
That the Divisions strive to invite a diverse group of visitors and speakers.

We recommend that Divisions ensure that their seminar organizers are inviting diverse sets of speakers to give technical talks. To guarantee that both the host and the visitor create a welcoming climate for one another, the divisions should create a seminar Code of Conduct that emphasizes mutual respect, using welcoming and inclusive language, and includes a mechanism or designated role for reporting and shutting down perceived aggression. Seminar organizers should also actively ensure that speakers have adequate numbers of meetings scheduled with MIT researchers and get the most out of their visit. 

We further recommend that the divisions also take more advantage of opportunities like the MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars Program to assist in inviting a diverse group of visitors to conduct and collaborate on their physics research at MIT. While the primary focus of hosting visiting scholars should always be their scientific contributions to our community, visiting underrepresented minority scholars can also function as role models that may otherwise be lacking in this department. (TEAM-UP report, p. 12.)


Building the pipeline at the student level

Recommendation 6.  (Immediate action requested)
That the Department expand outreach and recruiting efforts to college students outside of the MIT community. 

We recommend that the Department expand outreach and recruitment efforts in order to engage more underrepresented minority students with physics and with MIT. It is important to note that there is no need to reinvent the wheel; there are already a number of longstanding and extremely successful programs running on MIT’s campus and more broadly in the field of physics with which we as a Department could easily engage.

First, the Physics Department should urge its faculty to participate in MIT’s primary pipeline program to recruit underrepresented minority and underserved students to our campus, the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). There are a number of ways in which our physicists can engage with MSRP. MSRP is always in need of additional faculty supervisors as well as graduate student reviewers for applications, especially in the field of physics. It would be of great benefit if high profile members of the department like Division and Department leadership, were to actively promote the program and raise its visibility. We emphasize that MSRP students are free to faculty. The Department should also encourage faculty to post more clear and accessible descriptions of the research that they do to the department webpage to assist potential applicants to our Department at all levels. 

Second, the Department should encourage its faculty to participate in national programs to serve URM students such as the APS National Mentoring Community, which matches underrepresented minority undergraduates with faculty mentors. 

Third, the Department should institute a policy of sponsoring a booth and sending at least one faculty representative every year to each of the major minority-centered academic conferences, such as the National Society of Black Physicists annual conference. The Department should both maintain a list of relevant opportunities on its website, as well as actively publicize and promote upcoming events. 

Fourth, the Department should build partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) graduating relatively high numbers of physics majors, an effort that is currently being spearheaded by the Physics Working Group in collaboration with Department leadership.

Fifth, the Department should create a fund that provides travel support for MIT community members giving talks at minority-centered conferences and institutions. (See also Recommendations 15 and 23.) 

Recommendation 7. (Immediate action requested)
That the Department take immediate steps to reform graduate admissions. Specifically, 

7a) That the Department create oversight of equity in graduate applications by having an external body periodically evaluate equity in our admissions practices and by mandating that application readers undergo regular training or professional development regarding admissions practices. 

7b) That the Department permanently remove the GRE and Physics GRE from the application. The PGRE disadvantages minorities, does not significantly correlate to PhD completion, and is known in astronomy to not correlate to first-author papers or postdoctoral prize fellowships. A large body of peer-reviewed scientific literature also highlights failings of the General GRE; for example, in biomedical fields, there has been shown to be no correlation between GRE scores and first-author papers, grants, or fellowships. Physics departments at many of our peer institutions are no longer requiring or no longer allowing GRE scores, even outside of this pandemic year. 

7c) That the Department ensure serious consideration of all talented candidates, including those who did not attend top-ranked universities or who are not from research groups recognized by the committee. Faculty reading applications should be made aware that the colleges that students apply to and attend are tied to a variety of factors besides just personal achievement and potential, including but not limited to family background and academic resources. For example, an enormous number of students from underrepresented backgrounds do not even apply to the top-ranked colleges for which they are qualified. Nearly three-quarters of American undergraduate students attend public universities, only 15% of undergraduates attend college more than 500 miles from home, and a full 15% of undergraduates are accepted to but turn down their top-choice institution based on cost. [More details, see for example: the 2019 American Freshman Survey, 20 Surprising Higher Education Facts, “No Point in Applying”]

7d) That the Department create an application assistance program for students from underrepresented backgrounds, an initiative being spearheaded across campus by Graduate Student Council (GSC-DEI’s) Department and Classroom Inclusion Subcommittee (some examples: Biological Engineering, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Chemistry, EAPS) . We remark that GSC-DEI has sought the guidance and approval of the Office of the General Counsel for its programs. 

7e) That the Department clearly advertise application fee waivers on the Physics Department website’s application home page to ensure equity in admissions for students facing financial hardship. 

7f) That the Department request that graduate applicants write an essay about how they will contribute to a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive physics community. This gives underrepresented and underserved applicants the space and the comfort to talk about their own personal background and experiences if they so choose, while forcing all other applicants to engage with longstanding issues in our field and write about their involvement in advocacy, mentoring, outreach, or other volunteer efforts, per the aims of Recommendation 20. Many of our peer institutions either require or allow a diversity statement, including the Berkeley and Stanford Physics Departments. 

To start the conversation, we include here a particularly interesting reading about the role of diversity statements in the faculty hiring process, which may translate well to graduate students as well. If diversity, equity, and inclusivity are priorities for the Department, they should be explicitly recognized as considerations, in addition to research potential. 

Recommendation 8.
That the Department host an event explicitly focused on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at the admitted graduate student visit. 

At the admitted graduate student visit days, the only current DEI-related event is a breakfast hosted by GWIP held in parallel to a general breakfast for all students. We recommend that the Department hold a DEI-centered event scheduled for the entire admitted student group that highlights resources at MIT and in our Department available for students from all marginalized backgrounds. Presenting all support resources and ways to get involved at once to everyone minimizes the organizational burden for the Department to hold multiple informative events or for students to feel singled out if they are the only one to whom certain information applies. Moreover, it is important to recognize that many students identify with multiple marginalized identities. 

These events should be primarily run by faculty and staff, as are all other informational events during the visit. The burden should not fall on URM, women, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized students to educate the community about available resources, though these cohorts may choose to hold separate events to build community and camaraderie within a single cohort. 

Additionally, we strongly recommend that summary documents about MIT’s support and advocacy organizations should be included in print in the folder given to prospective students. To assist in recruitment, links to the Physics Values Committee’s website graduate student resource lists should be linked clearly and publicly from the Physics Department’s graduate admission webpages. 

Recommendation 9.
That the Department increase representation of underrepresented physics undergraduates so that within five years, minority and women physics major demographics reflect the demographics of the undergraduate student body as a whole. 

The Department should strive to eliminate significant and persistent disparities between Course 8 major demographics and institute-wide undergraduate demographics. By applying to and enrolling at MIT, students have demonstrated a strong background and a strong interest in STEM fields. Moreover, all undergraduate students are extremely well-positioned to pursue a physics major: every freshman is expected to take a year of physics and a year of calculus upon arrival. 

It is important to reach out to students and actively counteract implicit and explicit messages they have received growing up or during their time at MIT about who belongs in STEM and in particular in the hard sciences. The Department should start recruitment with freshmen and advertise the major in introductory physics courses, particularly making an extra effort to reach out to underrepresented students in large lecture courses in a non-intimidating and non-tokenizing way. Instructors should draw attention to the work of racial minority, women, and LGBTQ+ physicists in their lectures, particularly in early subjects. 

We strongly emphasize that faculty should encourage every single student who indicates an interest in physics to take our classes and pursue our major - not just the first-years who start out in upper-level physics classes, not just the first-years in 8.012 and 8.022, not just the top performers in the introductory subjects, not just the advisees with the best grades, not just the students who do great research. Everyone belongs here.

We recommend that the Department speak with departments like Mechanical Engineering to learn how they accomplished parity in gender representation in the recent past. Undergraduate and graduate students  would also be willing to provide input to faculty about how they might best interface with students. We also note work done by our peer institutions to make introductory physics courses more accessible for students with less preparation in math and physics than their peers.

Recommendation 10.
That the Department expand its efforts at the undergraduate level to build the academic pipeline and increase the pool of talented underrepresented applicants to MIT and other institutions’ graduate physics programs. 

The Department should institute additional measures to support underrepresented physics majors on the road to graduate school. A great deal of literature exists about how this might be accomplished, and we recommend that the Physics Values Committee take Recommendations 9 and 10 on as longer-term projects. 

As a first step, physics professors should actively reach out to underrepresented students in their classes, encourage their participation in physics, and inform them about research and other physics-related opportunities. Graduate Teaching Assistants can also play an important role in encouraging undergraduates and promoting equity. The Department should closely consider what kind of training it provides for TAs, instructors, and advisors (see also Recommendations 12-13) and how they can play an important role in the academic success and personal well-being of underrepresented students. 

Second, we recommend that the Department strive to better connect the graduate and undergraduate student communities. The GWIP-UWIP Mentoring Program plays an important role in helping women progress through the physics program. The Department should create a parallel program for URM students and strongly consider providing graduate student mentors to all physics majors. Near-age physicist acquaintances and role models are an important way to help get young undergraduates excited about what a future in physics can look like, to elucidate the path to get through the physics major, to explain what graduate school entails, and to provide casual and informal guidance along the way. We note that there are also benefits for the mentors; research ties volunteering to improved mental well-being.  

Third, graduate students would be interested in working with the Department to host workshops relevant for our physics majors; for example, a workshop in the summer or fall to help write graduate school essays. The Department should also consider asking divisions to hold workshops or presentations about their research (or hold a department-wide event) to help introduce physics majors to the full breadth of opportunities available at MIT and to make them more comfortable with interacting with professors.

Recommendation 11.
That the Department expand outreach at the K-12 level to foster early interest in STEM and physics-related careers, particularly for URM and women students. 

We as a Department should play an active part in making sure the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians is more diverse than our own. It is important to recognize that early life influences can impact later career choices. We should work to actively break down stereotypes among children and teenagers about what kind of people do or do not go into science. To further these objectives, we recommend that the Department participate in and collaborate with local K-12 outreach programs. In addition, different divisions or groups of students may want to consider forming formal partnerships with specific schools. We note that MIT has a dedicated K-12 Community Outreach Administrator in its Office of Government and Community Relations, who might be an excellent point of contact. We also commend the PVC’s existing compilation of outreach opportunities on its website and suggest that the main department page include such material as well.

Furthermore, many of us receive emails on occasion from grade school students or other interested members of the community wanting to know more about physics. Presumably they found our individual or organization email addresses through our website; this indicates both the general community’s desire to engage with our Department as well as the efficacy of our Department website in reaching a more public audience. Perhaps the Department would consider writing a page or set of webpages on its site with information specifically for young people and other members of the general public interested in physics. For example, such a page could include:

  • A list of popular physics books appropriate appropriate for each age group,
  • A list of biographies of physicists, including prominent URM, women, and LGBTQ+ scientists,
  • Links to interesting websites about physics topics,
  • More in-depth educational materials such as recommended textbooks,
  • And any other resources that physicists may have found influential to their choice of career.

The Department could do a large service to both the public and prospective MIT physics students by providing an outline and overview of each of the major areas of physics. In our earlier years, many of us first heard about physics through the diverse selection of popular literature about astrophysics and string theory, as well as the numerous famous personalities associated with those areas. It might be enlightening to inform our website readers about fascinating areas that are less in the popular consciousness like condensed matter physics or biological/biomedical physics. We can do our part to broaden interest in our field by making it sound exciting and open to people with a diverse array of interests, and we can help people be able to see themselves in this type of career by writing in accessible language. 

The Department could consider recruiting UROPs and/or graduate students interested in science writing to create these pages.