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Interrogating the Relationship between Racial Activism and Academic Career Interest among STEM Doctoral Students

By Ebony McGee, Thema Monroe-White, Olanipekun Laosebikan, Chrystelle L. Vilfranc

Purpose: Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are not known for producing a high number of racial activists. On the contrary, scientific discourse often traffics in race-neutral language and ideologies, all the while producing racist science and technologies. This research explored the relationship between racial activism and academic career intentions of underrepresented and racially minoritized (URM) STEM doctoral students.

Research Methods/ Approach: We surveyed 301 Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx, and Indigenous STEM doctoral students and 96 White and Asian STEM doctoral students. We deploy QuantCrit as a methodological stance to guide our analysis of the racial activism of students and its effect on their interest and intent in pursuing a STEM career.

Findings: We found that among URM STEM doctoral students, racial activism positively predicts the likelihood of pursuing careers in academia. After controlling for the other variables in our regression models, racial activism was the strongest predictor based on standardized beta coefficients.

Implications: Recent events have reactivated racial activism in academia, highlighting the experiences of URM STEM students and faculty. Yet Latinx faculty have increased minimally, Indigenous faculty numbers are stagnant, and Black faculty numbers in science and engineering are decreasing. Our research suggests that URM STEM doctoral students seek out careers in academia to leverage their commitment to racial activism by producing racially and culturally affirming science and technology for the benefit of society.

The long-standing impact of racial activism in higher education has created both disruption and new opportunities for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) doctoral students and their departments and industries. The year 2020 was a year of racial crisis and a time of opportunity. Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Indigenous resistance to injustice has been instrumental in promoting societal change aimed at dismantling White dominance.1 Racial activism involves racially marginalized peoples’ efforts to dismantle racial and structural barriers that prevent equitable racial, social, political, economic, or environmental reform from transforming society in an anti-racist direction (Krueger et al. 2022).

The most recent wave of the racial activist movement among Black college students gained traction in 2016, with demands for greater numbers of Black faculty and more effective efforts at diversity, equity, and inclusion (Bradley 2016). These racialized initiatives also offered new career prospects, where standing against racial injustice has become an integral part of minoritized doctoral students’ personal and STEM identities. Instead of joining traditional STEM companies’ postgraduation, some underrepresented and racially minoritized (URM) graduates have sought full-time positions with activist-oriented science organizations (McGee and Bentley 2017). Recently, much media attention in the STEM domain has focused on technologies or scientific breakthroughs with disproportionately harmful impacts on minoritized groups. Relatively little attention has been paid, however, to the growing racial activism within STEM communities.

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