A Beginner’s Guide to Minority Professor Hires

Dec. 11, 2019

What makes a good principal investigator? What makes a great one? Often, there is a certain mold that hiring committees look for in applicants. By and large, the first 2 cutoffs are funding and great papers. However, most of us in the professoriate do more than acquire grants and submit papers. We advise students, sit on committees and teach–all things that are essential to being a successful professor because they show that you can juggle more than just science. Many underrepresented minorities (URMs) take on a lot of those intangible items, not only because people ask us to serve in a multitude of areas for the sake of having representation, but because we also want to be that representation. As a postdoctoral fellow looking to be hired as an Assistant Professor, I performed service, mentoring, teaching and more. Doing some of these intangible activities can make it hard to measure current and future success as a principal investigator, and thus, may be a major problem facing URMs looking to join a research-intensive professoriate

How are these intangible activities scored during a faculty application review? When in the process are they scored? Are they scored? 

The argument against looking deeper into the pool of applicants is that it takes time, money and lots of effort. Hundreds of applications have to be distilled down to 5 or so people to interview in-person. Practicality has to be valued, especially given the juggling act of being a professor with so many things to do. How does an institution that wants to add more URM faculty do so? 

The increasing number of URM doctorates hasn’t been reflected in URM faculty hires. Despite a 930% increase in URM Ph.D.s since 1985, there has been no significant change in the percentage of URM biomedical professors at research intensive universities. The best solution is to hire more URMs, but no unilateral solutions to do so exist, or they would have been implemented already. Given this information, here are some things I propose that might help faculty searches increase their URM faculty candidates:
  • Recognize and evaluate the intangibles of prospective professors. 
  • Talk with and seek advice from minority professors at your institution and ask them what their background was, how they got recruited and what made them feel more welcome at one place over another. Let this be the start of the conversation, not the end. 
  • Identify URM individuals and encourage them to apply for open positions at your university. A selection of databases to look through includes:
  • Share job openings within groups and communities that commonly self-identify on social media, such as #BLACKandSTEM, LatinxandSTEM and #diversityinSTEM.
  • Create university initiatives to encourage or facilitate minority hires, such as having a designated slot to hire a URM Faculty. Add to the prestige by naming it after a donor.
  • Align your department/institution as a place that values diversity by making public statements on your webpage about diversity.  
  • Require new hires to submit a diversity statement with their application and make it a part of the decision-making process. It helps to surround yourself with people who value diversity. 
  • Re-evaluate what kind of candidate you are looking for and see if it excluded the people you talked to in the first bullet point.
  • Provide URMs with a platform to present their research by inviting them to a research seminar. 
Overall, as an institution, you must be willing to spend money and time for these efforts because after all, commitment without currency is counterfeit.

The contents of this post are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of ASM.

Author: Michael D. L. Johnson, Ph.D.

Michael D. L. Johnson, Ph.D.
Michael D. L. Johnson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Immunobiology and BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona.