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Putting the Sexy in STEM: Introducing Broader Society to the STEM Ph.D.

Written By Dr. Monica F. Cox (reposted with permission from C.Poston)

I recently had the pleasure of giving a presentation to a group of underrepresented middle school students within a weekend program focused on developing their leadership skills. As I talked to the group of fifteen students about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), I carefully detailed my path to becoming a professor- finding my passion as a mathematician and engineer and then going on to earn a Ph.D. in Leadership and Policy Studies.

As I was about to move on to discuss my experiences as an engineering professor at Purdue, an African-American girl with cornrows raised her hand timidly and asked, “What’s a Ph.D.?” At that moment, I realized that I live in a world of privilege- one where earning a Ph.D. is the norm and forming a research group and publishing academic papers is as common to me as turning on the radio and listening to a Beyoncé tune is to a high school student.

According to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) (2010),1 in 2009, only 45% of doctoral students in STEM fields were U.S.-born or permanent residents. Of this percentage, 5.2% were Hispanic and 4.4% were African-American, and 1% were classified as other (i.e., American Indians, Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, and two or more combined groups). This breakdown by number represents 432 Hispanic females, 1,251 Hispanic males, 455 African-American females, 883 African-American males, 19 American Indian females, and 87 American Indian males.

With such low numbers, knowing multiple people pursuing or holding a Ph.D. in STEM could be rare for the average minority person in the U.S., especially those living in underserved or rural communities. Unfortunately, this often places a burden on many minority STEM Ph.D. holders to be the “face” of STEM whether they want to be or not. Many underrepresented minorities also are first-generation STEM Ph.D. holders, thereby encountering questions from well-intentioned family members and friends who want to know, “What exactly do to you do?,” and “When are you going to get a real job?”

These statistics and anecdotal experiences confirm that there are disconnects between the desire to increase the numbers of underrepresented minority (URM) Ph.D. holders in STEM and the practicality of breaking down what a Ph.D. is and its role within the context of STEM education. If we want underrepresented minority students to earn STEM Ph.D.s, we must begin to talk about the STEM disciplines and the degrees that one must obtain to be perceived as the academic expert in their chosen areas of interest. This effort is not one in which STEM Ph.D. holders are doing all of the educating, however. Parents, students, teachers, faculty, and non-STEM stakeholders must engage in mutual exchanges that allow them to demystify STEM Ph.D.s and to make pursuit of STEM Ph.D.s common conversation (similar to how we currently encourage students to go to college). Efforts such as those below might begin to foster stronger collaborations in the advancement of STEM graduate education.

(1) Web searches– In the age of the internet, it’s easy for parents, teachers, and anyone with a computer to identify STEM Ph.D. holders and faculty, particularly those at local universities. Take 30 minutes to go to a local (this might be an institution that is a couple of hours away) college or university website to identify faculty and their STEM research and/or teaching topics. More than likely, an e-mail address or telephone number will be located on their institutional webpages. Use that to contact faculty of interest. (Remember that people with Ph.D.s are approachable!) Some of the questions that you might ask include the following:

       -Are lab tours available within your department or university? If so, who might I contact to set up a tour?

       -Does your lab or department offer STEM-related programs or outreach activities available to K-12 students, undergraduates, teachers, or the general public? If so, when are they?

Remember, however, that faculty are extremely busy. In your e-mail, assume that the person has a Ph.D. (i.e., address him/her as “Dr._____”), ask for a point of contact, and note that not all faculty will be able to engage in an exhaustive e-mail exchange with you. Take their information, however, and follow up with their suggestions in a timely manner.

(2) Faculty Invitations– Identify ways that faculty can engage with your school or local organizations. (A personal example was that I was invited to talk to preschoolers about engineering for Black History Month.) One of the areas in which faculty obtain promotion is via invited talks. After you’ve conducted your web search, think of ways that you can invite select faculty to visit your organization to discuss his/her research to the audience of your choosing. In your request, remember to include information about any themes of the talk, the intended audience, the anticipated presentation length, and compensation (if available). Include a time for faculty to engage one-on-one with the audience so that audience members can ask questions about STEM, college, and the Ph.D. process. Conclude the visit with a nice thank you note or e-mail. Such mentoring is quite beneficial and potentially life-changing for all involved.

(3) Social Media- Faculty need to use social media to present their research and to translate it for non-STEM audiences. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, box office sensation Kevin Hart discussed the power of social media and connecting to your audience. Although many would ask what social media has to do with STEM, I would say a lot. STEM Ph.D. holders were trained to disseminate their knowledge in very traditional ways (i.e., dissertations and academic papers) and venues (i.e., conferences and peer-reviewed academic journals), but as social media platforms expand, STEM Ph.D. holders must find ways to connect with the next generation of STEM professionals. Professionals must get out of their comfort zones and meet people where they are, which is often not in a classroom or lab. Consider creating a personal Twitter account or research lab Facebook page. The results could be quite rewarding and may open new professional opportunities for you as a STEM professional (e.g., my opportunity to contribute to the Poston Collective).

(4) Entertainment and Broader Society– At a time when almost everyone is talking about shows such as Scandal and Being Mary Jane, STEM-related television programs that boast strong leading characters of color with Ph.D.s are limited. While people expect to see astrophysicists like Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson hosting Fox’s Cosmos, missing are an abundance of sassy, smart STEM Ph.D. characters who are brilliant and easy on the eyes, leaving even non STEM audiences reveling in the coolness that is STEM.

Although I’m not encouraging every STEM Ph.D. holder to pursue acting or to display their six-packs on YouTube, I am saying that we need to present our whole selves to the world when possible. People need to know that we are more than one-dimensional, pocket-protecting geeks who wear lab coats and safety glasses. Most of us can talk about more than STEM, and we have lives outside of our work. Consider serving as a consultant for the National Academy of Science’s “The Science and Entertainment Exchange”[CMF1] , which connects Hollywood and the STEM community. Also sign up for Help a Reporter Out (HARO) which will connect you to publications and venues that are seen by broader society. A goal should be to a little vulnerable and to be approachable. In that way, people will possibly see themselves earning a STEM Ph.D.

If you are still not comfortable doing anything that doesn’t connect directly to your research, think of new ways to communicate this work. This year, my research students and I created an animated web series chronicling the adventures of the “Quirky Time Gang” (the pseudonym for my research group) With my passions for professional development and comedy, I thought of a nonthreatening, inexpensive way (an annual business subscription to GoAnimate is $300) to communicate STEM graduate education to the masses. Why knows? Maybe Tyler Perry or Oprah Winfrey will check out my series and want to create the first-even animated STEM graduate education series on the Oprah Winfrey Network (Hint! Hint!)?

In conclusion, I think that STEM Ph.D. holders can bring the sexy back to STEM. We are some of the most creative and innovative people on the planet, and it’s time for the world to recognize and emulate that. After all, why should Olivia Pope and Mary Jane Paul have all the fun?


1. Gibbons, M.T. (2010). Engineering by the Numbers. Publication of the American Society for Engineering Education. http://www.asee.org/papers-and-publications/publications/college-profiles/2010-profile-engineering-statistics.pdf (retrieved March 23, 2014).

Dr. Monica F. Cox ( @monicafcox ) is an Engineering educator intent on changing the world in nontraditional ways and showing the world that professors are NOT one-dimensional. She is the Director of the Pedagogical Evaluation Laboratory. In 2011, she became the first African-American female to earn tenure in the College of Engineering at Purdue. Find more of her insightful work and other like-minded articles at The Poston Collective website.