On Recruiting Ethnic Minorities to Psychological Science

By William C. Howell, PhD, APA Executive Director for Science

In a recent column on the growing difficulty of attracting students to careers in psychological science, I noted that the problem is particularly severe with reference to ethnic minorities. I cited Hispanic, African-American, and Native-American groups as meriting special attention by virtue of their serious underrepresentation--in both science and psychology.

The Asian-American community was not pleased. I was asked if omitting them was an oversight, and I replied that, no, it was quite intentional. I went on to explain that I did so because it was my belief, based both on personal observation and scattered data, that Asian Americans are not underrepresented in our science programs, and, indeed, have shown an above-average interest in scientific careers.

There ensued a considerable discussion of these issues with various members of our Asian-American constituency, the upshot of which was my making a return visit to the data. As I expected, the most recent figures show no underrepresentation of Asian Americans in psychology graduate programs (actually, their proportion of the student population is about .5% higher than it is for the general U.S. population); students in the other minority groups ran about half their representation in the general population. By customary equal-opportunity and affirmative-action standards, my position was clearly supported.

But in the process of digging more deeply into the statistics and debating the matter further, I learned some things about the Asian-American minority that I think merit serious attention. Some involve general issues of social injustice and bias, such as difficulties encountered by Asian Americans in moving into top-management positions or in being treated as a minority of convenience. The latter term (generally attributed to our own Alice Chang, PhD) refers to the practice of considering this group a minority only when it serves the purposes of those making the decision, for example, in meeting overall affirmative action goals for hiring.

Although these generic issues are important ones that should concern all of us as citizens, I don't consider them appropriate for discussion in the present context because they have little directly to do with minority representation in scientific psychology. Another issue, however, is very relevant. My investigation turned up the expected finding that Asian Americans gravitate to sciences in impressive numbers. For example, they represent nearly 7% of total graduate enrollments in the physical and mathematical sciences, 6% in the life sciences and engineering, and a whopping 14% in computer sciences! Because scientific psychology has attracted only 4%, this suggests that we are failing to capitalize on an enormous talent pool at a time when we are struggling to find quality applicants for our scientific programs.

The message is clear. In identifying minority groups for special attention in recruiting, I should definitely have included Asian Americans, but not for quite the same reasons as the three I did mention. The other groups are underrepresented in all the sciences, whereas Asian Americans are flocking to them in growing numbers. We're just not attracting our fair share to psychology--and that's not in anyone's best interest, least of all ours.

An even broader message, perhaps, is that if we are to succeed in minority recruitment, we would do well to learn all we can about specific ethnic groups and what, exactly, it is that keeps them out of the science of psychology. Some barriers are undoubtedly common to all minority groups, but others may be quite unique.

[ guffaws to / ]