Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping in Graduate Admissions


October 17, 2017

On Oct. 12, Professor Julie Posselt, of the University of Southern California and author of Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping, tailored two powerhouse talks: one to MIT graduate students, and the other to faculty and staff. She shared firsthand observations of graduate admission committees and interviews conducted with faculty from 10 top-ranked doctoral programs in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

The sessions provided a window into the decision makers’ point of view, highlighting how disciplinary norms shape the definition of merit; how professor’s good intentions around diversity often don’t translate into results; and she provided concrete strategies to improve the admissions review process and promote transparency and accountability. The following day, with Professor Casey Miller of the Rochester Institute of Technology, Posselt conducted a workshop with admissions decision makers where participants engaged in a close review of admissions procedures and documents.

85 members of the MIT community participated in the three sessions, spanning 26 departments, labs, and centers. Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Health Sciences and Technology, Materials Science and Engineering, Physics, and 12 administrative offices were represented.

Posselt explained how current approaches to graduate admissions (such as relying on GRE scores, which don’t relate long-term success in the field) reduce the number of underrepresented and women applicants considered for admission, thus undermining many departments’ goals of increasing diversity.

Her recommendations for how to increase diversity in graduate education encompass actions across the admission process and include:

  1. Revisit admissions committee routines and make them explicit; learn about and addressing implicit bias; redefine deliberative bureaucracy.
  2. Use a holistic approach to reviewing students’ application ma by Implementing a rubric-based evaluation and developing additional knowledge about admissions criteria like GRE scores.
  3. Review composition (faculty, staff, students, alumni) of admissions committees.
  4. Collaboration between departments and the graduate school to review institutional data by testing for evidence of common assumptions about risk. Consider the content of the graduate application, and incentivize admissions and recruitment through diversity-related fellowships.
  5. Strengthen recruitment to build the prospective pool and yield diverse applicants by reviewing marketing materials, acknowledging the importance of faculty interactions, and creating a positive climate (Posselt 2017).

For further information on Posselt’s work, read her interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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