Diversity in Graduate Education Includes Investment in Culture, Both Inside and Outside of the Classroom

If applicable, enter a short description here..

Reviewed by Clare Fisher


Historically, students who are admitted to and matriculate from graduate programs do not reflect the racial diversity of the US population at large. Most American graduate programs are comprised predominantly of white students while Black, Indigenous, and students of color make up a much smaller relative percentage. This is especially true for programs in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields, where women make up a lower percentage of graduates than men.

In this article, Slay, Reyes, and Posselt describe their case study of an individual psychology graduate department that had a significantly higher share of Black, Indigenous and doctoral graduates of color compared to the national average. This psychology department was the largest department of several that the authors studied; it “was also the one in which student and faculty impressions of the climate for diversity varied the most.” Through rigorous qualitative analysis, the authors sought to contribute to the study of equity work in graduate programs, particularly those in STEM. They examined how the student experience was impacted by the program’s diversity initiatives, attention to “racial climate,” and faculty-student mentoring.

Kelly E. Slay is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Public Policy in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her research focuses on equity in higher education. Kimberly A. Reyes is a diversity & inclusion advisor at the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. She designs interventions aimed at supporting students from low-income backgrounds. Julie R. Posselt is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Her research focuses on organizational efforts to promote diversity in higher education.

Methods and Findings

Over the course of an academic year, the authors conducted qualitative interviews with faculty, staff, current students, and alumni from the selected graduate psychology department at a large university. Most of the individuals interviewed were directly involved in the department’s diversity efforts. The authors combined the findings from these interviews with available university and departmental data, including enrollment demographics.

The interviews revealed that although the university’s significant investments in recruiting Black, Indigenous, and students of color were successful, these students did not experience a supportive culture during their tenure. Instead, many students described their struggles to make connections with faculty, and the emotional trauma of racist microaggressions perpetuated inside and outside of the classroom. The authors referred to this experience as a “bait and switch” phenomenon: “the formal initiatives that increased the department’s representation of students of color did not result in positive changes in the micro-level contexts where graduate student life takes shape: the classroom, the lab, and in faculty relationships.”

This research revealed that the university’s commitment to diversity initiatives needed to be followed up with an internal commitment to an academic climate that supported students of marginalized  identities . Students interviewed cited a lack of conversations around race within the department, a cultural tolerance for microaggressions, and weak mentoring opportunities as areas with a need for greatest improvement. The authors reflected on the nuances of this dynamic at the graduate school level, concluding that graduate programs often struggle more than undergraduate programs in cultivating a culture that supports diversity. This disparity exists in part because graduate programs are smaller and receive fewer investments in diversity culture efforts than undergraduate programs do.


The authors’ research highlights the significance of the psychological and behavioral aspects of creating a racially diverse academic space and equitable student culture. To achieve an organizational culture that values racial and gender diversity in the long-term, students must see and experience their institution’s follow through on commitments to support an authentic culture of equity and belonging. In addition, students of color need faculty advisors and mentors who are committed to their personal and professional success and follow through on these commitments. Prioritizing diversity in recruitment and admissions is an important first step, but culture and climate are just as influential for a positive student experience free from racial harm and equipped with intentional support.


Thank you for visiting RRAPP

Please help us improve the site by answering three short questions.