In Defense of Masters-to-PhD “Bridge” Programs

Over on Small Pond Science, Terry McGlynn had a great post last week on diversity, or lack thereof, in NSF Graduate Fellowships.

In the comments section, some discussion ensued about how students entering PhD programs from masters programs (who are more likely to be members of underrepresented groups) are not eligible to apply for the NSF GRFP.  I posted the following:

I’m at a small primarily undergraduate university with just such a masters program — in the three years I’ve been here we’ve graduated five students, all female, none white, and all but one are now in PhD programs. We’re small, but we make a depressingly significant impact on the diversity of PhD students in our small physical science field. I wanted to highlight what one commenter said above: our students who graduate with masters degrees are NOT eligible to apply for the GRFP, even though they enter a PhD program at the same first-year level as other students and spend just as long working towards the PhD. Bridge programs are successful and growing, but we’ve got to stop hamstringing the students who go through these programs — it’s a serious blind spot at NSF.

To my surprise, there was a significant amount of pushback and skepticism in the rest of the comments about bridge programs, which I thought I’d address here for a bit.

One comment (from someone who posted several comments, nearly all of which I disagree with) was this:

I just cant get behind these bridge programs.. How can we ask already disadvantaged students to do extra work (a masters) that itself may disadvantage them in other ways (e.g. no GRFP). We have to tackle the problem at the source, which is harder but fundamentally required if we are ever to solve this.

On one level I agree with him: yes, we have to tackle the problem at the source.  We can argue about where the “source” is, but the way these discussions typically go, in my experience, is like this: People at the PhD level say that the source of the problem is at the undergrad level. Undergrad faculty say that the problem is at the high school level.  High school teachers say the problem is with preparation in elementary/middle school.  Eventually we blame the parents, or maybe society.  And so on.

For underrepresented minorities in the physical sciences, there is a significant decrease in URM representation between the undergraduate and PhD levels.  You can try to go back to fix the problem at the “source” (wherever that is!) or you can try to fix the problem at every level at which you find it.  The latter approach has spawned the creation of a number of masters-to-PhD “bridge” programs.

The commenter above has apparently never met a student who has succeeded in earning a PhD in the sciences as a direct result of participation in a bridge program.  Rather than “ask[ing] already disadvantaged students to do extra work,” most bridge programs (including ours) take students who are prepared and capable but not competitive for PhD programs and give them the extra coursework and research experience they need to become competitive.  Sure it’s more work, but it’s highly productive and necessary work.  Two years later, they’re starting a PhD on an (at least) equal footing with the typical PhD student, who is more likely to come from a background that has conferred a lifetime of advantage.  Not a bad tradeoff: two years to compensate for a lifetime.  And it works.  Take, as an example, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge program, which has been single-handedly turning Vanderbilt University into the top producer of minority PhD students in physics, astronomy, and materials science (not that it was hard — pre-bridge programs, the number of URM students earning PhDs in these fields was in the single digits!).  This is truly an achievement to be proud of — especially since those first few cohorts of Vanderbilt PhDs are now starting to make waves as a notable influx of prize postdoctoral fellows and faculty of color in the same fields.

My department’s masters program is different: our focus is on students with non-traditional educational backgrounds (not necessarily URMs or first-generation students, although as you might expect there’s a strong correlation), and we don’t have a particular minority-serving institution that we draw from, or a particular PhD program that we feed to.  Every student in our program is different, but every one would have leaked from the physical science PhD pipeline without the intervention of our program.  For some, it’s as simple as a late start in physics (where “late” typically means junior year!) — being unprepared for the physics GRE at the start of your senior year is a death knell for a budding physicist.  After a year or two of coursework and research in our program, we see GRE scores increase dramatically — it’s not that the student got smarter, but that the student was better able to demonstrate his or her ability.  For other students, it’s more complicated: we’ve had students who immigrated to the US as teenagers, got a rocky start at college with Cs and Ds in introductory physics and math classes, but managed As in upper-level physics courses… yet grad schools don’t want to touch such a low overall GPA despite the upward trajectory.  Our masters program is a second chance to demonstrate consistent achievement and gain research experience. Often we get high-GPA students who didn’t realize as undergraduates that research experience was a prerequisite to grad school admissions, and we give them that experience.  We’ve also had students from the humanities who have done astronomy research — even published papers — out of love for the field, but no PhD program will touch them because of a lack of formal coursework.  We give them the credibility of formal coursework.  Extra work?  Sure.  Worth it for the student?  Ask them and they’ll give you an emphatic yes.  Our program dramatically changes the trajectory of each student’s life.

It’s all the more frustrating, therefore, when the NSF bars our amazing students from the support and prestige of a graduate research fellowship.  The commenter above points out that students accumulate disadvantage in a bridge program because they’re not eligible for the GRFP.  Well, yes… but IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY.  The NSF’s current policy is fairly arbitrary, and likely a throwback to the days before bridge programs gained traction.  I think Terry McGlynn is absolutely right to call for an examination of the NSF policies that perpetuate existing inequities in the development of scientific talent, and I hope that if and when such an examination occurs, attention is paid to the illogical policy of barring graduates of masters-to-PhD bridge programs from applying for support.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Masters-to-PhD “Bridge” Programs

  1. miscarriagememoirs

    Love the mix of science and miscarriage/infertility issues on your blog. Been reading for a while, but just now figured out that I should follow you too. Whoops! Thank you from a chemist 🙂 (And thanks for the spotlight on the Vandy-Fisk bridge program!!)

    1. lyra211 Post author

      Oh, wonderful! Hello, fellow scientist / miscarriage sufferer. I suspect there aren’t too many people interested in both sorts of issues, but it’s hard for me to blog about just one. Glad you’re finding both interesting, and thanks for commenting!

      1. miscarriagememoirs

        I hear you! I do a “science friday” post every week (guess what day) and they may not get a HUGE amount of traffic, but they make me happy 🙂 Keep up the good work!

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