Diversifying the Pool of PhD Students Will Require Systemic Change

Underrepresented PhD students from around the country gathered at the inaugural Rising Scholars Conference to claim their place in academia.

November 04, 2020


 An illustration of a figure rolling out a rainbow-colored carpet. Credit: Illustration by Michael Austin

Building the path towards a more diverse academia requires a long-term view and a multi-pronged approach. | Illustration by Michael Austin

As demands for social justice and racial equity echoed throughout the nation this summer, Stanford GSB doctoral student Wendy De La Rosa, PhD ’21, decided to add her voice to those calling for change. Although ongoing efforts have greatly increased gender diversity in PhD programs across the country, she knew that wasn’t the case when it came to diverse racial representation.

“Here at Stanford, we can’t lead from behind,” De La Rosa says. “A critical and often forgotten assumption is that before we change lives, organizations, or the world, we must first change ourselves and our environment. And this is arguably the most challenging change to endure.”

Finding ways to support underrepresented minority PhD students — and eventually diversify the faculty pipeline — is one way to begin that change, says De La Rosa, who brought her idea for a conference to Dianne Le, assistant dean of the PhD program.

“We ran with the idea,” Le says. “The issues of the diversity pipeline are so complex and extensive that it requires the commitment and concerted efforts of many institutions. All schools must do their part. This is one way Stanford can contribute in an important and impactful way.”



Wendy De La Rosa, PhD ’21 | Photo by Kiefer Hickman

Strengthening the diversity pipeline requires a long-term view and a multi-pronged approach, Le says. At Stanford GSB, those efforts include the Introduction to Diversity in Doctoral Education and Scholarship (IDDEAS) program, which brings promising undergraduates to Stanford GSB for a two-day immersion to gain an understanding of business research at the doctoral level. For students actively preparing for graduate school, the Stanford GSB Research Fellows Program is a two-year, full-time pre-doctoral program that provides diverse fellows the opportunity to gain experience in academic research before applying to a PhD program.

The inaugural Stanford GSB Rising Scholars Conference, held Oct. 27-28, drew together more than 570 PhD students, postdocs, and faculty. The participants interacted with faculty and heard from 56 students from 30 institutions who presented their work to faculty and conference attendees.

“We designed the conference to help underrepresented minority students get greater exposure, receive research guidance, and make connections for potential faculty mentorship relationships,” Le says. “The level of collaboration to pull this conference off was quite incredible and was motivated by the recognition among all our peer schools that this is an issue we need to tackle together.”

During his opening remarks, Jonathan Levin, the Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean of Stanford GSB, emphasized the school’s commitment to increasing representation as part of its Action Plan for Racial Equity, announced this past summer.

“One of the most important elements of our plan is to expand faculty representation,” he said. “We know that even as efforts to expand faculty diversity in areas such as gender representation have gained traction — at the GSB our hiring in the last four years has essentially reached gender parity — we’ve fallen short in developing and recruiting Black and Latino faculty members here and at all business schools. Only urgent and sustained effort can remedy the disparities. This year we are engaged in Stanford’s ambitious Impacts of Race in America faculty search. And we need to think longer term about PhD programs and ensure that graduate training is more welcoming and supportive.”

Pressure of Being “The Only”

Bringing together underrepresented PhD students from around the country is an essential step toward battling the isolation many feel throughout their graduate education, De La Rosa told participants.

“I was tired of being the ‘only’ in a room: the only woman, the only immigrant, the only Latina, the only Black person. I was just … tired,” she said. “I wanted the GSB to become a leader, not a lagger, in thinking through what it means to have an inclusive academia. This conference is just the beginning of a new era of change at the GSB; an era marked by self-critique and self-improvement.

“My biggest hope for you is that you too engage in this process, so one day you can look back and reflect on this conference as a significant marker in your life,” she said.

Being “first” or “the only” requires resilience and good mentors, said Condoleezza Rice, who urged participants to be confident in their abilities, carefully allocate their time, and work aggressively to get their work seen. Rice is the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at Stanford GSB and the Tad and Dianne Taube Director and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.


Believe that you belong in every space you enter. You deserve everything you have because you got it despite all the unfair and unjust challenges you faced.
Wendy De La Rosa, PhD ’21

“Embrace it,” Rice said. “There’s a tendency to ask, ‘Do I really belong here?’ Well, of course you do. You’ve worked hard; you know you belong there. There are people who may try to diminish you. If it’s a peer, I’ve asked, ‘Do we have something to talk about?’ But if you run into those attitudes with a superior, that’s when you need mentors, people to help you navigate.

“People do have a certain reaction when someone who’s different walks into the room,” she said. “But if you’re constantly on guard, constantly looking for the effect of being the first, you’re going to burn yourself out, you’re not going to do the work you need to do.”

Changing the Game

Minority students often face a range of problems entering the faculty pipeline, said Peter Henry, dean emeritus at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University, and the William R. Berkley Professor of Economics and Finance. Henry, who spent most of his graduate education at MIT as the only Black student in the economics program, said those problems begin with historical disadvantages and inequality that often create a lack of access to resources in elementary and high schools, and extend to unrealistic expectations when it comes to admission to graduate programs.

“There are problems with the selection process,” he said. “Due to structural bias and excessive risk aversion in the admission process, there can be a reluctance to admit minority students unless they’re supermen or superwomen. That, along with other biases in the system, mean we end up admitting minority students who are really super candidates, but that’s not good. We don’t hold non-minority human beings to that same standard in admissions.

“There’s progress for a few, and we need to spread that more broadly,” Henry added. “What needs to happen now is that people in positions like me, people who’ve been fortunate enough to make it through, shouldn’t celebrate the fact that a few people who are particularly gifted and lucky have been able to make it through this incredible gantlet. We need to say, ‘Here are some things we need to think about differently if we’re really serious about trying to change the conversation. Here’s the really good news: If a place like Stanford changes the game, the game’s going to change.”

“Room for All of Us”

Minority PhD students often have to cope not just with the rigorous challenge of earning a doctorate, but also with nagging self-doubts that are baseless, said Modupe Akinola, an associate professor of management at Columbia Business School who also serves as faculty director at the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics.

“The work that you’re doing is incredible,” Akinola told participants. “Every one of you working on your PhD doesn’t know what the end is going to look like, but you have strived and are working really hard. There is room for you, because there is room for all of us, and that’s so important to remember.”


Having a deep and truthful understanding of your areas of interest, building on your research strengths, and seeking out committed mentors who will invest in you are all essential to a successful graduate experience, she said“I believe we were each put on this earth because there are important questions and problems we’re supposed to solve,” Akinola said. “If you feel a passion for diversity, and there are problems you feel compelled to solve, don’t let somebody else tell you that you’re not supposed to solve that, because that means you’re going to be solving other people’s problems and you’re not doing what you’re uniquely created and designed to do.”

Approach that work with ingenuity, she added.

“I always knew I wanted to study diversity, so I was going to study it,” Akinola said. “What I thought was important, though, was not to study it like everyone else did. Figure out what your twist is. If you’re doing diversity research, be creative. Try to think out of the box as to what tools, techniques, and measures we need to iterate on what we already know and to learn new things. And if someone tells you not to do that, find somebody who’s going to be encouraging of what you want to do.”

New Talent, New Networks, New Ideas

While there’s an underrepresentation of minority PhD students generally, there is nevertheless no shortage of talent in the existing pool, said De La Rosa, who added that she hoped the Rising Scholars Conference will serve to expose Stanford GSB faculty to talented Black scholars around the country — and give those same scholars the opportunity to expand their network and connect with potential mentors.

She also hopes the event increases awareness of cutting-edge research focusing on minority communities.

“Many of these scholars are doing great research looking at stigmatized groups and understanding different populations that have been largely ignored,” De La Rosa said. “I want to expose Stanford’s faculty not just to new scholars, but to new research ideas that really focus on underserved populations.”

In closing the conference, Sarah Soule, the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior and senior associate dean for academic affairs at Stanford GSB, recalled the events leading to its conception: the inequities revealed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Stanford GSB’s subsequent and unprecedented pivot to virtual instruction, and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans.

“These protests called for us to look at ourselves and recognize that our own inaction can perpetuate systemic racism,” she said. “As academics, teachers, and researchers, many of us felt called to action, and we began a journey led by our Black students and alumni and their allies. This was a journey of learning how we can do better — not just on our broad diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, but more specifically on how these goals apply to people of color.”

As part of that effort, the Rising Scholars Conference will be institutionalized, with a goal of rotating the program between partner schools, Soule said.

The effort to diversify the PhD pipeline will depend on both institutional change and, for some, the adoption of a new mindset, said De La Rosa.

“I invite you to love yourselves enough to change your self-doubt,” she told participants. “Believe that you belong in every space you enter. Feel entitled. Take up space. You deserve everything you have because you got it despite all the unfair and unjust challenges you faced. The GSB is better today than it was yesterday because you are here.”

— Beth Jensen

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