Cover Story

Though many psychology programs are becoming more creative in recruiting and retaining students of diverse backgrounds, those gains don't always show up in the numbers, according to a study in the February-March 2006 issue of the American Psychologist (Vol. 61, No. 2, pages 117-131).

Researchers led by Kenneth Maton, PhD, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, reported that the percentage of students of several ethnic groups who have entered and graduated from doctoral degree programs in psychology has been on hold since the late 1990s.

"The good news is, things have been getting better at the lower levels of the pipeline," with the percentage of ethnic-minority students receiving bachelor's degrees nearly doubling between 1989 and 2002, and the percentage entering or graduating from master's degree programs between 1989 and 2003 more than doubling, he says. "But at the higher levels, the trends seem to have stalled, particularly for Latinos and African Americans."

The reasons aren't clear or well-studied, Maton emphasizes, but his and others' data--including findings from a recent Web-based survey he and colleagues conducted with white and minority students-show that:

  • For students in psychology graduate programs, lower levels of perceived diversity in the academic environment are linked to reduced satisfaction, while higher levels of perceived diversity are linked to greater satisfaction.

  • Ethnic minority students perceive that both course content and academic materials are less sensitive to their cultures, are more stereotypical and represent them less accurately than white students do. One African-American PhD student who responded to Maton's Web survey, for instance, noted that one of the most challenging aspects of her program was "reading research about African Americans that I feel leaves a lot of questions unanswered, or reading about my own people and saying to myself, 'That's not us.'"

  • Minority students are more likely than white students to report having had negative or unpleasant experiences with professors, staff, advisers and administration at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. A Puerto Rican student working on his PhD who responded to Maton's Web survey, for example, recounted how professors stereotyped him as drinking Tequila and wearing low-rider pants--neither of which he does. While the survey results can't explain the motivations of such insensitive behavior, Maton adds, unconscious stereotyping, as well as limited knowledge and experience, probably play a role.

-T. DeAngelis