Physics seminar: Fixed and growth mindsets in physics graduate admissions

Last week, UW’s physics department hosted a seminar by Rachel Scherr, a UW physics alumna and senior research scientist at Seattle Pacific University who has also conducted research on diversity and education for the American Physical Society (APS). This discussion was prompted in part by the lack of diversity in this year’s cohort of physics graduate students: of 31 students, 30 identify as male. While the demographics of our chemistry department are much more balanced in terms of gender, the topic of diversity in admissions is important for anyone interested in graduate education.

Dr. Scherr presented her recent research on fixed and growth mindsets in physics graduate admissions (check out her paper here). She began by showing statistics on the demographics of graduating physics PhDs from different institutions. Overall, 19% of PhDs in physics are awarded to women, and only 7% to underrepresented minorities. There are many factors leading to this imbalance, including graduate admissions policies, which have a direct impact on these demographics. I learned that the GRE, which is used by most admissions committees, consistently displays significant score differences across demographics, and that GRE scores are much more strongly correlated with socioeconomic status than with success in graduate school. On the quantitative portion of the GRE, women score on average 80 points below men, and African American students score 200 points below white students. Admissions committees that set a hard cutoff for GRE score can end up drastically reducing the diversity of their applicant pool. (Check out this Nature article, “A Test That Fails”, for much more about the GRE.)

Dr. Scherr’s research focused on answering the questions: what are the characteristics of students that physics admissions committees want, and what practices are associated with these admissions goals? These questions are considered in the context of fixed mindset vs. growth mindset views of intelligence. These terms, originated by the research of Carol Dweck, describe whether intelligence is viewed as an innate quality (fixed mindset) or a measure of acquired knowledge and effort. A recent study found that fields where “genius” or “brilliance” is required for success (such as physics) tend to have worse gender balance, suggesting that the fixed mindset perception of intelligence may be associated with some level of bias (Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines, Science 2015).

Scherr interviewed the admissions committee chairs at twelve physics PhD programs that were selective and prioritized diversity in admissions. She coded the statements in their responses as reflective of fixed or growth mindset and of beliefs or practices. For example, a statement such as “Women who are not finishing the program, it’s not because the program failed them, other than maybe admitting them when they should not have been admitted.” reflects the fixed-mindset belief that failure is due to students’ shortcomings, not departmental policies or culture. In contrast, the statement “They may be coming from a background that hasn’t made it totally clear what their potential is—small school, family problems, working 30 hours a week to get through school.” acknowledges the complex factors contributing to students’ prior success and reflects a growth mindset.

The results are presented in a table showing how frequently each interviewee’s statements were associated with a specific fixed- or growth-mindset belief or practice. Scherr asked the audience to discuss what we saw in the data, then presented her findings. Notably, many individuals’ beliefs were very polarized, with dominant fixed or growth mindsets. However, many of them made some statements reflecting both mindsets, demonstrating the complex factors influencing individuals’ views and admissions decisions. The dominant sentiment was the fixed-mindset view that departments should seek to admit the best and most talented students; while the definition of “best” varies, many people associate it with having the highest grades and GRE scores. Most interviewees did not mention explicit stereotypes of women or underrepresented groups, which is reassuring. Instead, it seems that bias in admissions could result from more subtle factors including the fixed-mindset perception of intelligence.

There are many potential actions that departments can take to reduce bias in admissions, as well as welcoming and supporting students from diverse backgrounds. One common theme of Scherr’s interviews: many departments don’t put much thought into their admissions practices. Setting admissions goals (what characteristics do students need to be successful here, how can we find students with these qualities) and approaching the process more intentionally can lead to more holistic practices. Anecdotes of successful students whose backgrounds don’t fit the traditional perception of an ideal applicant can help individuals understand that high GREs and GPAs are not a prerequisite for, or a predictor of, success in science. Additionally, de-emphasizing the GRE or even removing that requirement can make a big difference! Besides the GRE’s ineffectiveness at predicting success and its bias toward certain demographics of students, it adds a financial barrier that prevents many students from applying to many graduate programs.

Scherr’s conclusions demonstrate the prevalence of both fixed- and growth-mindset perceptions in physics graduate admissions and highlight the challenge of developing fair admissions practices. More discussion of the role of privilege in determining success, like this Small Pond Science blog post on graduate admissions or this recent New York Times op-ed piece on the “Lost Einsteins”, helps question what “genius” actually reflects and the validity of the fixed-mindset view of intelligence. In general, it seems like growth-mindset practices can go a long way toward improving diversity in the physical sciences and elsewhere.

(Interested in this topic? Check out Scherr’s paper and the APS Bridge Program for more, and please share other resources and your thoughts in the comments!)

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