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Center for Advancing STEM Teaching, Learning and Evaluation (CASTLE)

The Graduate Admission and Retention Research Project focuses on holistic practices to increase diversity and retention in physics graduate programs. It is led by Casey Miller, Scott Franklin, Ben Zwickl, and Lindsay Owens. The team studies current admission and retention practices of graduate physics programs across the United States, and offer targeted interventions and tools that aid programs in using more holistic measures. The goal of this project is to increase access to, and retention of, women and excluded identity groups in graduate physics programs.

Programmatic Efforts

Admissions and Retention Training Program
The training will promote learning and sharing of knowledge through discussion and group activities. Each module will contain specific learning objectives, suggested activities and exercises, discussion questions with facilitation notes, an overview of relevant literature, including selected readings.

Module topics include:
- non-cognitive competencies and their utility in graduate admissions
- using rubrics to evaluate graduate applications

Development of a Non-Cognitive Assessment Tool
Non-cognitive constructs are a set of measurable psychological and social attributes we use to navigate life, such as motivation, grit, and various aspects of personality. Decades of industrial-organizational psychology research suggests that incorporating non-cognitive assessment into selection systems is one of the most effective ways to maximize both validity and diversity. Importantly for US goals related to generating a diverse STEM workforce: non-cognitive assessments show negligible differences between majority and minority groups.

We aim to develop and deploy a validated assessment tool that produces quantitative measures of non-cognitive competencies as part of the grad school application. This tool, in combination with other application materials, should help programs identify students that can perform as well academically as currently selected students, but whose probability to complete the PhD is higher.

Research Efforts

The Graduate Admission and Retention Research Project focuses on holistic practices to increase diversity and retention in physics graduate programs. The goal of this project is to increase access to, and retention of, women and underrepresented minorities in graduate physics programs. To achieve that goals, we are studying current admission and retention practices of three separate graduate physics programs at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Denver. This research will serve as the starting point for conversations about transformation of admissions practices to be more holistic and retention practices to be targeted towards those who need them the most.

Why study Graduate Admissions Practices?
The traditional admissions process in physics unintentionally selects against women and underrepresented minorities (URMs; African, Hispanic, and Native Americans). Recent research by Julie Posselt showed that committees avoid applicants from undergraduate programs they are unfamiliar with, which tends to disadvantage women and minorities, many of whom attend smaller liberal arts and minority serving institutions

Why study Graduate Retention Practices?
Compounding the race and gender issues in admissions is the fact that the standard process has not been very successful in picking students that will graduate: the US PhD completion rate in STEM fields is about 50%. Apparently, the standard admissions procedure is no better a predictor of completion than a coin toss, but it systematically filters out women and minorities. An APS study using the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) via the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) [30] found an overall retention rate of 58% in physics. Retention rates for Hispanics (41%) and for African Americans (44%), were significantly lower than those of Asians (69%) and Whites (56%); Native Americans are too few to report significant data.

Study 1: Faculty Attitudes towards Admissions
Data collection will be through individual interviews with faculty at the partner sites. Questions about the current admissions process and more holistic practices were be utilized to determine faculty attitudes as well as their readiness for change in transforming their admission practices. Data will be analyzed using an iterative grounded theory approach to identify key themes.

Study 2: Student vs. Faculty Attitudes towards Retention
Data collection will be through focus group and individual interviews with faculty and graduate students at the partner sites. The interview protocol includes questions targeting why students withdraw from their graduate programs and also where bottlenecks within the program exist (if anywhere).  In addition, student and faculty attitudes towards current retention practices will be analyzed. Thematic coding will be used to identify common and discrepant themes. 

RIT wins NSF grant to transform physics graduate admissions and retention:
Casey Miller champions accessible, inclusive and supportive practices (1/17/2017)

Casey Miller and Julie Posselt outline recent changes by institutions with respect to GRE's and graduate admissions.
It's time for the talk (5/7/2018)Lindsay Owens discusses her research (The Ideal Physics Graduate Student) with Provost Jeremy Haefner at 5th Annual CASTLE Symposium
RIT Campus Spotlight (5/9/18)


L. Owens, B. M. Zwickl, S. V. Franklin, and C. W. Miller, Misaligned Visions for Improving Graduate Diversity: Student Characteristics vs. Systemic/Cultural Factors, 2018 PERC Proceedings [Washington, DC, August 1-2, 2018], edited by A. Traxler, Y. Cao, and S. Wolf, doi:10.1119/
Miller, C. W., Zwickl, B. M., Posselt, J. R., Silvestrini, R. T., & Hodapp, T. (2019). Typical physics Ph.D. admissions criteria limit access to underrepresented groups but fail to predict doctoral completion. Science Advances, 5(1). doi:10.1126/sciadv.aat7550