As a graduate student, I completed my dissertation research in a laboratory external to the chemistry department in the Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH) at Emory University.
Due to this, I nurtured a relationship not only with Emory University’s main career center, but also one with career services at the public health school. I needed and welcomed any guidance available.
Headed to Washington, DC for an interview for the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health Fellowship in the subsequent weeks, I signed up for a mock job interview. I arrived dressed appropriately with a polished CV, and charmed my interviewers.
Leaving the interview room, I believed I had aced the interview and received the mock job. When I returned to the room prepared to receive praise, the RSPH director of career services asked me, “Do you expect employers to hire you because of your racial or cultural background?”
I did not understand. What in the world!
Apparently, I had stated that I was the only Black/Hispanic male chemistry graduate student several times. With that repeated statement, I had conveyed that I was one of a kind simply because I was the only one; I was a unicorn.
My intention to be proud of being the first came across as hire me to fill your diversity quota because I am the unicorn that your company needs. I thought that I had broken barriers and expected a pat on the back and a job, but failed to highlight my qualifications and accomplishments even more.
While nepotism abounds and some managers hire one-sidedly in this way, most employers care more about your capability to do the job and not that you broke any diversity barriers. Instantly, my pride turned to shame followed by discontent, because where are we in the STEM fields?
Still, I had been the lone minority male in all of my chemistry classes since 2000, primarily because I attended majority institutions. At Mercer University, I was the only Black/Latino male to graduate with a chemistry degree that year. This held true for the doctoral degree in chemistry at Emory University. I have never had a Black male or female chemistry or public health professor. I wish this was an exaggeration!
I knew the statistics. Recently, the National Science Foundation published the biennial report, Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering (2015), which is mandated by the Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act (Public Law 96-516).
The following statistics come from that report. In 2009 when I was interviewing, 66 Blacks and 86 Hispanics would graduate with chemistry PhDs out of 2,652 total graduates. Out of 33,284 science and engineering (S&E) PhD graduates that year, only 1,041 Blacks and 1,098 Hispanics would earn that title.
Since people say that science is not for everyone, I will mention one more statistic. 61,730 PhDs in all degree areas were earned in 2009. Though more than half were S&E PhDs, the overall numbers for Blacks and Hispanics earning 3,645 and 2,419 PhDs, respectively, were low. The statistics have wavered little for chemistry, but increased overall for S&E PhDs since 2009.
Where are we in the STEM fields? I know several Black and Hispanic PhD scientists. However, we all tend to network with people who look like us. Nevertheless, studies have shown repeatedly that diverse teams give the best outcomes. For example, one of the last teams I was a part of was through the UCSF program, Reach the Decision Makers.
We were a multicultural team with varied educational levels living in four different time zones and five different states. By far we were able to harmoniously accomplish tasks matching or surpassing the results of teams that were able to physically meet weekly in the same conference room. Well-balanced teams with varied perspectives have an advantage because members provide many different solutions to the same problems.
I attribute my mock interview for making me a more emphatic advocate for diversity in STEM. While the statistics should be better, there are other people of color, women, and persons with disabilities who are graduating with STEM PhDs in increasing numbers.
In this context, no person part of a diverse group is a proverbial unicorn. Among other things, what we do offer are the unique perspectives and other characteristics that we have fine-tuned as a direct result of navigating through society (and STEM fields) as a minority.
In the end, these viewpoints and qualities are precisely what make you a unicorn, and I have not met anyone who did not like unicorns.