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Alex Ip for The Xylom

Two Black Women in the U.S. Earn a Physics Ph.D. Every Year. Can Bridge Programs Really Fix That?

This story is supported by a grant from #BlackinScicomm Week and COMPASS Scicomm. All stories under the brack•ish series can be found here.

 


With sweaty palms and a nervous smile, I stood up and introduced myself to the cohort of students who would be my peers for the next six years.


“Hi, my name is Katrina and I’m a recent graduate of Duke University with an interest in studying dark matter,” I said. “I’m also a student in the bridge program.”


It was September of 2016, the first day of orientation for the University of Chicago (UChicago) physics Ph.D. program. I was, as usual, the only Black student in the classroom. I was also one of two women.


But at least I wasn’t the only student in the bridge program, I thought. This was something I was apprehensive about coming in. I hadn’t been connected with any other students in the program, and from the department website at the time, it was impossible to tell if there even was anyone else. Luckily, someone in the row below me had just introduced themselves as a bridge student; this gave me the courage to do the same. Over the next few weeks, two more bridge students would be added to my cohort, and the four of us would eventually find a couple more in the year ahead of us.


I was, as usual, the only Black student in the classroom. I was also one of two women. But at least I wasn’t the only student in the bridge program, I thought.

Many different types of bridge programs exist, but in physics, they often refer to postbaccalaureate opportunities seeking to ease the transition from earning a bachelor’s degree to the rigor of doctoral studies. In other words, it’s a way to “bridge the gap” between undergrad and grad school with additional coursework, mentoring, and research experiences for students to take advantage of. Each program functions a bit differently: some, like the popular Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge, are two-year master’s programs, while others last for only a single year and don’t have a built-in degree.



A homework problem UChicago Physics Ph.D. students worked out on the blackboard. (Courtesy of Katrina Miller)


A common assumption is that students who enter bridge programs do so because their grades, test scores, or other academic performance markers aren’t up to par for them to gain acceptance into a Ph.D. program. But in reality, bridge programs attract students for a variety of reasons. I’ve met people who were drawn to the additional guidance and mentoring, those who were seeking a tighter network of peers from similar socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds, and even some who used a bridge program to pivot into physics after pursuing a different field in undergrad.


A common assumption is that students who enter bridge programs do so because their grades, test scores, or other academic performance markers aren’t up to par for them to gain acceptance into a Ph.D. program. But in reality, bridge programs attract students for a variety of reasons.

For me, the decision to apply to bridge programs was both academically and financially strategic. As someone who started Duke’s physics major late, I was overwhelmed trying to finish class requirements and a thesis project in the fall of my senior year—the usual time for grad-aspiring physics students to study for and take the Graduate Records Examinations (GRE), apply to Ph.D. programs, and try to win research fellowships. I knew my health and grades would suffer trying to balance everything, and even more so, I knew I didn’t have the money to pay for the GRE nor the graduate application fees.


At the advice of my advisor, I had originally planned to take a gap year after graduation, continue doing physics research, and apply for grad school the following fall. That’s when I discovered the APS Bridge Program website, which contained links to every physics bridge program offered in the United States, including a then-new one at UChicago. Everything about the UChicago program looked promising: the GRE requirement was waived, teaching assistant requirements were halved, and the course schedule was to be tailored to the student’s individual needs. It was also fully folded into their usual graduate program, meaning that bridge students were already considered to be Ph.D. students and could seamlessly transition onto the traditional track without needing to apply again when the bridge years were complete.