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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.



Fall foliage on the University of Chicago's campus, as seen from outside the Physics department. (Katrina Miller for The Xylom)

Needless to say, I submitted an application for the UChicago bridge program over winter break and was accepted two days before I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. I’ll never forget meeting my Duke advisor in the lobby of the physics department to share the news. “Congratulations!” he beamed as he stood up to shake my hand. “You’re a University of Chicago Ph.D. student.”


 

I’m now in my sixth year of graduate school with plans to wrap up my dissertation in the next few months. It’s been four years since I “crossed the bridge,” and I guess I’m what could be considered a success story: I will be one of about 20 Black physics Ph.D. students in the entire U.S. graduating this year. And while my experience in the UChicago physics bridge program wasn’t perfect, it was, admittedly, a good fit for someone in my situation. With extensive research experience, a decent GPA, and strong recommendation letters, perhaps I would have been competitive for UChicago’s traditional graduate track. But applying to Ph.D. programs is a financial burden for students, like me, who come from low-income households; the physics GRE is notorious for discriminating against underrepresented groups, which is further fueling the fire for the GRExit movement across the country; and I also struggled with a lack of confidence in believing I could succeed in graduate school. For these reasons, I knew that I could benefit from what a bridge program could provide.




Bridge programs are, in theory, an invaluable resource. Like other temporary positions, they offer a way to get your foot in the door and make connections at an institution that you want to attend. And for students who could use the extra coursework or research experience, it’s a prime opportunity to sharpen your skills after undergrad and make your graduate applications stand out without spending more money on school. Many bridge programs are specifically geared toward increasing the number of underrepresented people of color earning physics Ph.D.s, and — granted the program is executed thoughtfully — they can be a viable option for recruiting and retaining marginalized students in academic spaces.


It’s been four years since I “crossed the bridge,” and I guess I’m what could be considered a success story: I will be one of about 20 Black physics Ph.D. students in the entire U.S. graduating this year.

But in practice, too often bridge programs fall short. Stories float around my network about students having horrible experiences in these programs, leaving them either stuck in limbo between undergrad and grad school, worse off than where they were before or pushed out of academia entirely. Some students even discourage their peers from applying to them at all. (During my senior year of college, I was personally told by a few professors to exercise caution when deciding to go the bridge route.) Without careful preparation and implementation, it also becomes all too easy to reinforce the harmful stereotype that marginalized students are otherwise incapable of being admitted into and succeeding in graduate school.


Ashley Walker, an incoming Ph.D. student at Howard University and the Founder of #BlackinAstro, said this succinctly in a thought-provoking tweet:


She makes a good point. Every bridge program I know of focuses on remediation of their students, rather than remediation of the academic structures that keep these students out. In other words, institutions often fail to grapple with the reasons their bridge students are not able, or willing, to go straight into graduate school. These programs, then, just become a new-age form of gatekeeping: to “earn” a spot as a Ph.D. student, one must fold to fit the inequitable standards of higher education, so many of which are derived from elitism, misogyny, and racism.



Ashley Walker (right) and Katrina at the National Society of Black Physicists Meeting in 2017. (Courtesy of NSBP)

What might it look like if universities chose instead to pour resources into reshaping graduate programs to support the needs of their most marginalized students? Would we even need bridge programs at all?


 

Halfway through my first year of graduate school, a subset of the bridge students, including myself, penned a letter to the program’s committee (a panel of four white men who we had yet to meet) about a perceived lack of structure in the implementation of the resources that were advertised to us. “It is a great privilege to be a graduate student at this institution,” we wrote. “However, we cannot help but feel we were misled in applying to the bridge program as we notice these ongoing inconsistencies.” One collective concern, in particular, was why we were never introduced to each other at the beginning of the school year—why instead, it felt like our status as bridge students was to be kept secret, and we had to find and connect with each other on our own.


The answer we received was that, if the bridge program were made more public, every underrepresented and/or marginalized student would then be assumed to have only gotten into the UChicago physics Ph.D. program through the bridge, rather than “being qualified.” Furthermore, this would drive a wedge between students who came through the bridge program, and those who “very proudly” did not.


That’s because being a bridge student is nothing to be ashamed of; if there is shame, it lies only with the institution itself.

This mindset, around which many bridge programs are likely structured, inherently stigmatizes its participants. It also, in my experience at least, just isn’t true—during the two years I spent in the program, there was no serious tension between my bridge cohort and other UChicago Ph.D. students. We were met with curiosity and confusion at times since many were unaware that a bridge program existed, but at the end of the day, we all took the same classes, studied together, participated in social events, and bonded over bad professors and low test scores. That’s because being a bridge student is nothing to be ashamed of; if there is shame, it lies only with the institution itself.


Andrea Bryant (left), another bridge student in Katrina's cohort, and Katrina at a UChicago Strike for Black Lives march. They hold signs with the names of the only two Black women prior to them who have earned Ph.D.s from the UChicago Physics department, according to AAWIP. (Courtesy of David Dowd)

My year was the second, and last, cohort of the now-defunct UChicago bridge program. Would I do it again? Absolutely. I came in with a plan, and it positioned me exactly where I wanted to be. But it should go without saying that such a plan isn’t something that students should have to formulate on their own—because isn’t that what a bridge program is for?


When asked how these programs can be better, my go-to piece of advice is to always listen and respond to the needs of the student. The goal shouldn’t be to relax academic standards in order to increase an institution’s diversity ranking; it’s to create space for promising scholars by removing the systemic barriers that otherwise bar their access. And eventually, I hope we move past the need for bridge programs entirely. I’d much rather envision a future where universities implement these forms of support and care for all students, regardless of perceived need.


As I inch closer to finishing my Ph.D., I often think back to my first day of orientation in 2016. That bridge student who introduced himself before me became one of my closest friends in graduate school (and last month, he also became the first one of us to earn the physics doctorate at UChicago). Regardless of its intent, this is perhaps the most invaluable resource the bridge program gave me: a sense of connection within the ivory tower, both at my university and beyond it. That’s what bridges are supposed to do. As Chicago grassroots activist Mariame Kaba once said, “Nothing we do that is worthwhile is done alone.”

 

The headline has been updated to reflect that between 1972 and 2017, two Black women in the U.S. earn a Physics Ph.D. on average every year.

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