Erlanger A. Turner, PhD, and Tinicia C. Turner, MPA

Continuing Education Information

Psychology is the science of behavior and its underlying processes (American Psychological Association, 2015). For some time APA has worked to promote psychology as a STEM discipline – which includes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (APA, 2015). Many sub-disciplines of psychology can be viewed as having an “engineering” relationship to basic psychological science, such as engineering psychology (human factors), industrial/organizational psychology, and clinical psychology (APA, 2015). There is a focus on increasing the representation of ethnic minorities in all STEM disciplines, and psychology is no different.

Psychology is one of the top five undergraduate majors (US Department of Education, 2014), with business being the most common degree conferred. Each year students continue to major in psychology in large numbers despite the commonly relayed opinion that, “you can’t get a job [in the field] with a psychology bachelor’s degree.” In a survey of 225 undergraduate students, 80% of juniors and seniors reported that they heard this statement from their parents, friends, or professors (Ware, 2001). Yet the number of students who declare psychology majors continues to grow. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of undergraduate psychology majors who earned a bachelor’s degree increased from 73,416 (5.9 percent of graduates) to 114,450 (6.2 percent).

Students often major in psychology because they have a desire to help other people solve their problems, they want to change organizations to function more effectively, to improve their communities, or because they want to study basic principles of human behavior (Walfish & Hess, 2001). According to Wimms (2008), much remains to be learned about the roles that race and ethnicity play in the academic experiences of students of color. Furthermore, as attending college is increasingly the norm for society, attending graduate school to attain an advanced degree (master’s or doctoral degree) is becoming more of a distinguishing factor. Given the necessity of diversifying the psychology workforce, it is important for the field to better understand how to increase the number of African-American males in this pipeline. Additionally, to achieve the racial justice promised in many early policy initiatives, more research regarding the status of African-Americans in higher education is needed (Harper, Patton, & Wooden, 2009).

Demographics of Psychology Students

Increases in the number of psychology undergraduate majors have occurred among both non-minority and ethnic minority students. Some have noted that the focus on underrepresented groups of color has received increasing attention due to the critical importance of minority representation in psychology (Maton, Kohout, Wicherski, Leary, & Vinokurov, 2006). According to Maton et al., reasons for this increased attention include enhanced quality and sensitivity of services and education provided to ethnic minority clients and students, new perspectives generated for theory development and application related to contemporary social issues, and greater congruence with the field’s commitment to social justice. Unfortunately, the increased attention to ethnic diversity has not translated fully into participation of ethnic minorities in the profession of psychology (Munoz-Dunbar & Stanton, 1999).

The following data display current trends in psychology based on the number of degrees conferred as of 2013 (US Department of Education, 2014):

  • 114,450 bachelor degrees in psychology were conferred. Females represented 77% of recipients (63% were white versus 10% black1 or African-American), and 23% were male (15% white versus 3% black).
  • Similarly, 74% of doctoral degree recipients were female (53% white; 6% black). 19% of doctoral degree recipients were white males, and 1% were black males.

Since many psychology doctoral programs do not require an undergraduate psychology major for admission, there is not a linear relationship between undergraduate majors and graduate enrollment. This notwithstanding, it is clear that black male undergraduate psychology majors transition into doctoral programs at far lower rates than others.

Munoz-Dunbar & Stanton (1999) hypothesized several factors that impact recruitment of ethnic minority students into doctoral programs: (a) characteristics of the community – geographical location, diversity of the community (e.g., small town environments); (b) financial issues – lack of financial resources for funding hinders recruitment; and (c) lack of existing ethnic minority graduate student representation. In order to increase the representation of black males in doctoral programs it will require a multi-channeled approach.

African-American Students and Higher Education

Affirmative action in higher education has emerged as a highly contentious public issue over the past few decades (Maton, et al., 2006). The American Psychological Association (1996) defined affirmative action as attempts to affirm commitment to equal opportunity: “Affirmative action occurs whenever an organization expends energy to make sure there is no discrimination in employment or education, and instead, equal opportunity exists.” Although there may be no discriminatory intent or awareness on the part of current employers and administrators, discriminatory organizational structures and practices are insidious, and victims of discrimination may not be able to identify a particular person as the perpetrator of the problem (Vasquez & Jones, 2006). In higher education, affirmative action policies were originally designed to encourage students of color to enroll in order to minimize the discrepancy between their enrollment and their representation in the population (Vasquez & Jones, 2006).

Although the court system has provided many positive rulings in favor of affirmative action strategies, the rates of African-American student admissions at the undergraduate level around the country have steadily declined (Maton et al., 2006), and this is also reflected in minority graduate school admissions. This pipeline issue has long-term implications on minority recruitment efforts because of the lack of diverse faculty that are seen as a critical factor to prospective ethnic minority students. Several layers of educational ecology (from individual and personal to environmental and organizational) have the potential to work together to support or hinder a student’s transition into and out of graduate school (Wimms, 2008). To improve the representation of African-American males in professional psychology, we must evaluate barriers to recruitment and systematically create opportunities to diversify the workforce.

Several studies have been conducted to better understand variables that are related to recruitment and retention of ethnic minority students (e.g., Clark, Mercer, Zeigler-Hill, & Dufrene, 2012; Evans & Cokley, 2008). Although affirmative action policies may occasionally help increase enrollment of ethnic minorities, they are not the sole reason for the presence of ethnic minority students. Students of color often perform equal to or better than their peers, but often status and achievement by people of color are attributed to affirmative action, while status and achievement by white Americans are perceived to be the result of their own efforts (Vasquez & Jones, 2006).

Studies on success of ethnic minority graduate students have also addressed the effects of racial micro-aggressions on engagement of students of color. Micro-aggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send demeaning messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group (Sue, et al., 2007). Micro-aggressions directed at persons of color impair performance in a multitude of settings by sapping the psychic and spiritual energy of recipients and by creating inequities (Sue, et al., 2007; Clark, et al., 2012). Perceived racial tension and experiences of micro-aggressions on university campuses have direct effects on students’ perceptions of belonging (Clark, et al., 2012), and are certainly a factor affecting retention in graduate psychology programs.

Ethnic minority students in higher education report that peer support and faculty mentorship provide them with needed support to overcome barriers and thrive in academia (Vasquez et al., 2006). Evan and Cokley (2008) note that mentoring has been particularly important for African-American women with direct links to increased self-efficacy and productivity. However, the literature is sparse when examining studies on African-American men and higher education – especially in the field of psychology. Data consistently show that black males attend college at lower rates than black females (e.g., Cuyjet, 1997; US Department of Education, 2014). Cuyjet (1997) identifies two factors that contribute to the low rate of black males enrolled in higher education: (1) life circumstance preventing black men from ever getting to college; and (2) attrition due to academic under-preparation prior to college admission.

In an effort to shed some light on why African-American males are under-represented in psychology graduate school programs, the authors conducted a small survey of African-American male undergraduate students majoring in psychology, using a convenience sample of participants. Responses were collected anonymously via social media (Facebook and Twitter) to address several questions. The primary questions included: (a) what percentages of psychology undergraduate African-American/black males are interested in graduate school? (b) what percentage are encouraged to pursue a doctoral degree? and (c) what factors hinder African-American/black males from pursuing a PhD in psychology?

Based on the number of responses collected (N=8) the majority of black males (M age = 28.5; ages ranged from 21-53) expressed a desire to pursue a PhD in psychology. These students reported that they were encouraged by someone to pursue a PhD and those individuals ranged from their professor to family. One significant finding was that each participant indicated that while they desired the doctorate, they did not intend to pursue education after obtaining a master’s. The three most common explanations given included concerns about their undergraduate GPA, the high cost of doctoral studies, and interest in an alternate career path that did not require a doctoral education. Some students also noted that the time commitment required to complete a doctoral degree would play a major factor in their decision.

Following are some open-ended responses from African-American males who indicated a reluctance to pursue doctoral studies:

  • Degree programs are perceived to be difficult, or lack of emotional and financial support, and maybe no encouragement. I got encouragement, but only after I mentioned it as a goal.
  • A graduate degree in psychology would’ve been ideal but I don’t have the time nor money commitment to do so.
  • In my opinion, psychology is labeled with a stereotype, such as “they deal with crazy people” that causes black males to deter away from the field.
  • Graduate school is not really advocated in a way that attracts people of color. For example, minorities, in most cases, desire social change and justice. Coming from a background of crime and poverty, minorities seeking a PhD, typically, would like to seek change. However, fields such as community psychology that aim to foster upward mobility, social justice, and policy change are not heard of. We need to change the dominant narrative regarding psychology; specifically, we need to advertise psychology in a way that is not of an image of Freud speaking with a client in a chair.
  • The application process for graduate school is highly competitive. Many (black males) may become discouraged when merely looking at the requirements that are needed in order to get accepted.
  • Some may be misinformed or out of the loop on the fact that their career plans involve getting a doctorate, or they might not know what the admissions process entails until it is too late.
  • Many black males seek immediate gratification and may just go out and get a job to make money after completing undergrad rather than pursuing graduate school.

Even though these finding are a small sample, they represent our desired recruitment pipeline: African-American males who are studying psychology in undergraduate level. The field must consider these factors when addressing recruitment and retention of black males in professional psychology.

Opportunities to Recruit and Retain Black Males in Psychology

As a former academic advisor in higher education, the second author recruited and assisted hundreds of African-American males through the admissions process. Although black males are highly encouraged to pursue STEM majors and careers, the rate at which they enter STEM fields is significantly lower (National Science Foundation, 2010), a finding that has remained stable for some years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (Washington, 2011), in 2009, blacks received seven percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, four percent of master’s degrees, and two percent of doctoral degrees.

Exposure is a major contributing factor to the lack of black males in the field of psychology. When discussing degree options, many students often express that they are not familiar with the psychology discipline nor are they familiar with the associated career options. If the desire is to increase representation of black males in psychology, it is of paramount importance to provide guidance earlier in the educational process about possible career options in the discipline.

Empirical data have continually shown a strong correlation between education and income and that education provides greater access to opportunities that may not have been afforded (e.g., Wimms, 2008). However, many black males who may choose to pursue education are looking for a quick solution. They want to change their lives through higher education, but if obtaining a degree requires a major time commitment (e.g., longer than four years) they are less likely to pursue higher education. In my role as an academic advisor (second author), African-American males typically chose degree programs such as business, criminal justice, and education. These programs can often result in obtaining a bachelor’s degree and graduates can immediately find work in their field without pursuing an advance education. As noted in the qualitative data from the survey we collected, immediate gratification and employment post-college graduation are often a priority for many African-American males.

Exposure is a major contributing factor to the lack of black males in the field of is of paramount importance to provide guidance earlier in the educational process about possible career options...

Graduate school is expensive and for many this is a major factor in the decision to not pursue an advanced degree. This may be particularly discouraging for students of color. With estimated student loan debt and monthly household expenses, many may not be able to focus on full-time studies, particularly in those doctoral programs that discourage external employment. Although many PhD programs offer stipends and diversity fellowships that may reduce the amount of debt, it seems that many black undergraduate students are not aware of this funding source. According to Washington (2011), in an interview one African-American PhD student stated, “it takes many years after college to get the advanced degrees needed to become leaders in math and science fields – university professors, directors of research labs, heads of engineering departments – and some black students can’t afford to wait that long.” This theme was also represented in our survey – that cost and time commitment is a big factor weighing on the decision of black males to attend doctoral programs.

To improve recruitment and retention of African-American males in psychology several factors must be addressed. Attrition, as we have seen, is a major problem. Golde (2005) identified several themes that often lead to attrition: (1) mismatch between the students’ expectations and the norms of the discipline – students desire to study problems that have real life implications rather than communicating knowledge within the discipline; (2) poor fit between the student and the department – students may express feeling underprepared and feel the institution does not provide mechanisms to address gaps due to their background; (3) mismatch between the advisor and student – lack of interaction, trust, and intellectual support from the students’ advisor(s); (4) student perception of faculty demands as being incompatible with their  career choices; (5) negative perceptions of career opportunities post-graduation; and (6) structural isolation of students within departments resulting in less frequent minority peer interactions.  Thus, even with institutional attempts to reduce attrition and improve retention; Golde’s findings also suggest that numerous other barriers exist that impair the progress of African-American males through doctoral psychology programs.

One potential way to improve retention is through effective mentoring beginning at the predoctoral level. Individuals who are mentored tend to be more satisfied and committed to their profession, earn higher performance evaluations and salaries, and experience faster career progress than those who are not mentored (APA Centering on Mentoring Task Force, 2006). Many graduate students in professional psychology are never mentored and ethnic minority students have fewer available mentors who are ethnically similar (Burney, Celeste, Johnson, Klein, Nordal, & Portnoy, 2009).

In a number of disciplines outside of psychology, programs that incorporate mentoring have been developed to address the ethnic minority pipeline. In accounting, The PhD Project has been demonstrated to be effective in diversifying the accounting workforce. The PhD Project was developed in response to data showing that minorities are dissuaded from furthering their education and academic careers due to cost and lack of mentors or other role models in academia (Baldwin, Lightbody, Brown, & Trinkle, 2012). The PhD Project has worked to increase the number of minority business professors and doctoral students (Baldwin, et al., 2012). According to The PhD Project’s data, available at, minority doctoral students have a 90% completion rate compared to the US average of 70% for doctoral programs in business, demonstrating the effectiveness of programmatic mentoring and support on minority recruitment and retention.

Another prominent program that has increased the number of black men in science and on a path towards a STEM doctorate is the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County ( Hrabowski (2014), writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, noted that the Meyerhoff Scholars Program has been successful at educating African-American undergraduate students who go on to complete STEM doctorates and related professional degrees. This program builds community among students, encourages mentoring, and engages students in research by emphasizing students’ strengths, including resilience, determination, and the ability to persevere in challenging situations – skills that are highly important to be successful in a doctoral program.

In order to increase the representation of African-American males in professional psychology, the field may benefit from developing a similar program as noted above. It is clear from the research that mentoring has a major impact on recruitment and retention. O’Neil and colleagues (2014) noted that in psychology departments and programs known for exemplary efforts in attracting and retaining ethnic minority students, the availability of mentorship had a large impact on retention of students of color.

Additional preparatory work may be needed for those students with higher achievement potential but who have not been exposed to appropriate resources or those who have been inadequately challenged by their learning environments (National Science Foundation, 2010). In such cases, bridge programs (including mentoring) can help elevate student achievement to a level commensurate with individual potential, improve confidence, and enable students to engage in classroom activities at the level of their high-achieving peers so they can fully benefit from the experience (National Science Foundation, 2010).

To advance the field of psychology and diversify the workforce, a call to action is necessary. As society continues to change and the diversity of communities’ increase, it is important that different groups are represented in all professions. Psychology has an opportunity to address the needs of our diverse society by increasing the representation of African-American males and other ethnic minority groups in doctoral programs. Although there has been growth in the number of undergraduate psychology majors among both non-minority and ethnic minority students, African-Americans continue to be under-represented (e.g., US Department of Education, 2014). These numbers are even significantly lower for African-American males. Numerous investigations have revealed causes of non-perseverance for African-American students to include lack of financial resources, limited peer support, and mismatches between student expectations and program goals. Several models of promising programs exist in other fields such as science and business that incorporate mentoring and academic preparation have helped improve recruitment and retention of ethnic minority students (APA, 2006; Baldwin et al., 2012). To increase the representation of African-American males in psychology doctoral programs, it may be useful to build on the success of these models.

1Black and African-American will be used interchangeably.


earl_webErlanger A. Turner, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown. He earned his PhD in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He was the 2014 Judy E. Hall, PhD Early Career Psychologist Award Winner. He is currently a member of the APA Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest and has been credentialed by the National Register since 2012.


Tinicia_webTinicia C. Turner, MPA, is a Career Education Instructor at Mentorship Academy in Baton Rouge, LA. She is formerly an Academic Advisor. She earned her master’s degree in public administration from Southern University. She is a 2011 New Leaders Council Fellow.



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