Princeton’s new pre-doctoral fellowship aims to help diversify academic pipeline

Aug. 18, 2020 1:43 p.m.

Princeton’s Graduate School has launched a new pre-doctoral fellowship, which will fund students to study at Princeton for a year before they enroll as first-year Ph.D. students. Students from groups historically underrepresented in higher education are especially encouraged to apply for the new fellowship, which is among University efforts to increase diversity on campus and within academia.

The program is intended for students who would benefit from an additional year of training before pursuing a doctoral degree. Fellows become first-year Ph.D. students at Princeton following successful completion of the program.

The fellowship began as a pilot program last academic year and continues this year with a small group of students sponsored by engineering, natural sciences and humanities departments.

Pria Jackson (left) and Jael Hernández-Vásquez (right)

Pria Jackson (left) and Jael Hernández-Vásquez (right) are first-year Ph.D. students in Princeton’s Department of Classics. Last year, they were among the first students to participate in the Graduate School’s new pre-doctoral fellowship program. The program funds students to study at the University for a year before they enroll as Ph.D. students and is part of Princeton’s broader efforts to diversify academia. In these photos from 2019, Jackson participates in a painting activity as part of Graduate Student Orientation, while Hernández-Vásquez talks about his experience during last year's Prospective Ph.D. Preview (P3). 

“We are very excited about the pre-doctoral fellowship initiative and hope that the program will continue to advance our diversity efforts at Princeton’s Graduate School,” said Renita Miller, the Graduate School’s associate dean of access, diversity and inclusion. “We sincerely hope this will be a game-changing opportunity for many students from historically underrepresented backgrounds and contribute in a substantive way to diversifying the academic pipeline.”

Students interested in a pre-doctoral fellowship for the upcoming 2021-22 academic year may apply starting the second week of September as part of the Graduate School’s regular admission process.

More information about the pre-doctoral fellowship initiative is available on the Graduate School website. The following 18 academic departments will accept applications for pre-doctoral fellowships:

  • Art and Archaeology
  • Astrophysical Sciences
  • Classics
  • Chemical and Biological Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  • Economics
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Geosciences
  • Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
  • Operations Research and Financial Engineering
  • Philosophy
  • Physics
  • Psychology
  • Quantitative and Computational Biology
  • Religion
  • Sociology (*Sociology will start accepting applications in fall 2021)
  • Spanish and Portuguese

Faculty in participating departments said the new fellowship is among Princeton’s broader efforts to enroll graduate students from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, including first-generation college students.

Professors said the pre-doctoral fellowship can help students whose undergraduate institutions did not offer particular classes, language instruction, research opportunities and other academic resources.

“Princeton is a wonderful place to study astrophysics, and the pre-doctoral fellowship can make it even more wonderful by smoothing over obstacles for students with non-traditional backgrounds,” said Professor of Astrophysical Sciences Joshua Winn.

The course of study for pre-doctoral fellows is tailored to meet the needs of each student. The fellowship year may include: taking some undergraduate and graduate classes; faculty mentorship; training in research methods for specific departments; and working in faculty labs.

“Each student will meet with our director of graduate studies to design a yearlong program, customized to help the student obtain whatever knowledge or skills they may need,” Winn said. “For example, some students may have already studied astronomy but need to take upper-level physics courses, or vice versa. In some cases, the student will have had a good academic preparation but needs more experience with scientific computing or basic research skills.”

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Chair Howard Stone said the department introduced a bridge program a few years ago and the pre-doctoral fellowship will be another mechanism to recruit talented students.

“Our faculty are very interested in becoming the best possible department and this entails recruiting to our department the students with the most potential for research success and future positive impact,” said Stone, the Donald R. Dixon '69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “I think this program will allow talented students, who may be less well prepared for our graduate program and research groups, a chance to strengthen their science, mathematics and engineering background in topics important to mechanical and aerospace engineering.”

“This is a new initiative and, as far as we know, there is nothing else like it,” said Michael Flower, the David Magie '97 Class of 1897 Professor of Classics, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta, associate professor of classics. They said it’s particularly significant the program is fully funded and that students will become full Ph.D. students without needing to reapply.

In an interview with the Society for Classical Studies, Flower and Padilla Peralta also said the pre-doctoral fellowship is among many efforts to diversify the department and the broader field.

“The future of the field really does depend on training more faculty members from diverse backgrounds and on embracing a broader constituency of student,” Flower and Padilla Peralta said. “We recognize that the enterprise of diversifying Classics does not and cannot stop here. Our thinking about the aims of the fellowship has evolved in conjunction with conversations about how to promote a climate of meaningful inclusion and racial equity here at Princeton.”

Students who participated in last year’s pilot program successfully completed their pre-doctoral fellowship and will begin as first-year graduate students this fall. They include Pria Jackson and Jael Hernández-Vásquez, who are now first-year Ph.D. students in the Department of Classics.

Jackson said she appreciated that the program is committed to addressing inequities within the field.

“I decided to apply mostly because there is no program like this.” Jackson said. “It is one of the first programs in classics that invests in underrepresented students in a way that is really impressive.”

Jackson received her undergraduate degree in classics and sociology from Hollins University in Virginia. She identifies as a first-generation college student. “My family is really proud of me. They understand the significance of getting a Ph.D. from Princeton,” she said.

Jackson spent her fellowship “filling in gaps” before becoming a first-year Ph.D. student.

“At Princeton, I have access to resources and networks that I did not have while an undergraduate,” she said. “The fellowship is nice because it has a lot of flexibility and is tailored to what each student needs. For me, that is taking more language classes. I’m only being measured against myself and the goals I have set.”

Hernández-Vásquez said the program was a perfect bridge to graduate school after nearly 10 years as a high school  teacher.

I was teaching in high school, but I always dreamed about getting a Ph.D. degree someday,” said Hernández-Vásquez, who earned his undergraduate degree from Columbia University. “The fact that the fellowship is fully funded is a huge relief. I can spend the year studying at Princeton without financial pressures.”

Hernández-Vásquez said he learned much during his pre-doctoral year at Princeton.

“I was very impressed with the initiative,” he said. “What I loved most about the pre-doctoral fellowship is that there is no prescribed program. It is really about answering the question: what do you need to start graduate school in a comfortable place? It is nice to be able to say this is where I am in my studies and this is what I need to move forward.”