Ph.D. bridge programs show success in fostering diversity and inclusion, according to new study

A team of STEM researchers, including Vanderbilt astrophysicist Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, have published a new collaborative study on Ph.D. bridge programs as a mechanism to empower students, foster diversity and spur a more holistic approach to graduate education. 

The paper, which reports individual bridge program experiences and findings, serves in part as a response to the priorities posed by the recent National Academies of Sciences report, “Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads,” which highlighted key goals for broadening participation in the STEM workforce. It appears today in Nature Astronomy.

Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Vanderbilt Director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program (Vanderbilt University)

Featured prominently in the report is the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program – the first Ph.D. bridge program in physics and astronomy, founded more than 15 years ago by Keivan Stassun, Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt. Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy serves as Vanderbilt Director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program alongside Arnold Burger, Professor of Physics, as the Fisk Director.

“With this study, we aimed to identify the commonalities across current Ph.D. bridge programs in the U.S., in order to synthesize the real impact these education initiatives are having on graduate students,” said Holley-Bockelmann. “What we found is that these programs, including Fisk-Vanderbilt, are proving successful at identifying and fostering talented scholars from traditionally underrepresented groups. We argue that approaches focusing on ‘fixing the student’ need to change  — the program itself and the mentors need to commit to growing and learning along with the student.” 

Together with colleagues from California State Polytechnic University and the University of Southern California, Holley-Bockelmann helped compare and contrast the Vanderbilt initiative with other individual bridge programs, outlining the lessons learned from nearly 30 years of combined experience. 

In the paper, Holley-Bockelmann points to key elements of the Fisk-Vanderbilt program, including ongoing and holistic mentorship, supervised research, and full financial support through the master’s phase and the first year of a Ph.D. In addition, she details the use of innovative admissions processes that focus primarily on scientific potential, drive, and perseverance. 

The authors conclude by outlining how these bridge programs could serve as the vehicle for systemic change to reduce inequities in STEM, and stress the importance of not losing students in the educational system “on the cusp of its final stage.” 

For more information and to read the report, visit: