The Opportunity Fellowship

The Opportunity Fellowship will enable the department to support PhD students who show promise as physicists but have not had the same privileges, in support of their prior preparation, as some of their classmates. It is a key element of our broader plan to increase participation in our graduate program by members of groups historically underrepresented in physics and astronomy. This broader plan includes the following elements:

  • Creating a welcoming and inclusive environment
  • Finding promising students to encourage to apply to our program
  • Recruiting students
  • Financially supporting students

Here we briefly describe the Fellowship as well as these other elements for context.  

The Opportunity Fellowship: The typical PhD program is often unprepared to support students that did not have the same privileges as their classmates. For example, students who bore no responsibility for financing their education, could spend more time on coursework and research. Once funded at our target level of $1M, the Opportunity Fellowship will provide full-time support for one graduate student each year, or partial support for multiple students. Such support will act as a bridge; students who have demonstrated exceptional promise despite challenging circumstances will have an opportunity to adjust to our PhD program with eliminated or reduced teaching responsibilities. After a year or two of support, each fellowship recipient will transition to other departmental sources of support, such as research assistantships or teaching assistantships, or national fellowships they have managed to secure. 

In the first phase of fundraising, we reached almost $250,000 in donations and pledges, mostly from department members. More than one-quarter of our graduate students contributed, along with more than 80% of active faculty and several undergraduates, emeritus faculty, and researchers. We are now reaching out to alumni and friends of the department.

A welcoming and inclusive environment: The Opportunity Fellowship will only lead to success if we have a supportive, welcoming, and inclusive community. We believe we have a good starting point here, and are also encouraged by various grassroots efforts underway by faculty and students to assess and improve the climate in our department. For example, graduate students are very active in promoting a positive climate in the department through the Diversity and Inclusion in Physics (DIP) group, which has workshops for students and works with the faculty to improve conditions for all members of the physics community. The physics department also initiated the first outside climate survey for an individual department at UC Davis, with the goal of honest self-assessment of our blind spots and understanding where the departmental climate might be improved. Some of our faculty, students, and other researchers have digested the results of the APS TEAM-UP report, and are preparing to propose changes. All the faculty signed a statement in June of 2020 that included a pledge to “...actively engage in activities designed to increase opportunities for underrepresented minorities in physics, particularly at UC Davis.” 

We are dedicated to giving all of our physics graduate students the resources and support needed to become successful scientific researchers. In addition to the support offered by the Fellowship, the recipient will benefit from the many resources available to all graduate students in the department, as detailed in our full report. A key aspect of this support is the mentoring provided by our faculty. Our faculty’s commitment to mentoring is demonstrated by their wide participation in programs such as APS Bridge, Cal-Bridge, and APS IDEA. The department has developed a mentoring guide for faculty and students to lay out the expectations and best practices of the mentoring relationship, and strongly encourages its use by both faculty and students.

Finding and recruiting: One way we will find students is through our expected access to the applicant database of the APS Bridge Program. This program searches for students who show great promise for graduate work, but who are not yet fully prepared to enter a standard graduate program, often because of financial challenges similar to those motivating this fellowship. Successful applicants are placed at one of six Bridge Sites, or at APS Bridge Program Partnership Institutions. In one recent year, after the Bridge and Partnership sites had selected their students, 44 students remained unplaced, including 40 from underrepresented groups and 19 Black students. Until the capacity of other Bridge Sites and Partner Institutions increases substantially, APS Bridge applicants will be excellent candidates for our Opportunity Fellowship. Nineteen of our faculty have committed to act as mentors in the APS Bridge Program, and we obtained Partnership status in Spring 2021.

We will also find students through a re-invigorated graduate student recruitment process. The department chair will charge future graduate recruitment committees with a more proactive approach, with year-round outreach aimed at stimulating applications from promising students. This is for recruitment of all students, not just those who might be Fellowship recipients. Chances of finding potential Fellowship recipients will be further increased by use of faculty relationships with faculty at HBCUs, and promotion of our department in programs for undergraduate physics majors such as Southern University’s Timbuktu Academy. 

If increasing representation in our graduate program by under-represented groups were easy, we would have done it already. Although we are optimistic, success is not guaranteed. Recognizing this, we will continually seek to identify opportunities for improvement, and look for guidance from the rare models of success elsewhere. We are excited by this opportunity to support the development of young scientists we might not otherwise reach, and also gratified that by striving to do so, we will improve our ability to nurture the growth of all of our students.