Motivation to Pursue a PhD in Computing: Black Students in Historically Black Colleges and Universities

This study investigates the motivation of African American master’s degree students in computing to pursue a PhDin Computing. Specifically, we sought to understand the motivation of those students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States. Our framework was founded on the premise that an adequate theoretical rooting of broadening participation calls for reflections on the nature and practice of justice. Motivation, nonetheless, remained the core factor, albeit addressing it within a context of justice or lack thereof. The study shows that while most students seem intrinsically motivatedby a desire to learn, leading to a likelihood to pursue a PhD, extrinsic factors such as funding and employability constitute the highest hindrance to such likelihood.


In the past years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) invested millions of dollars into its Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) program, which aimed at increasing the number of graduates in computing disciplines from underrepresented communities of U.S. citizens and permanent residents (NSF, 2008). BPC projects focused on efforts to improve recruitment and retention and underwent formative and summative evaluations. We conducted a nation-wide study to assess the extent of impact that BPC projects have had at the time of conducting this study. This study is concerned with the motivation of African American master’s degree students in computing to pursue a PhD in computing. Specifically, we sought to understand the motivation of students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the numbers of graduates in Computer Science (CS) and Computer Systems Analysis (CSA) were very low. The IPEDS (U.S. Department of Education, NCES, IPEDS, n.d.)data showed that, for HBCU master’s programs, there were 206, 181, and 155 total graduates in CIS for the corresponding years 2006-2007, 2007-2008, and 2008-2009; 79 and 75 blacks/African-Americans graduated in CIS in 2007-2008 and 2008-2009; and, in 2007-2008, only 34 blacks/African-Americans graduated in CS and three (3) blacks/African-Americans graduated in CSA.According to the IPEDS data and to what we later learned from our correspondence with department chairs and faculty in HBCUs, many computing programs did not have graduate students. Thus, our initially projected sample of 500 master’s students was unobtainable.

Acknowledging that gauging motivation is a complex undertake, this study engaged perceptions from students about what factors into their motivation to pursue a PhD degree in computing and perceptions from faculty about their grasp, or speculations, of what factors into students’ motivation to pursue a degreein computer science. Our goal was two-fold: to understand what motivates students in HBCU environments to pursue a PhD in computer science; and, to provide insight toward developing programs, curricula, pedagogy, and the organizational culture needed to accommodate these changes. Moreover, departing from an assumption that that there is a link between issues of justice and issues pertaining to educational equity, we frame this discussion within issues of justice and equity.

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José Cossa Ph.D., a Member of the HiA Network, is a Mozambican scholar, writer/author, researcher, poet, blogger, “twitterer”, podcaster, entrepreneur, and an Associate Professor in the College of Education at Pennsylvania State University.

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