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As an Asian-American I sometimes feel as though I am "stuck." There are certainly many Asian academics, but only a few Asian-Americans. This is complicated by the statistics. In absolute numbers, I think the numbers of Asian-American academics are small. Asian-Americans only make up a small percentage of the overall population of the U.S. (about 5%), and so from that perspective, a statistic that says something like, "9% of academics are Asian-American" (I made this up) can be regarded as saying that Asian-Americans are overrepresented.

At the same time, to my knowledge, I was the only Asian-American in my entire PhD program while I was there (not just my year - the entire PhD program), there were to my knowledge no Asian-American faculty in the department, and I can count on my fingers the number of Asian-Americans I see represented in my field.

(Edit: I also want to add that I understand that even the term "Asian-American" is messy because it lumps together several different ethnic groups)

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    I don't think there's a simple answer to this question, what is the context that you care about? (There's also a complicated issue here of domestic Asian-American students or international Asian students, which I don't feel qualified to say much about but is an issue.) Apr 25, 2021 at 3:01
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    I would say this is true in Australia as well. At least in my areas, domestic students do not continue onward to PhD. There is simply no incentive for wanting an academic job. Hence, universities tend to source 'talents' from countries where students are encouraged to aim for higher degrees. Apr 25, 2021 at 3:17
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    Your question is question-able. Let's say an Asian came to US to study, got a PhD, found a postdoc, got TT job later, got a green card, eventually that Asian is naturalized to be an American citizen. Is that person an Asian academic, or Asian-American academic?
    – Nobody
    Apr 25, 2021 at 3:44
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    The first rule of the science club: anecdotical evidence is not evidence.
    – Greg
    Apr 25, 2021 at 6:01
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    On the subject of representation of Asian Americans in mathematics, you (and anyone else looking for statistics on the subject, as opposed to anecdotal evidence alone) might find this article interesting: ams.org/journals/notices/200608/fea-goel.pdf Apr 25, 2021 at 14:56

4 Answers 4

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There is no universal definition of "underrepresented" and also no universal definition of Asian-American, so it's impossible to answer this question accurately. A very rough answer is that it depends on the discipline (eg computer science vs anthropology) and also on which ethnicities are considered Asian-American.

Your personal experience notwithstanding, it is likely that Asian-Americans are overrepresented in academia overall, simply because Asian-Americans are overrepresented among Americans with advanced degrees. But this isn't a very useful metric from the point of view of diversity and equity.


Edit: The NSF has a breakdown by race and discipline of US citizens awarded doctorates in 2016: https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsf18304/report/which-fields-attract-students/minorities.cfm

As for faculty, another reason it's going to be hard to find good data on whether Asian-Americans are underrepresented is that schools love to pretend that their faculty is more diverse than it is, so they often have rather creative definitions of "underrepresented."

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    Strong agree with the first paragraph. For example, in the US context, Filipinos and Hmong are pretty clearly underrepresented minorities. Apr 25, 2021 at 3:31
  • You made an important point about counting faculty and not just numbers of PhD's. When people discuss a "bamboo ceiling" they are referring to what they regard as barriers to people of Asian descent to getting into "executive" positions in industry like CEO that involve more leadership. So in academia, I guess this would mean tenured faculty, deans, provosts, university presidents (or I guess the Board of Trustees...).
    – Mehta
    Apr 25, 2021 at 14:57
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    @Mehta The criteria for who gets tenure are very different from the criteria for who gets an upper administrative position. I'd be very surprised if tenure review committees were systematically biased against Asian-Americans. Apr 25, 2021 at 16:05
  • If 'under-representation' was defined as 'representation lower than that found within the population as a whole' then I'd be on-board with that.
    – Strawberry
    Apr 26, 2021 at 13:33
  • @ElizabethHenning I don't know about systematic bias, but in terms of percentage of PhD holders, there's a lower percentage of tenured Asians (I don't know if it's Asian-American) issues.org/realnumbers-asian-women-stem-careers
    – Mehta
    May 31, 2021 at 17:50
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Your suggestion that Asian-Americans are under-represented in US universities sounds wrong to me — more likely they are an "over-represented minority"

To really answer this question in detail, you'd need to clearly specify the scope of interest (i.e., which set of universities, which fields, etc.) and get admissions/employment data to compare with the demographics of the host population. Your choice of the specific group of Asian-Americans is also somewhat curious (and could be considered cherry-picking), insofar as it combines a race/ethnicity with citizenship status. In any case, doing a proper analysis of this issue would be quite a big project and I do not propose to make any attempt here to take that on.

Setting aside that caveat, if you are confining attention mostly to the most elite universities in the US, or the STEM fields in most universities in the US, there is pretty clear evidence that Asians are heavily over-represented relative to their population numbers. This is a consequence of what the economist Thomas Sowell has referred to as their status as a "model minority" (i.e., a high-performing racial minority with a number of high outcomes across various social indicators). You might be interested to know that a recent lawsuit against Harvard university involved a controversy over anti-Asian discrimination occurring as a result of affirmative action for other race groups. The materials in that case show that Asians are already heavily over-represented in the university, and would be more so if not for favouratism of other race groups on "diversity" grounds. An internal report at Harvard University in 2013 found that Asian-Americans were 19% of the student body, and if the university were to assess admissions applications purely on academic factors, they would have been 43% of the student body (see e.g., news coverage of report here).

So, your hunch here sounds wrong to me. Whenever the matter has been subject to analysis of admissions data, the results have generally shown that Asian-Americans are heavily over-represented in university admissions. Harvard is certainly not an aberration from the norm on this issue. It is certainly possible that Asian-Americans might be under-represented as students in some sub-fields, or at particular universities, but the general stream of evidence is the opposite of what you are supposing. As to faculty positions, I'm not sure there, because obviously it takes about a generation for students to flow through to become faculty. It might be that high numbers of Asian-American undergraduates have not yet flowed through heavily into higher degrees and faculty positions, but at least anecdotally, in the STEM field my observation has been the opposite.

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    Thanks. To clarify, my question was referring to tenure-track and tenured faculty, not undergraduate students. It's true that I don't have hard data.
    – Mehta
    Apr 25, 2021 at 4:10
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    Okay, fair enough. I also don't know the data at that level. My suspicion is that ---regardless of the present situation--- the high representation of Asian-Americans as undergraduate students will flow through to those areas later. There may be cultural differences that lead more Asian-Americans away from academia (or the opposite), so anything is possible, but I'd be surprised if they're under-representated at any level in academia for long.
    – Ben
    Apr 25, 2021 at 4:13
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    The concept of a "model minority" can be a harmful stereotype. Many Asians are from backgrounds which place them at a disadvantage in Academia. A few Asians are from backgrounds which place them at an advantage in Academia, and they are commonly seen in American universities. Apr 25, 2021 at 5:15
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    Okay, but the very nature of the generalisation is that it is a generalisation, so it is not intended to cover all cases. Obviously there are going to be exceptions, but the question is about representation relative to a host population, so it is reasonable to generalise in that context. I think your observation here really applies to all race groups --- only a small elite (often from high socio-economic backgrounds) become academics. Nevertheless, the "model minority" concept has a broad factual basis (rooted in observed correlations of race/culture) and I see no problem with it.
    – Ben
    Apr 25, 2021 at 5:32
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    This "it combines a race/ethnicity with citizenship status" is not at all special to Asian-Americans. The same thing often comes up with respect to Latin Americans. For example, funds tied to the NSF's broader impact goals which encourage participation from underrepresented minorities are typically explicitly restricted to US permanent residents and citizens. Apr 25, 2021 at 19:21
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Since OP has clarified that they’re in pure math, I wanted to point out that the AMS has great surveys with extensive information about PhD demographics in math and first job outcomes. Here’s the most recent survey

Among the US citizens earning PhDs, 6 were American Indian or Alaska Native, 81 were Asian, 27 were Black or African American, 34 were Hispanic or Latino, 2 were Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, 754 were White, and 31 were of unknown race/ethnicity.

That summary is all math, but they do later break out statistics, biostatistics, and applied math separately, so you can work out that in pure math their are 47 Asian US-citizen pure math PhDs that year out of 672 total US-citizen pure math PhDs. That’s almost exactly 7%. Among all American Millennials, 6.4% are Asian. But this calculation is actually quite sensitive to whether you include permanent residents. If you do then it changes to 70/710 = 9.9%.

So Asian-Americans are slightly over represented among US math PhDs by a factor between 1 and 1.5.

(As other answers have said there’s nuance to add to this about more specific ethnicity which I won’t repeat.)

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  • Edited to fix several errors I made misreading the table. Apr 25, 2021 at 14:29
  • Note that I think the number of Asian-American math PhDs is lower than what a lot of people would guess based on other math-heavy fields and top undergraduate schools, which I would speculate plays a role in OP’s anecdotal experience. Apr 25, 2021 at 14:32
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    Thanks. That matches the statement that Asian-Americans are overrepresented in pure math PhDs, but that in terms of absolute numbers, there just aren't that many. So I guess they are a minority for sure, but not an "underrepresented" minority. Of course there is also the question of what percent of the tenured faculty is Asian-American. There is a term "bamboo ceiling" that describes barriers not to "junior" positions but to "executive" positions in industry.
    – Mehta
    Apr 25, 2021 at 14:49
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Are Asian-Americans considered an “underrepresented minority” in academia in the US?

Both "yes" and "no" are wrong. In my discipline, physics, Asians are over-represented among both non-American and American physicists. But if you look at most social sciences or humanities, you will find far fewer Asian academics. This can be readily seen by searching for pictures of conference attendees at various disciplinary conferences.

There is also a lot of regional variation, and variation by rank.

And yes, you are quite right that the concept of "Asian American" is unclear, as are many other supposed identity categories. National, cultural, language background, etc. vary and should be considered.

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  • Much of the variation by rank is due to Asians being relatively recent immigrants. Apr 25, 2021 at 5:22
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    Sure; but don't treat all Asian-Americans like they are recent immigrants. Plenty of people immigrated in the 1850s. Apr 25, 2021 at 5:24
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    The bamboo ceiling: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamboo_ceiling. Some variation by rank may just be good old fashioned prejudice.
    – Aru Ray
    Apr 25, 2021 at 7:09
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    @ElizabethHenning I don't see how you can instantly make such a sweeping conclusion. Weren't you just saying elsewhere that we can't draw these kinds of conclusions without actual statistics?
    – knzhou
    Apr 25, 2021 at 17:01
  • @knzhou No sweeping conclusion, just mentioning an obvious contributing factor. If you think there is discrimination at the P&T level, provide the evidence. Apr 25, 2021 at 17:03

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