Photo of psychology prof Matt Henson at computer with psychology professor Debra MajorMatt Henson and Debra Major

Debra Major, professor of psychology at Old Dominion University, sends congratulations to the hardworking ODU students who will finish their degree work in the rigorous academic fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) this semester and get their bachelor's degrees in May.

She also has a favor to ask of them.

Major has spent the last decade researching reasons why so many American students are victims of what she and other researchers call the "leaky STEM pipeline." One national study showed that in a typical year when there are about 4 million ninth graders, only 2.7 million will graduate from high school. About 1.3 million will begin college, 280,000 of them as STEM majors, but only 170,000 can be expected to become STEM graduates.

Of particular interest to Major is why so few women and minorities earn STEM degrees and get STEM-related jobs.

Her research has led to the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Project RISE (research investigating STEM embeddedness), and to a survey that Major and her colleagues are conducting this spring. That explains the favor she is asking of prospective May graduates of the ODU College of Sciences and Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology.

She needs the input of successful students - men and women - to complete her picture of why some people feel comfortable enough in STEM classrooms and workplaces to become "embedded," and why some don't.

"This survey is quite different in that we are usually asking students why they dropped out of STEM fields, and in this one we are asking, 'What helped you stick it out,'" Major explained.

"We are hoping that successful STEM students will share their insights in order to help the students who come behind them," she added.

Science and engineering graduates - about 350 are expected this semester at ODU - can contact Project_RISE@odu.edu or Major at dmajor@odu.edu if they want more information, or wish to participate. Surveying begins April 7.

There is a monetary incentive, as well. Students who complete the first questionnaire this spring will get $25, and those who participate in the follow-up survey three months after graduation will get another $50.

"Our goal is that each survey should be completed in 30 minutes, so for an hour's worth of work, $75 can be earned," Major pointed out.

Survey questions will probe students' experiences in STEM courses, the connections they have with their STEM major and ODU, what they believe it means to be a STEM major, what attracted them to their major and to ODU, their perceptions of STEM careers and the types of career development behaviors and activities they have engaged in.

"Project RISE is particularly designed to advance understanding of women's underrepresentation across STEM fields by moving research beyond the historical focus on attitude and belief approaches to understanding how to anchor women in STEM careers," Major said. "Research findings are expected to identify gender differences in building social and human capital and in transporting capital to embed individuals in their careers. In particular, this research will address a gap in the 'leaky pipeline' between college and work, an under-researched area where many women are likely to be 'leaked.'"

She said the research will help to identify levers for anchoring STEM individuals, especially women, in their careers at both the university and workforce stages. Findings can inform college curriculum development as well as organizational approaches to retaining a gender-diverse STEM student body and workforce.

Embeddedness Theory for years has been used by workplace researchers to help explain why a person would stick with a particular employer. Major believes it may also hold keys to understanding why women frequently drop out of math-intensive majors in college and are underrepresented in STEM careers.

In 2013, the NSF awarded Major and colleagues a three-year grant worth $525,000 for the project "Patching the STEM Pipeline Between College and Work: Investigating Gender Issues in Embeddedness."

Job embeddedness, as it has evolved as a theory, explains employee retention in terms far broader than job satisfaction. It considers an array of influences on an employee's decision whether to stay with a firm. These do include job satisfaction, as well as bonds with co-workers, confidence in skills to do the job, opportunity for advancement and other work-related pluses or minuses. But the theory extends, as well, to family and social reasons why a worker would want to stay or quit.

A professor of industrial/organizational psychology, Major has had continuous NSF funding since 2002 for her research into why women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM majors in college and in STEM careers. The latest award brings her NSF funding total to about $2.5 million.

Major is a frequent speaker on gender and racial underrepresentation in STEM fields. She presented the talk "Gender Differences and Similarities along the STEM Career Pipeline" at last year's conference of the Association for Psychological Science in Washington, D.C.

Her project team for the current grant includes two other psychology faculty members from ODU, Associate Professor Matt Henson, and Assistant Professor Konstantin Cigularov, as well as Valerie Morganson, an alumna of the industrial/organizational psychology doctoral program.

Major's colleagues in this research in recent years have also included Karin Orvis, a former ODU faculty member now with the Army Research Institute; Donald Davis, associate professor of psychology at ODU; Janis Sanchez-Hucles, professor emerita of psychology at ODU; and Sandra DeLoatch, Rasha Morsi and Cyntrica Eaton of Norfolk State University.