By Jonnelle Marte
In addition to soliciting glowing letters of recommendation, writing poignant application essays, securing financing and acing the admission exams, grad school hopefuls might want to add one more item to their to-do list, new research suggests: lose weight.
Overweight graduate school applicants receive fewer admission offers compared with their thinner counterparts, according to a study published in May in the journal "Obesity." Jacob Burmeister, a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at Bowling Green State University, and his fellow researchers analyzed the grad school applications of 97 applicants, and found that candidates with a higher body-mass index who were asked to do a face-to-face interview had lower admission rates than thinner applicants and overweight applicants who didn't have to do in-person interviews. For women, the negative correlation between weight and the chance of getting accepted was even higher. "We have yet another example of weight bias at work," says Ted Kyle, chair of the advocacy committee for the Obesity Society.
Burmeister asked participants to report their height and weight and to share details about their application process, such as whether an interview was conducted in-person or over the phone, and if they were accepted or rejected or withdrew their applications. The candidates studied had similar credentials and equally positive recommendation letters, says Burmeister. "For all intents and purposes, these applicants were even," he says. But "people conducting these interviews consciously or unconsciously perceive thinner applicants to be better."
To be sure, researchers point out that some heavier candidates -- fearing bias -- may have performed less well during the face-to-face interviews than they would have over the phone. And Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, says that while universities are "not perfect," most are committed to a fair evaluation of candidates.
But Kyle argues the biases addressed in the research are present in academic settings and workplaces around the globe, citing similar research published last summer in the Journal General of Psychology that found people are likely to prefer women of a "relatively healthy weight" when it comes to deciding which applicants to accept at a university.
Negative biases against heavier grad students also came up in June when Geoffrey Miller, a psychology professor at the University of New Mexico, struck a nerve with a tweet saying that Ph.D. applicants may not have the willpower to do a dissertation if they don't have the willpower to stop eating carbs. The tweet sparked a backlash from obesity advocates and graduate students and led to the launch of a Tumblr account titled "F--- yea! Fat PhDs," a collection of pictures of overweight graduate students posing with their diplomas or in their caps and gowns. The professor apologized, but the incident prompted both the University of New Mexico, where he is an associate professor, and New York University, where he is a visiting professor, to launch investigations. The University of New Mexico also announced that as a penalty, it is barring him from serving on the admissions committee for graduate schools, monitoring his work and requiring him to help develop a plan for sensitivity training regarding obesity. Miller didn't respond to requests for comment.
And at least one other development may lead to greater protections for people who fear they are being discriminated against because of their weight , says Kyle: the American Medical Association classified obesity as a disease in June, a move that could cause doctors to increase treatments and prevention efforts. While current law protects against discrimination based on race, gender and disability, which can sometimes include obesity, the protections offered based on weight are unclear, advocates say. The latest research and recent events drawing attention to the perception of heavier students could make schools -- and employers -- more aware of the biases that can exist in their decision making, says Kyle. "Once you're aware of your bias, you can start to take them out of the way," he says. "Somebody's weight is a physical characteristic that has nothing to do with their intellectual capacity, their character, their discipline and their drive." See also: 10 things Gen Y won't tell you
-Jonnelle Marte; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
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08-08-13 0720ETCopyright (c) 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.