Minorities in Astrophysics: Survival Strategies

Title: Survival Strategies for African American Astronomers and Astrophysicists
Author: J.C. Holbrook
Author’s Institution: University of California, Los Angeles
In this post, I diverge from the comfortable ground of dark-matter-this or black hole-formation-that to consider a paper on a perhaps equally vexed issue in astrophysics: minorities in astrophysics, especially African-Americans.  This is part of a larger look astrobites plans to take at minorities in astrophysics in the coming weeks, so if this is of interest, do check back!

In classical literature, it was traditional for the author to begin with a plea for the reader’s indulgence and forgiveness (the “humility trope“) should anything be said wrongly or not at all. Since I am aware that this topic is a sensitive one, I ask for similar benefit of the doubt!  And full disclosure: I am not from a background that makes me a minority of any stripe in astrophysics, and so I found Holbrook’s paper particularly surprising but also enlightening on a part of some astrophysics’ students’ experiences that I had been unaware existed.

From AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy website, http://csma.aas.org/

Anyone who has been in an astrophysics department probably realizes there are few African-Americans or women in the field: but just how few?  Holbrook begins with some startling statistics: since 1955, only forty African-Americans have earned doctorates in astronomy or physics doing an astronomy dissertation.  This means they comprise at most 2.47% of PhDs in astronomy.  Out of 594 faculty at top 40 astronomy programs, 6 are African-American (1%).  Notably, Hispanics fare no better, with 7 (1.2%), while Asians account for 42 of the 594, for 7.1%.

The obvious question is “Why?”  Holbrook notes that previous answers to this question have focused on what students might lack: sufficient math and physics preparation, exposure to a research project, etc.  She flips the question around to ask “What are the small number of African-Americans who have entered and stayed in astronomy doing?” Hence her paper’s title, “Survival Strategies . . .”.  She goes on to enumerate six, gleaned from informal conversations as well as formal interviews with African-American, Hispanic, and female astronomers conducted during her career in astronomy over the past twenty years. I go through them below.

  • Obliviousness

“Ignorance is bliss”: if you go through life (as some astrophysicists appear to — we all can think of an example) absorbed in your work to the exclusion of all else, walking down halls mumbling equations under your breath and forgetting meals, then you are oblivious and will probably be “completely unaware of racist and sexist undertones and overtones . . . in a hostile environment.”  Holbrook points out that minority academics who say racism and sexism simply do not exist may not be trying to be disingenuous: they may just be successfully employing this survival strategy.

  • Strong Familial Support

Holbrook argues that astronomy departments’ culture in the US undermines this survival strategy, writing “Having a family, unless you are a man with a partner who is the primary caregiver, is perceived negatively. The connection that minority students have with their families is considered negatively as well. Minority students are encouraged to move away from their family.”  She argues that this ought not to be the case — clearly, a family that produced a student who is doing a PhD in astronomy did something right!

  • Strong Departmental Support

Anyone who has ever had an adviser who has gone beyond all reasonable expectation of human generosity to fight for them knows that this is a key to survival and success whether one is a member of a minority group or not.  Holbrook points out that a mentor willing to stand up for his or her student can even transform a hostile department by telling other faculty members that the way they are treating his or her student is not kosher. (Incidentally, this can be an argument both for and against tenure: one needs tenured faculty to have the independence to stand up to colleagues, but on the other hand, if those colleagues have terribly racist views, tenure diminishes their accountability for them).

  • Divine Inspiration

This is perhaps the most interesting (or at least, surprising to me) strategy Holbrook mentions.  As she notes, religion is a bit of a taboo subject in astronomy, and one cannot but suspect that in many US astronomy departments the percentage of those who are non-religious is rather higher than in the general population.  But it’s worth remembering that Newton wrote numerous works of Biblical interpretation in his spare time (well, actually we think he spent about as much time on this as he did on physics!), and many more recent scientists such as Maxwell and Eddington were religious as well.  As Holbrook writes, “Some level of divine purpose gives students a resilience needed to survive being an astronomy student. Thus, when bad things happen such as racist encounters or simply facing challenging new material, those that are divinely inspired know that the racists cannot deter them from becoming an astronomer and know that they are destined to master the material.”

  • Disconnection

A student using this strategy assumes that the environment of graduate school is different from the one they will experience as a practicing astronomer, and that, unpleasant though it may be, it is but a temporary torment, something to be endured as instrumental to their larger goal.  This may not be an ideal coping strategy: Holbrook writes “their education then becomes a transaction of goods and services rather than an acculturation process. They learn astronomy rather than how to be an astronomer.”

  • Therapy and Medication

I also found it interesting that Holbrook cites this as a survival strategy.  Surely it is bad news if astronomy graduate education is driving otherwise healthy individuals to require therapy and medication (and this is what Holbrook must mean — if the medication is a coping strategy to deal with astronomy graduate education, then the need for it must be provoked by that).  She writes “Asking professors today how graduate students in their generation dealt with the stress, many revealed that they drank a lot of alcohol – a form of self-medication.”  Perhaps not an aspect of the graduate experience that has entirely changed since then . . . but certainly one that, in excess, can have harmful long-term effects.

What can astronomy departments do using this information? Holbrook suggests that, armed with knowledge of these strategies, they can recognize students who are using the potentially harmful ones, and steer them away from those and towards some of the others that are likely to be of greater long-term effectiveness and benefit.  While her study focused on African-Americans in astronomy, Holbrook argues that these strategies are relevant to other minorities in astronomy as well — and even those of us who are not minorities in astronomy probably recognize ourselves in some of them.

About Zachary Slepian

I'm a 2nd year grad student in Astronomy at Harvard, working with Daniel Eisenstein on the effect of relative velocities between regular and dark matter on the baryon acoustic oscillations. I did my undergrad at Princeton, where I worked with Rich Gott on dark energy, Jeremy Goodman on dark matter, and Roman Rafikov on planetesimals. I also spent a year at Oxford getting a master's in philosophy of physics, which remains an interest.


  1. This article really made me angry.
    All these ‘strategies’ are totally worthless.

    I think people with Asperger’s actually have a disadvantage if they are oblivious to subtle forms of sexism and racism. That means they lack the early warning that others might have.

    All the rest of the strategies are just totally ridiculous. How is it going to help someone without strong support from the family, the department, without religion and without the ability to be in denial about reality? These are all things that cannot be changed. I also do not believe either of them will be really helpful to survive in your field.

    And the part about the medication really tops it. If your job makes you so unhappy you need to take pills solely because of that: Quit your job!

    What about some advice about forming alliances? Speaking up if you encounter racism and sexism? Always remembering that race and gender has absolutely nothing to do with science? When did we forget about those strategies?

  2. I would like to focus in on the 6th survival strategy and Zinemin’s associated comment. Therapy and medication are often looked on with a lot of stigma and I don’t think the reaction of “if you need it, you should leave your field” is helping. Graduate school is very stressful and trying to balance family, friends and fun with courses, teaching, research and outreach is NEVER going to be easy. Get help when you need it.

    I found John Johnson’s opinion on this particular subject particularly refreshing: http://astrobites.com/2011/04/16/john-johnson-zen-and-the-art-of-astronomy-research/

  3. I am totally not agains medication for psychological problems, of course!

    I just think that if someone in principle would be a totally happy, healthy person, but the discrimination and pressure in their field makes them so unhappy that they have to take medication, then something is wrong.

    I do not like the idea that an article on astro-ph tells young PhD students from minorities that they should take meds if people treat them unfairly. I think that is very unhealthy and damaging. I think there is not only a stigma about taking meds, there is also a maybe even bigger stigma about making a career change or at least changing advisor.

    In my experience, if you are in an unhealthy, even abusive situation at work, you will always partially think the fault is with yourself. The advice to take meds strengthens this kind of view. Maybe better to slip some beta-blockers into your advisor’s coffee, since this has been reported to decrease racism. 🙂 Might work for sexism too.

  4. I think Holbrook’s article is a great way to look at how minorities – particularly African Americans – survive in an obviously hostile field. Far too often majority groups want to dictate to minorities how they should fix the problem that cause them to be underrepresented. If the goal here is to identify ways black astronomers have survived and succeeded, I think asking black astronomers is exactly the right way to do it. The answers may not sit well with those of us in the majority, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong or useless.

    I will say, however, that this sort of research is extremely difficult because without large sample size or the ability to control variables, you really can’t approach this scientifically. Given the choice between not researching this and doing the research in a descriptive manner, I’ll take the later.

    • ‘ The answers may not sit well with those of us in the majority, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong or useless ‘ —
      since I am the only one who was complaining about this article, I would like to point out that I am not ‘one of those in the majority’…. and also I would not mind to hear what members of the majority think about these things.

      Sure, it is possible to make a study about ‘what survival strategies people use’, but I think the far more interesting and helpful question is ‘what survival strategies actually work long-term, are healthy for the individual & can be applied to most people in the situation’. I strongly doubt that any of the strategies here belong to the latter category.

      The better approach would imo be to ask more senior researchers that belong to a minority how they have reached the place where they are now, instead of asking people at all stages of career and desperation. Because what I read in this article sounds very desperate and is not especially uplifting or helpful for someone actually being part of a minority, I can tell you that much…

  5. Although the Blacks in Space group is mainly for black entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and investment bankers interested in the NewSpace industry, black astronomers and engineers are welcome too.



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