Take the size of a single blade of grass in a
football field. Pretty miniscule right? That’s roughly just one of about 400
million blades of grass. Now multiply that by 2.5 times 10, to the 19th
power. Comparatively speaking, that’s the size of our home planet, Earth to the
observable universe. Our world is essentially
just a speck in the grand scheme of things. The keyword there is observable, as
scientists are convinced the universe may be infinite and ever-expanding, so
our little “speck” could be dwindling in size comparative to the rest of the
world. That might scare you, make you feel extremely small, or even overwhelm
you, but these things excite an astronomer. When you look up in the sky, you
may just see twinkling lights, whereas an aspiring astronomer sees a multitude
of celestial bodies, and a presumably endless black canvas of other celestial
bodies from stars, to planets, suns, and black holes. One’s curiosity of what
may lie out there in the universe peaks, as they wish to know what goes on
beyond us. That’s what being an astronomer is about, and I want to become one.
particular, a theoretical astronomer, where I would be using analytical models
of physics and chemistry to describe astronomical objects and astronomical
phenomena. Researching these celestial phenomena, translating them into
numerical form, then equations, and trying to explain them. From looking
through telescopes, reading, writing research proposals, to developing and
testing scientific theories, and analyzing data, astronomers do a lot of work,
but their curiosity for the unknown, and the huge amount of unknown out there is
what keeps them going. Not only that but they have to compose scientific papers
and present their findings to others in the field.
Astronomers work in planetariums, laboratories, observatories,
and their offices with hours contingent upon weather conditions, quotas, etc. Astronomers
often may need to work at night, due to radiation interference from the sun,
allowing them to work more diligently and make more observations during the
night. They will spend just some time observing, but much more time reading and
writing about what they have observed. With their newfound knowledge and
research, they attend plenty conferences and meetings all around the world.
To become an
astronomer, one needs a set of skills that differentiates him from others. They
need to have good analytical skills, curiosity, critical-thinking, and
self-discipline. Astronomers need to have the self-discipline along with the
curiosity to stay motivated and driven to complete their work, as they will
spend a great deal of time examining large datasets to try to discern patterns
that hold information within them.
As far as educational standards go, an astronomer would
need a Ph.D. in either astronomy or physics. Graduate students typically
concentrate in a subfield of physics or astronomy. One would need to take
courses such as calculus and statistics. Computer science classes also are crucial
as well, because they will more than likely have to create a computer programs
that are used to gather, analyze, and model data.
Those who wish to become full-time researchers begin
their careers in a temporary postdoctoral research position, which usually
lasts around 2 to 3 years. While in this, they will get to work with
experienced astronomers, and keep learning about one specific specialty, or
develop a broader understanding of astronomy as a whole. Senior scientists may
carefully supervise their initial work, but as these postdoctoral workers gain
experience, they usually do more complex tasks and have greater independence in
The job outlook shows that employment of astronomers
is predicted to grow 10 percent by the year 2026, but being that the field is
so small and there’s very little astronomers, the rapid growth will end in about
200 new jobs.
On average, astronomers earned roughly $104,740 in
May 2016. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $54,960, whereas the highest
10 percent earned more than $165,140. The salaries are all contingent upon
where they decide to work. Federal government work places have salaries of
around $145,000, whereas working at a university will get you roughly around
$85,000. Being an astronomer may seem lucrative, and like an interesting job,
but that’s not at the expense of some things.
The job field is very competitive, with their only
being 2000 jobs. Not only that, but if you’re like me, an African-American who
wants to be an astronomer, things get a bit more scary, which is the issue I’m
addressing in this essay. There’s a severe lack of diversity in the field of
astronomy. In a field run predominantly by white males, it is hard to feel
welcome sometimes. It’s also imperative to have diversity within the workplace because
it establishes itself in not only building up a great reputation in the field,
better rapports between employees, which ultimately causes increased
profitability and opportunities for them.
Diversity in the workplace will not only help the
cooperation and job industry of astronomy, but it’ll help outside relations as
well, and help people get along. The US is transforming into a diverse melting
pot of ethnicities, races, and groups, growing more and more diverse each day,
regardless of race relations, it’s undeniable that we are quite diverse.
However, the representation of some minority groups in the field of astronomy has
failed to maintain.
The (AIP) report has studied the representation of
under-represented minority workers in departments of astronomy, and gives
insight on the numbers behind the disparity of white workers and black workers
within the field of physics and astronomy.
Even though 13 percent of the US is currently
African American, the representation of the minorities in astronomy is much
lower. For this reason, the group is considered an under-represented minority
(URM). In fact, during the year 2012, African-Americans made up approximately
2.1 percent, whereas whites made up 79.2 percent.
This severe lack of diversity is intensified by the significant
bunching of African-American astronomy workers at Historically Black Colleges
and Universities (HBCUs). Physics and astronomy departments at HBCUs make up
for roughly half (89 of 190) of African-American physics and astronomy faculty
members, but unfortunately that accounts for only 4% (30 of 746) of all physics
and astronomy departments, meaning that the majority of physics students will not
ever work with, nor see an African-American faculty member.
This disparity should be stressed because diversity
within the workplace leads to an overall better way of living and working. Workplace
diversity nurtures mutual respect among employees. When employees of different
races and backgrounds, a synergistic work environment becomes standard. Conflict
in the work place is essentially inevitable, however, employees who know of and
recognize others’ differences will more than likely find resemblances as well,
which will create a friendlier workplace, and when conflicts are reached, they
will be more likely to be resolved very quickly due to this acknowledgment of
differences. These diverse practices will attract others and new hires of
different ethnicities to the workplace, perpetuating the diverse outlook. An
idyllic atmosphere is hard to create, however it’s extremely important to at
least put forth effort towards doing so, otherwise you get situations where
groups coagulate with each other, and there will be no diversity at all.
Not only that, but blacks have accomplished plenty
in the field, and are recognized everywhere in astronomy. People like Benjamin
Banneker who come from a long line of slaves, Guion Bluford who became the
first black in space, and then Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson who has become the most
decorated scientist. One might say that since America’s most recognizable
scientist is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a black astronomer, it might come as a
surprise to some that the field has a diversity problem. But that’s essentially
indicating Barack Obama’s election as proof of America becoming a post-racial
However, since the future of diversity in the
workplace of astronomy isn’t guaranteed, many African American astronomers can
use these tips to ease the discomfort, and promote diversity in their daily
routine of being an astronomer. However, before I list these strategies, I will
list ways that institutions have gone out of their way to try to fix the issue,
as they acknowledge the fact that diversity is detrimental to success. The
underrepresentation of minorities in astronomy continues to be a key problem. Astronomy
institutions are proactively attempting to dampen the imbalance of cultures. To
remedy the imbalance, and prioritize diversity, many universities are advocating
for programs that will help do so. The Department of Astronomy at Harvard is currently
supporting two programs whose main objectives are connecting to people of color
in the astronomical sciences, and providing them with the means necessary to
comfort them, and take off the load of some of the uneasiness that comes with
the lack of diversity. These said programs emphasize study, research, as well
as learning about social justice, and community building. They hope to improve astronomical
field diversity because greatness accumulates within diversity, not elite
One of the programs is the Banneker & Aztlán
Institutes Summer Program for undergraduates. This program is a 2 and a half
month (10-week) research and study experience. These 10 weeks consist of social
justice education: along with literature review, guest speakers, group and
panel discussions, community building. Not only that, but many classes,
workshops, and seminars take place. Professional training in programming,
astrostatistics, and computational astronomy is included as well as partnership
with postdocs of Harvard. The program includes housing. Students are housed on the
campus of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Students will also receive
a modest stipend to cover food and other personal expenses during the program.
This doesn’t include travel costs however, because the program compensates
students who need to fly, transport by rail or bus services. Reimbursements are
limited to the mentioned categories and require proof of payment. However this isn’t
the only program, because as before mentioned, Harvard supports two programs.
The second one is for PhDs however, and is a 3-year self-regulating research
project with training, groundwork for postdoctoral and faculty opportunities. Not
only will you provide contributions to field research, but you will partake in
teaching, mentoring, advising, and help public outreach.
While these programs are great, they are also
limited and require application. So meanwhile one may not get accepted, they
can instead apply these life skills and “survival tips” to help further their comfortableness.
These tips can help subside culture shock. Culture shock, as defined by the
English dictionary is “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with
feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or
environment without adequate preparation”. These survival tips were created by JC
Holbrook of the University of California, Los Angeles. To validate her points
and tips, upon the moment they were formulated, they were sent to multiple
African American astronomers, and in return, she got a slew of positive feedback.
The stargazers remarked that these strategies applied to them very well and to
others that they knew. The six survival strategies have been validated by
individual astronomers either as tactics that they use or that they have seen
used by others, validating their relevance within the community of African American
The first strategy is one that coincides well with
the saying “Ignorance is bliss”. It is to simply be purposely ignorant and
oblivious towards the undertones and situations that one may find themselves
in. If you don’t notice it, then you will not be affected by it, therefore, you
cannot be dissatisfied or made uncomfortable by it.
Strategy number two is to have strong familial
support. A family that is supportive can significantly provide students who are
experiencing racial adversities with relief. Family members are essentially a particular
cheering section for a student. That emotional support is detrimental to a
student who is possibly undergoing adversity, as it reminds them that their
family believes in them and believes that they can do, and survive astronomy,
and ultimately go from stargazer to astronomer. Number three is similar but not
quite. This one is strong departmental support, as a mentor or someone from the
department offering encouragement could be really helpful to someone.
In a multitude of ways, religion is a taboo topic of
discussion in the field astronomy. Some would argue that “the creative design”
debate has made this more so the case. However, some minority students such as
myself feel as if astronomical studies is their calling and was the reason they
were placed upon the earth. If you are to tap into this feeling it may help you
tough it out to continue doing the thing you love and put aside the lack of
diversity and racial undertones.
Strategy number five is to just disconnect from the environment
surrounding you. The culture may be so foreign and hostile to the student and
essentially instill a superiority complex within themselves. They may think
something along the lines of “These people are weird and I am not really one of
them.” Although this is a bit conceited and arrogant, it is the result of a
culture shock. It makes the process of getting a PhD something to get through
as quickly as possible.
The last one is to partake in therapy and
medication. Being in that kind of environment can cause a lot of stress and
anxiety to be put upon one person. It isn’t a good situation to be in, so medication
and therapy can certainly benefit the student.
In conclusion, our universe is a big one. It takes a
predetermined, and predestined stargazer to be the one who helps contribute to
it being figured out. Our universe is big and complex, and to be a minority
wanting to help solve it is as difficult as any problem one may come across in
astronomical studies. However, with some survival strategies, and motivation,
just a speck, can help solve the universe.