Surviving and Thriving as an Underrepresented Minority Astro/Physics Student, part 1
Surviving Undergraduate Coursework
Over the years, I’ve made some significant critiques about the physics community and physics education. In this series, I’d like to offer some solutions, with specific aim toward physics students, particularly those marginalized as underrepresented minorities (URMs). This is part 1, which is on coursework. Read part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5 and my playlist as well. Part 2 is about research, which is a critical part of an astro/physics undergraduate education. Part 3 is about understanding affirmative action and the role it plays in admissions and hiring. Part 4 is about coping with social injustice while also getting work done. I especially encourage students to read part 5, which is about applying to grad school, after reading the following.
Some people won’t need this advice or will find that it doesn’t work for them. That’s fine. It turns out, contrary to what white supremacy would teach us, we are not all the same! So, yes, this is how to be a URM astro/physics student, but it’s just one way, or a couple of ways. Take what’s useful and discard the rest. Consider what values my writing indicates I hold and whether those values match with yours. Because I am still part of the academic world, my advice will be geared toward the academic path. I’m going to assume the end goal is to get a PhD. But I want to acknowledge that plenty of people stop and make productive contributions after a Masters. The PhD is just one path. I’ll also add that I’m kind of old school. I think all astronomers should know something about General Relativity and have a solid foundation in physics, including some graduate coursework in it.
There are different ways to look at this path. One is to work backwards from the graduate application (which obviously delays advice for graduate students — for a subsequent entry in the series!). To get into a graduate program in astro/physics, you will need:
1. A transcript showing completion of certain requirements
2. General GRE and in most cases Physics GRE scores
3. Three letters, ideally from research supervisors, which means you need research experience
4. Community that supports you in your persistence
5. Some writing skills are helpful too.
A lot of advice is offered elsewhere about the importance of the first three things to success in graduate school and fellowship applications. (For example, here and here.) I won’t reinvent the wheel when I don’t need to (theoretical physicist trick). Instead, I want to address something that gets left out of the advice columns: how to accomplish all the tasks necessary to get to the point of submitting those applications, hopefully successfully, while still liking and respecting yourself and physics (the science) itself. I think this can be challenging for anyone, but the challenge is extra for people who come from underrepresented backgrounds, such as those who are Black, Native American, and Latin@ as well as those from underrepresented Asian ethnic groups, such as Cambodians and Hmong. Add on one or more additional marginalized identities and it can be even worse. I’m Black, agender, cissexed female, pansexual and from a working class background, so I know a little bit about this!
Because I got through it, I believe you can too. I’m happy that I can write to you and hope that this can help lighten the load a little.
This is part 1 of a series, and it addresses coursework. I will lay out some potential pitfalls I see with courses, offer some explanations, and then try to give some general thoughts on getting through it as a person of color.
First of all, here are the classes you should make sure to take with some rough correlations for when you should do them:
Freshman year: calculus-based intro to mechanics for physicists, calculus-based intro to electromagnetism for physicists, calculus through multivariable calculus
Sophomore year: waves/optics, quantum mechanics 1, linear algebra, differential equations
Junior year: quantum mechanics 2, thermodynamics/statistical mechanics, classical mechanics, and advanced electromagnetism
The junior year courses can also be done senior year, but if you do them early, it will make taking the GRE a lot easier. Classical mechanics and advanced E+M should be a high priority. They teach important mathematical skills and helpful physical concepts that you will see again in grad school. If you don’t have the math preparation to start in intro to mechanics your first semester, that’s ok! Do what you gotta do, and then bust ass in the later years to get ready for the GRE.
If you are doing fabulously in your classes (getting them A’s!), yay!!! I want to encourage you to read this section anyway. College classes have a few different elements to them, some of which can lead to culture shock for the neophyte. Here are some phenomena you should know about:
* Your professor may or may not care, but in most cases will have a large class and you will have to ask for attention, which you may not get or which may not be helpful.
* Doing astro/physics is a social experience. Most people should work in a study group and that means talking to your classmates, who may not always be the nicest to you for a variety of reasons.
* Lectures are not where you learn problem solving. That happens in your sections. You have to go to section to learn how to do homework. Your section will be taught by a TA who may or may not be freaked out about their own homework for graduate classes.
* Your homework will not be most of your grade. Most of your grade will be exams, which can be terrible for people who are not great test takers.
* Your textbook might suck/not fit your educational needs.
* Introductory physics can be boring, which can make it hard to take it seriously. What you may not realize is that all of the concepts you hear in freshman mechanics are going to follow you all the way through quantum field theory.
* Scientists think they are special.
How do you deal with all of this?
- First things first: Drink enough water. You’re probably going to do terrible things to your body like not sleep enough and drink tons of coffee and pop. Drink water. Drink water. Drink water. Try to get enough sleep sometimes. It will really make a difference for your mood and the ability of your neurons to fire properly.
- GET AND STAY ORGANIZED. This is especially true for people who have other interests. Perhaps like me you want to do social justice activism and will have lots of meetings for the Living Wage Campaign. Or you want to do Model U.N. In either case, you will need to create structure that helps you get everything done. I personally am a fan of the Getting Things Done system, and the GTD-inspired software OmniFocus has changed my life (probably I will write more on this later). It is especially true that you need to be organized if for one reason or another you need to work while you are in school. Explore resources at your disposal, like Evernote and also make sure to look at the list of software your school provides to you for free.
- Read the book before lecture. You will get so much more out of the lecture if you’ve already given the material even a cursory glance. This means looking at chapter one before the first day of classes. More generally, you should figure out what kind of learner you are. Visual? Auditory?
- Know about the difference between fixed intelligence and flexible intelligence. Figure out which mindset you have. WORK ON HAVING A FLEXIBLE INTELLIGENCE MINDSET. People who have a flexible intelligence mindset learn more, are more successful, and are by definition less elitist (so more likable to me). Keep in mind that the scientific community is full of people who subscribe to the fixed intelligence mindset — and judge people using it. That sucks. Ignore that noise. Even if you still have a fixed intelligence mindset, pretend that you don’t. Pretend that you are flexible. You will have more success in life this way, no matter what you do. Why does this matter so much? Partly because it is easy to become intimidated in physics settings, especially if like me, you didn’t go to a fancy high school with labs, an AP Physics course and a science fair. Some of your classmates will be better prepared than you. You have to learn to know the difference between preparation and intellect. Someone who is more prepared is not smarter than you, although they may think so. You don’t have to agree. Studies also show that having a flexible intelligence mindset probably makes students of color more resilient against stereotype threat and other marginalizing phenomena. Along those lines, I highly recommend reading the following materials to help get yourself in the right head space for learning:
A Mind for Numbers
Are You Trapped in a Fixed Mindset?
- Remember that someone is paying a lot of money for you to take the class, so you should get your money’s worth. You are there to learn. So: Ask questions. Ask questions even if people laugh at you. None of the people who laughed at me are still doing physics. If your professor is going too fast, slow them down with questions. Go to office hours and ask questions that you have prepared. Don’t waste your professor’s time, so be prepared! Similarly, go to the TA’s office hours to ask questions. If for some reason going to office hours is impossible or you really, really need one on one time with the professor, email and ask to make an appointment.
- If your professor treats you like they they think you are stupid, your professor is being a jerk, and their jerkness is not your fault. But it is your problem to overcome: you have to ignore their behavior so that you can continue accessing the resource you need, which is their help. Even if you feel intimidated, keep it to yourself. Act like you imagine the white guys in your class might act, as if it is natural to expect things and people to work for them.
- Get yourself into a study group. Try to find people you like. Try to work in a diverse group that includes people who seem to be both ahead and behind you. Explaining the material to people who are confused is the best exam preparation on earth. You are helping yourself by building some tutoring into your problem set work.
- If you can’t find people you like, so be it. You must work in a study group anyway. Do not let mean physics students chase you off! Most of the people who were mean to me aren’t working in the field anymore and/or are off doing evil things in other fields. In 20 years, you don’t want to look back and feel like you let bullies win. This is your life. You have a right to your dreams.
- Sometimes you won’t like people because they don’t seem to understand what your experience is like and they don’t care to. Those people are jerks, but you may be able to learn some physics from them. When/if they say something racist or sexist or otherwise prejudiced to you, you will be right to be angry, and you have a right to tell them you are angry. Unfortunately, you have to be prepared to deal with the consequences of their poor behavior. Make sure you have a team in place to support you should this happen.
- The other person you can learn a lot of physics from is the TA who is in charge of your sections. YOU HAVE TO GO TO SECTION. You will be told in most cases that these are not required. And sometimes on the first day, your TA will be nervous and sound like they don’t know a ton about physics. Keep going anyway. If you are nice to your TA, often they will be nice to you. I had one class where I had a female TA for the first time, and on the first day she was a bit nervous. Everyone in the class decided she was stupid and stopped going to section. That meant that for a whole semester, I got one on one mentoring. It was awesome, maybe the best educational experience I had at Harvard. I got the highest grade in that class, and the other students don’t even know what they missed. (And years later, I’m using the material we talked about in my research!) (That said, my electromagnetism TA laughed at me when I asked questions, which was not helpful, so I’m not saying they’ll all be great.)
- If your homework isn’t a huge part of your grade, why should you put effort into it besides doing it at the last minute the night before? Because it’s excellent exam preparation. Your problem sets are actually your exam study sheets. Look at it the day you get it. Write down all the equations you think might be needed for each problem. Set aside time every single day, even if it’s just 30 minutes, to look at the problem set and do related reading. When you get your homework back, figure out why you lost points if you did. If you can’t figure it out, go over the missed problem with your professor or TA.
- By the way, if you need a tutor, don’t be proud, get one. Physics doesn’t care how you learn it. And your exams only care whether you’ve learned physics, not what methods you used to do it. In relation, if you do especially mediocre in a course, ask yourself if you learned the material. If you didn’t, consider taking it again. This can be both distressing and embarrassing, but I think the true test of someone’s mettle is not whether they always succeed on the first try but how much they are willing to dust themselves off and try again. I realize that this is an expensive proposition. If you can’t make it work financially, get creative. There are a lot of physics courses available on youtube these days, and problem sets are available everywhere. The important thing is that you learn the material one way or another. Getting it on your transcript helps for grad school of course. The summer time while you’re doing research is a good time to make up material in this way.
- At the end of the day when it comes to coursework you need to learn to be:
* Able to deploy multiple problem solving techniques
* Increasingly better at putting techniques and ideas together to solve problems
* Good at self-education (Googling things, looking things up in the library, finding research papers)
- One way to start developing this self-education skill is to seek out your own textbook material. Go to the library and hang out in the section where they keep books related to what your course is on. If you find one that has better explanations than the one the professor assigned, check it out and use it! Once I discovered this trick, my life was a whole lot easier.
- When it comes to boredom, each person has to figure this out for themselves, but a couple of comments: try to stay in touch with whatever inspired you to major in physics in the first place. This is a lot easier if for example your work-study job is in a lab. (Yes, you can do that! I did, once I figured that out!) The summer after my freshman year, I was feeling pretty crappy about physics and then read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. From then on, I always kept a copy close by.
- You should also be a go getter when it comes to seeking mentors. Maybe there is a professor in your department who is in charge of diversity. Go to them and ask if there are other students like you that they can help you meet. If there isn’t such a professor, stop by the department office and ask. Mentors can include mental health professionals. I was lucky enough to have access to a caring woman of color therapist while I was in college. She cheered me on even when people who were supposed to failed to. My white therapists have cheered me on too! Mentors can also include other students who share your background. In my case, one important mentor was the only Black admin in my department. Another was a Black woman postdoc (who still checks in and gives me advice from time to time.) You can find mentors everywhere, like any student affinity groups you might join. I wasn’t able to do this, but other people might.
- Scientists are not a distinct species of homo sapiens sapiens. As Janet Stemwedel says so eloquently:
A lot of scientists will be convinced that they are superior to everyone else. This is what I call peacocking. They are just walking around fanning their feathers out so that they can feel pretty and powerful. Ignore it. Everyone has something to contribute, and scientists are often more poorly equipped than they think to evaluate what exactly that thing is.
18. Ultimately, you have to give yourself a real, fair chance:
In all of the advice I have given here, the underlying suggestion is this: Be Bold and Believe You Have A Right To This. Because you do.
Most of the advice I have given above is good advice for anyone, but I find that URM students need to hear it more and again. You are getting a lot of social messaging that tells you your life, your land, and/or your culture don’t matter. It can be hard to take your own mind seriously when it’s not even clear if your life matters to larger society. But here’s the thing: you have a team (if not teams) rooting for you. When the Huffington Post published an interview with me and it got over 100,000 likes on Facebook, yes I got some hate mail/comments and hate from the conservative press and even some Black people, but mostly I got so much love love love from the Black community. People I don’t even know are cheering me on. The same is true for you, even if they don’t know about you yet.
Also keep in mind that a lot of the stories the scientific community tells about itself and people of your heritage are not true. It’s not true that science is a real meritocracy, although many of us are fighting for that and/or have critical thoughts about the idea of meritocracy all together. It’s also not true that Europeans brought science to uncivilized and backwards, Native, African and Asian peoples.
By participating in science, you are not participating in a white project or fighting for inclusion in a traditionally white field. Or it doesn’t have to be that way anyway. You can make it into a reclamation project, reclaiming the science that your ancestors weren’t allowed to participate in because they were too busy trying to survive colonialism, slavery and/or genocide. The amazing thing is that so many people from our communities maintained science and created inventions despite this duress. They did it. So can you. We come from a long line of overcomers!
Try to keep your eyes on the prize. Try to focus on what makes physics cool. Try to remember that anyone from the physics community who mistreats you doesn’t own physics. Consider meditation for clearing room in your head and your heart for why you are doing this and why you love it. Love yourself for taking on this challenge, for being the kind of person who has that kind of wonder about how the world works. That’s a beautiful thing.
Now, because I am an atheist Jew who likes to listen Christian pop to cheer herself up: