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Astronomy society pushes for diversity in US PhD programmes

Task force hopes that a report on boosting participation by under-represented groups will ‘pull the alarm cord to say we can’t continue doing things the way we have been’.
Kendall Powell is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colorado.

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Woman with a telescope in front of a field of stars.

The American Astronomical Society wants to increase diversity among doctoral students in the field.Credit: Getty

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Washington DC wants those in charge of doctoral programmes in the field to work harder to recruit and retain students from under-represented groups. It aims to boost participation by women, minority ethnic groups, people of sexual and gender minorities, people with disabilities or who are neuroatypical, and under-represented socioeconomic groups, among others.

The society, which represents 8,000 astronomers across 57 nations, offers recommendations in the final report of a task force on diversity and inclusion in astronomy graduate education1. Those suggestions include partnering with undergraduate programmes that produce many graduates from minority groups, and holding department-wide discussions about the barriers facing under-represented students for advancing to graduate study, and about how to make departments more welcoming to diverse students.

Keivan Stassun, an astronomer and the director of the Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a co-author of the report, says that the society’s initiative is the broadest call made so far for diversity and inclusion in astronomy and astrophysics PhD programmes.

Between 2002 and 2012, students from under-represented minorities in the United States made up just 3% of astronomy doctoral students, even though they comprise 30% of the general population, the report finds. During that decade, no more than six US astronomy PhDs were awarded each year to members of under-represented groups.

The society has 1,620 graduate-student members and 500 undergraduate student members; together, these comprise about one-quarter of the society’s total membership. Women make up slightly more than one-quarter of the society’s membership, forming a demographic that is growing rapidly, but other groups that are under-represented in astronomy, such as African Americans and Latinos, make up only 5% of the membership.

“It was painfully obvious that waiting and hoping for progress in making astronomy inclusive wasn’t working,” says Megan Donahue, AAS president and an astronomer at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Evidence-based effort

US astronomy and astrophysics programmes award about 300 PhDs each year. Of those, only about one goes to an African American student and three to Latino/Latina students. These figures have not increased in the past decade, says Marcel Agüeros, an AAS board member who co-authored the report and is an observational astronomer at Columbia University in New York City.

Agüeros says that the society had been reviewing progress since publishing its last report on graduate education in 1996, and realized that diversity remained an outstanding issue. The AAS’s most recent report is based on peer-reviewed published studies whose findings have helped to increase diversity in US science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduate education, says Donahue. She says that the AAS had pledged to incorporate evidence-based results in its recommendations.

The proposals also include input from experts in STEM graduate education. “AAS was committed to providing the strongest research-based set of recommendations to their members, which meant tapping the social scientists with the best current knowledge,” says Julie Posselt, an educational sociologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the senior adviser on the report.

Agüeros notes that although astronomy departments’ faculty-member rosters have become more diverse, a large drop-off in diversity occurs at the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate studies. The reasons, he says, include a lack of cutting-edge research opportunities at institutions serving undergraduates, and students’ unfamiliarity with astronomy career paths.

Better connections

The AAS says in its report that to attract higher numbers of qualified students who hold bachelor’s degrees in physics, astronomy and astrophysics, PhD-granting departments must build connections with institutions that serve minority groups. Those include historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and Native American and Indigenous colleges and universities, which produce large numbers of under-represented graduates.

There is power in such cross-institutional networks, says Posselt. “That power can be leveraged for serving the status quo,” she says, when faculty members might choose students who have graduated from prestigious universities or who are members of those faculty members’ own networks. “Or, networks can be more open and can be used to diversify graduate education”.

The report also advises dropping standardized graduate-study exams, such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and physics GRE, from admissions decisions. Instead, it says, programmes should use a holistic evaluation rubric, which includes specific criteria for admission and clear definitions of what high, medium and low scores look like for those criteria. The report also includes a protocol for evaluating letters of recommendation, together with sample scripts for graduate-school interviews, as ways of diminishing the effects of confirmation bias and implicit bias in admissions decisions.

To retain under-represented graduate students, the report calls for robust mentoring relationships to be developed between faculty members and students or postdocs, and for departmental cultures to be made more accessible, welcoming and family-friendly. Donahue says that departments can make some easy changes straight away, such as ensuring that students and postdocs have at least one other mentor beyond their research supervisor, and providing bystander and bias training for all department staff members.

“AAS can pull the alarm cord for the community to say we can’t continue doing things the way we have been,” Agüeros says. “The argument for diversity is not controversial any more. We have to figure out how to make it happen.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00655-3

References

  1. 1.

    Rudolph, A. L. et al. Final Report of the 2018 AAS Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion in Astronomy Graduate Education (American Astronomical Society, 2019); available at go.nature.com/2s1xxkl

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