how to fight from a minority position in academia

Over the years, I have been asked by people if academia is hospitable toward minorities. Sometimes, they mean racial minorities or sexual minorities. Other times, they mean ideological minorities in the academy. Once, a student confessed to me that she believed she would be excluded due to her religion (Latter-day Saints, in that case). What all these people have correctly observed is that academia can be an unforgiving place. It’s a place where only half of doctoral students ever finish and only half of those make it into the tenure track. Many spend years working as adjuncts and never get a stable position. The basic truth of academia is that supply outstrips demand, so buyers have leeway to discriminate.

Still, unpopular opinions and people are not always doomed. Rather, it means that you can’t take things for granted. You have to be very careful about how you do things. In fact, it is not terribly hard to find cases where minority people and opinions do well. We can look at those cases and learn. In this post, I want to offer some advice for people in the unpopular position.

  • First, be at peace with the fact that there will be a double standards. While complaint may sooth our feelings, bemoaning double standards is not a productive strategy.
  • Second, fight from a position of strength. Example: James Coleman’s famous report went against the grain in sociology and he was hounded for years. However, he won out because he used the best possible data. In fact, that 1966 data is probably a stronger data set for studying school effects than what many use today.
  • Third, do not fight from a position of weakness. Example: The Gentleman from Texas* decided to fight a contentious battle using very weak data. Result? Two sociologists (IU chair Brian Powell and alum Simon Cheng) found that the data contained serious errors. When the analysis is conducted without data errors, the original conclusions do not follow. Even if Powell and Cheng had not found rather obvious errors, The Gentleman from Texas still had to stretch the data to reach his result. I would not stake my personal reputation on such data.
  • Fourth, cultivate a reputation for mainstream excellence. I have often noticed that people who succeed from unpopular positions are also known as people who have really mastered the mainstream of their discipline. Example: Gary Becker. The original econo-troll said more than enough to ruffle feathers, but no one could question his mastery of traditional economics. You need “street cred.”
  • Fifth, be nice. You will need lots of help to succeed. If you are in an unpopular position, you will need even more than the average. Don’t alienate people with rude behavior. These people will help you later in life. A related point – be useful. If you volunteer in the lab, on the journal board, or in other ways, people will like you and help you back.
  • Sixth, don’t hide, but don’t be a flagpole for the freak show. This is a subtle point. Often, people think there is a dichotomy between the “closet” and “flaming.” That is false. There is lots of space in between. You will be surprised. “Fly causal” and they may lower the shield.

Bottom line: Academia is tough on unpopular people. Be smart, be nice, and you may live to tell the tale.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

* Sorry, I can’t write his name because it automatically attracts this insane commenter who once emailed me to tell me that I was responsible for the murder of LBGT people in the Ukraine.

Written by fabiorojas

May 14, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in academia, fabio

13 Responses

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  1. Scientific communities are also moral communities that value intellectual honesty, hard work, empathy, dispassion, emotional control, and so on. There is an implicit belief that the field’s major results are correct, that prestige derives in the correctness, and that its success is a reward for moral rectitude.

    People who challenge mainstream ideas, thus, get accused of moral deviance. It happens to Austrians in economics just like gender scholars in sociology. People with contrary opinions must be lazy, dogmatic, selfish, emotional, unstable, etc.

    The scientific community has a responsibility to put informal and formal checks on the tendency to attack people at that level. It’s not just on minorities to suck up the double standards.


    Graham Peterson

    May 14, 2015 at 12:33 am

  2. Fabio,

    Good post.


    Liked by 1 person


    May 14, 2015 at 4:40 pm

  3. I am curious why you don’t make a distinction between unpopular non-academic opinion (like the Latter-day Saints students) and non-mainstream academic positions (like the examples of Coleman and Becker) ?

    Although there are some cases where the two coincide (the Gentleman from Texas), that isn’t really the case in many other cases (one’s view on same-Sex marriage is probably fairly irrelevant for work on monetary policy, or open atheism for neighbour hood effects, etc ) . Your example skew towards the non-mainstream academic position side of the two, so do you think the same advice applies to unpopular non-academic opinion holders as well ?
    And if it does, aren’t you basically telling groups who are discriminated against with higher expectation thresholds to simply ‘suck it up’ ? (so how is discrimination of political conservatives different than discrimination of women ?)



    May 15, 2015 at 5:59 am

  4. I think floplo makes a good point, which is that identity and heterodox academic views are not equivalent in any real way. It’s a disservice to both of them. Heterodox academic views deserve a hearing but can, and should, be subject to strong critique. That’s different than someone’s race, religion, sexual orientation etc.

    Where things get complicated is when you do research that is heterodox and that you get results similar to what you would expect based on your identity. This raises the problem of confirmation bias and other similar issues. Here, I think much of your advice helps, in particular the third and the fifth one. There has to be some way of having a real back-and-forth with people you disagree with, and being able to concede when things are wrong.



    May 15, 2015 at 2:11 pm

  5. @floplo and @cowboy: Idenitity and heterodixy are not equivalent – I agree. But the strategy for asserting yourself in the academy is similar for both. You don’t see very many heterodox groups or identity minorities making headway in the academy by completely rejecting the mainstream.

    Also, “sucking up:” My claim is the best way to counter double standards is to begin by building a reputation for excellence. Complaint about double standards take a back seat to that. Interpret that as you may.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 15, 2015 at 5:04 pm

  6. “You don’t see very many heterodox groups or identity minorities making headway in the academy by completely rejecting the mainstream.”

    This reproduces the position the mainstream often takes in order to justify ignoring outsider criticism. “We ignore you people because you ignore us.” It’s not the case. Most minorities focus inordinate attention on the mainstream in trying to criticize it, while the mainstream usually just ignores the heterodoxy.

    I’m also not sure there’s a lot of difference between raced, gendered, etc. identities and political, theoretical, etc. All identities get built in interaction, so require both achievement and ascription. Even if I’m wrong about that, it’s difficult to imagine a modern world that does not include political orientation in the set of master statuses.


    Graham Peterson

    May 15, 2015 at 5:29 pm

  7. Graham: Read my book, chapter 7. Reproduction isn’t perfect. The mainstream moves.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 15, 2015 at 5:40 pm

  8. Of course it does. But at what rate, and under what institutional constraints, and as a product of which cultures and beliefs?

    Some of us are out here are arguing that the academy could be structured differently, and that a first step in doing that might be getting people to admit that it’s not a pure (or even mostly) individualistic meritocracy. Unfortunately, some of the people most attached to that vision are minorities who made it. And why wouldn’t they feel extra proud they made it? We lionize individualistic discovery rather than thinking of sea changes as products of interaction and diffusion.

    Successful minorities often make it because they get under the wing of already established tokens in the mainstream, or because they pick research that is orthogonal to their minority identities. None of those things have to do with just being the best scientist, who knows the whole cannon, who stumbles into the best data, and cultivates the nicest personality, climbing heroically over the double standards.


    Graham Peterson

    May 15, 2015 at 6:12 pm

  9. What, exactly, are you arguing against? Nobody here said that academia is about pure merit. There is lots of bias. I honestly do not get your comment. The whole point of the original post is to learn to survive in a world with lots of built in biases. You seem to be arguing a different post.

    Liked by 1 person


    May 15, 2015 at 6:55 pm

  10. The biases aren’t “built in” and they’re not something we minorities should just “be at peace with.” I’m a fan of survival strategies and think your advice is dead on. Instruction videos for police contact are dead on and important, too. But they’re not a long term solution to institutionalized police brutality.

    “Don’t get defensive and raise a flagpole for the freak show,” is fantastic advice. But lasting change requires that we also say, “don’t attack minorities such that they feel they need to either hide their identities completely, or threaten nuclear war, to protect themselves.”


    Graham Peterson

    May 15, 2015 at 7:48 pm

  11. I do agree with the strategy, however I am wondering whether you should make a stronger differentiation about the type of bias. My impression is that a reputation for excellence is a protective shield for ‘identity minorities’, i.e. it will not overturn the bias but mitigate its impact. For heterodox research however a reputation for excellence in ‘mainstream’ is more of a signal of competency and therefore overturning the bias, “she really knows the traditional model so I believe her if she rejects it”.

    This differentiation also seems to matter with regard to timing, identity minorities might face the bias already while they have to acquire the reputation, while it’s easier for heterodox researchers to ‘hide’ and acquire it before they shift into heterodox mode.

    And finally isn’t one issue that multiple biases go in opposing directions and it isn’t always feasible to identify what the prevailing one is? For example there might be a bias against LGBT but mention that you are against same-sex marriage and you get audible gasps. There are fields where it helps to be a man and there are some where women are advantaged. And there are fields which have a much more defined (and defended) mainstream while others have much more heterogeneity in their structures.
    Given this I am wondering whether you could expand on your views on identifying bias, i.e. how much effort should one put into trying to figure out what the ‘threat’ actually is ?



    May 16, 2015 at 12:50 am

  12. […] Rojas posted some really incisive advice about how to survive and thrive as a minority in the academy.  I want […]


  13. […] Rojas posted some really incisive advice about how to survive and thrive as a minority in the academy.  I want […]


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