How to pursue an Astronomy Education Research PhD – Part 1

Alice Olmstead is currently a 6th-year astronomy graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her PhD thesis work focuses on professional development for physics and astronomy faculty.

This is the first in a series of three guest posts on pursuing Astronomy Education Research as a graduate student in astronomy. The first post focuses on putting together a research project; the second discusses potential sources of funding and finding appropriate mentorship in the field; the third talks about securing departmental support for your work. While this post is addressed to graduate students and some of the information is specific to people at that level, much of the information is applicable to anyone who is either interested in pursuing AER themselves or might mentor AER students.

In conjunction with these posts, we are creating an AstroBetter wiki page that aims to help those who wish to become involved in AER to find potential mentors and collaborators, and to provide concrete examples of the kinds of jobs AER folks already have. Please complete this short Google survey if you are interested in being listed on the wiki.

I made the switch from astronomy science research to Astronomy Education Research (AER) during my third year of graduate school, starting a few months after I passed my qualifying exam and got my Masters degree, over a period of about eight months. I was fortunate in that the University of Maryland has a strong, well-known, and interdisciplinary Physics Education Research (PER) group, but they had no active research projects that I could easily become part of, and their astronomy department had never granted a PhD for education research. Because I was blazing my own trail to a large extent, I sought advice from a variety of sources, including most of the current and former AER graduate students at that time and several well-established AER and PER professionals, and I am grateful that so many people were willing to offer me practical advice, guidance, and support. These posts are a way to share some of that acquired wisdom, along with several of my own ideas and experiences, with other astronomy graduate students who might wish to pursue AER, as well as with those who might support them on that path.

Essential pieces for an AER thesis

As a potential AER graduate student, there are four essential pieces you need to assemble: a research project, funding, mentorship, and permission from your home department. These pieces may be more or less tightly coupled, depending on your situation. Some of them may be trivial for you, some more difficult. I’ll address each of them to the best of my ability.

A research project

If there is an active AER project at your institution, and you can and want to work on it, that’s great! But if not, there are other strategies for finding a project. There are many worthy education and equity challenges in astronomy that could be addressed through graduate-level AER theses, and my main advice is to think broadly about what your topic might be and find something that feels worthwhile to you. A substantial fraction of the research that has been done in AER so far falls into a few categories: identifying student learning difficulties, creating and testing instructional materials, and creating and applying standardized assessment instruments, all typically focused on a specific content area. All are foundational and compelling areas for research, and there are still valuable contributions to be made here. But at least in my opinion, AER can encompass more, too. For example, my research focuses on faculty professional development and doesn’t fall neatly into any of those categories, and other discipline-based education research fields have been evolving and expanding in similar ways. One of my favorite aspects of my current research project is that I chose the topic because I thought I could make a meaningful contribution to astronomy education, and because I thought it would be enjoyable for me personally. That makes me motivated to do the work, and I think your own motivation and interests are critical factors to consider.

Defining a project for yourself doesn’t mean starting from nothing, however. You won’t be working alone, so it will likely benefit you to learn about the interests and expertise of the various people you might want to work with (see the “Mentorship” section below), and to consider how your own interests might align with theirs. Particularly since you may decide to collaborate with people outside of your department, attend education-related talks anywhere you can: your local education department, your local teaching and learning center, and any discipline-based education research group meetings that might exist on your campus. (Attending education talks came with a steep learning curve for me—they were very different than any astronomy talks I’d ever attended and came with a whole new set of jargon—but, as I imagine would be true in any field, that got easier over time.) As an alternative or complementary way to leverage your own environment, you might generate potential projects by thinking about unanswered questions related to existing local education, public outreach, or equity-related initiatives. Similarly, if faculty in your department are implementing student-centered, active learning teaching strategies, their classrooms could make compelling and generative research settings.

Developing a strong sense of the education research literature (astronomy education, other STEM education, educational psychology, etc.) is valuable in general, and would certainly improve your ability to identify meaningful, underexplored areas for research. Of course, no researcher ever really stops developing their expertise, so do the best you can given your time and resources. I find it helpful to discuss literature with other people whenever possible, either by establishing reading groups on a particular topic or by taking classes with peers. If you have the ability to enroll in or audit graduate-level science education classes as you are deciding whether to pursue a particular research topic, I would recommend that. In the longer term, taking at least some science education classes is an important part of pursuing a PhD in AER. There is also a relatively new STEM education massive open online class on Coursera, which seems like it could be highly valuable as an introduction.

Taking formal classes may or may not be practical within your decision-making timescales, and you’ll likely want to explore some literature independently as well if you are entertaining the idea of taking on an AER project. To that end, here are a few suggestions. First, the National Research Council periodically commissions comprehensive reports about STEM education: for example, this 2012 report on discipline-based education research makes a fantastic starting point for understanding the status of research on undergraduate-level STEM instruction, and suggests directions for future research. Similar reports exist for K-12 education. If you want to read more specific articles, a working group of physics education researchers compiled a list of foundational PER articles by topic in 2011, which can be found here. Syllabi for graduate-level PER or AER courses can make similarly good starting points. If you choose to explore some topics in more depth or to look for astronomy education topics more specifically, note that both physics and astronomy education research studies span multiple journals (Google Scholar  works well), the most reputable of which include the Astronomy Education Review (AER, no longer actively publishing, but archived online), the Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research (PRST-PER), the American Journal of Physics (AJP), the Journal of Learning Sciences (JLS), and the Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings (PERC). Broader education articles live in other journals. A more exhaustive list can be found here.

1 comment… add one
  • Urban Eriksson Oct 1, 2015 @ 6:02

    Hi Alice,
    Interesting reading! I have done a similar research journey as you (starting in astrometry and ending up in AER) and have struggled with being “the only one ever done AER in our PER group”. Indeed, I was the first actually do AER at all in Sweden. However, it is usually very fruitful and interesting belonging to a PER group anyway, since so much PER is applicable to AER as well.

    I enjoy reading your text and if you would find it interesting and fruitful to talk, discuss, collaborate, etc, just send me an email.

    PS: I took your survey.

    Kind regards,
    Urban Eriksson, Ph.D.
    Senior lecturer in physics with specialization in physics education research
    Division of Science
    School of Education and Environment
    Kristianstad University
    S-29188 Kristianstad
    Tel. +46 44 203445

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *