How to pursue an Astronomy Education Research PhD – Part 2

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 second 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. If you are interested in being listed on the wiki, Please complete this short Google survey if you are interested in being listed on the wiki.


There are several places to seek funding if it is not readily available. One option is to teach physics or astronomy, e.g., at your institution or a local community college. Some institutions allow graduate students to teach summer or winter term classes, evening classes, or even regular undergraduate classes, and it’s worth investigating if you don’t know the local policies. This can be particularly timely if you are in transition or waiting to hear back about another potential funding source. I will caution that although gaining teaching experience early on may hugely benefit your career and could give you new insights into your research, because you probably like teaching, you will likely spend a large fraction of your time on it. Be aware of this when making decisions and plan accordingly. If your class becomes part of your research, that might help alleviate time pressures somewhat. A related option would be to partner with local faculty to apply for a course transformation grant from your campus teaching and learning center, if they want to improve one of their classes with your help and growing expertise. It seems unlikely this would fund a graduate student for a full academic year, but you could likely get some funds from this.

As far as research funds, within astronomy, every state has a Space Grant Consortium that supports various astronomy efforts. In some states, that support can include funding graduate research. More broadly, the largest potential source of research funds is the NSF Education and Human Resource Directorate. NSF-Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) funds my current research, but I am definitely not an expert on what other grant lines exist, and they change over time. Regardless, you would want to partner with people who have experience obtaining these kinds of grants. You could consider reaching out to representatives of professional societies (AAS, ASP, AAPT, APS, NSBP, NSHP, or SACNAS), NASA centers, national observatories, or other astronomy organizations and offer to do extensive research related to their programmatic efforts. If you are just starting out in graduate school (within your first two years or about to begin), you could apply for your own funding through the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), which is highly prestigious and would give you the most flexibility in your research plans.

On modest scales, the Physics Education Research Local Organizing Committee (PERLOC) offers small grants for activities that benefit the PER community. Many conferences offer travel grants that are straightforward to apply for and can make those opportunities more accessible to you. It’s also always worthwhile to pursue any graduate student funding sources that you are eligible for at your own institution.


When it comes to mentorship, you’ll want to find advisors with expertise in both the content that is central to your thesis, and in education research literature and methods. In some cases, you may find a single advisor who has expertise in all of these areas, e.g., if you happen to be at an institution that is home to an AER faculty member, or if your research, like mine, is focused on broader teaching approaches rather than astronomy content knowledge. However, I’d suggest that this expertise could also be distributed across multiple advisors. For instance, you could work with an astronomy educator who is passionate about student-centered teaching but not well-versed in formal education research literature, along with someone who has experience in PER, another discipline-based education research area, or science education more generally. Being flexible about who holds the expertise in your thesis committee could open up options that might seem inaccessible otherwise. You might also want to think about who could enact the kinds of recommendations your research might ultimately provide, and involve them in your research in some way.

It can also benefit you to seek mentorship and develop professional relationships outside of your home institution. At a minimum, you’ll need to seek out an external committee member, who could be more or less closely involved in your research, depending on how well your research interests are aligned with theirs. I have learned not to be shy in introducing myself to people through email, through phone conversations, and at conferences (I even made business cards), and have found this quite rewarding. Networking is a great skill in general, but it’s particularly important when you are just starting out in a new subfield. If you are looking to meet AER people specifically, there are a few conferences you could attend. There are always AER people, posters, and research talks at the American Astronomy Society (AAS) meetings, and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) General Assembly meetings, which occur every three years, typically have an AER presence. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) has annual meetings that are primarily focused on informal education and outreach, though every three years the conference includes a classroom-focused piece called “Cosmos in the Classroom.” The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) bi-annual meetings include both PER and AER, and their summer meetings are followed by a one-day topical PER conference (PERC) that could include AER. Beyond that, the Physics Education Research Graduate Students (PERGS) website* lists some additional PER conferences that you might attend.

*In general, you can find a wealth of useful resources over at the PERGS website, including ways to connect with other PER and AER graduate students through social media and an awesome newsletter. Definitely check it out and get involved!

0 comments… add one

Leave a Reply

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