How to pursue an Astronomy Education Research PhD – Part 3

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 third 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 (now live!) 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.

Departmental support

I intentionally left this piece for last, because in at least in my case, the faculty members in my department were most concerned about my ability to secure those first three pieces. I think it is possible to do an AER thesis from almost anywhere in theory, but it will be more challenging in some places than others, and in some cases your local situation could be prohibitive in reality. Historically, some astronomy departments certainly have decided to let AER to qualify as thesis research, both as an entire thesis and alongside an astronomy science research component. Still, you may be asking your local faculty to shift their expectations about what counts as research in their department, which is understandably not an easy decision.

If you want to work at a specific institution and encounter resistance, my best advice is to listen to the concerns of the faculty in your astronomy department and be willing to have thoughtful conversations about those concerns. In my case, I wrote and presented an informal thesis proposal to the faculty in my department as I sought permission to conduct my research, in which I both gave context to the kind of work I wanted to do and roughly outlined the substance of my proposed thesis. In doing so, my advisors and I made space for faculty’s concerns to be articulated and addressed before any formal decisions were made. I think there are strong advantages to having AER graduate students work within astronomy departments for both the graduate students and the educators in the department, and can offer a few more concrete resources that could help to promote that from a political perspective. This letter in support of AER gives a sense of what research has been done before, and lists some institutions where AER had been pursued at that time. As of now, the University of Arizona, Boston University, the University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Maryland-College Park, Montana State University, Penn State, University of Texas-Austin, and University of Wyoming have all allowed graduate students to pursue AER. Initiating AER at an institution with other discipline-based education research graduate students, and drawing attention to this connection, can ease potential tensions about setting new research precedents within astronomy departments; maps of where PER exists can be found here and here.

In negotiating with local faculty, you could also discuss what job opportunities are accessible to those with AER-based PhDs. One way to get a sense of the landscape of available jobs within academia is to explore the PER jobs blog, in addition to the AAS job register. More systematically, this paper describes the growing number and variety of positions for science faculty with education specialities in the U.S.  There are also many non-faculty careers that you could pursue after graduation: current AER PhDs hold a range of jobs that include teaching at the university level, designing educational video games, running outreach programs at national observatories, teaching in K-12 classrooms, directing a planetarium, and communicating astronomy to the public as an editor for the AAS.

Lastly, if working in your local astronomy department seems unfeasible as you are exploring your options, or if more education-focused academic environments have stronger affordances for you, you could also consider switching to an education department or another STEM department that supports discipline-based education research, and collaborating with astronomy educators from those places.

Final thoughts

I hope this advice helps interested astronomy graduate students to pursue research they are passionate about. If you are neither a graduate student nor in AER, I will mention that you can become involved in this type of research at multiple career stages, including at the undergraduate, postdoctoral, and faculty levels. Undergraduates can participate in science education research REUs or Learning Assistant programs; postdocs might find positions within existing astronomy education and public outreach efforts or connected to STEM education centers; and faculty may become involved with AER by participating in regular discussions about research-based teaching, doing research on their own classes (potentially with the support of a local teaching and learning center, undergraduate Learning Assistants, graduate students, and/or STEM education postdocs), and by forming collaborations with PER or AER faculty. People at any of these career stages can contribute to AER, and there is much work left to do. We have made great strides towards understanding how to create positive and meaningful experiences for all people who might learn about the universe by participating in our discipline, but we are not there yet–there are still many important questions to be explored!

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