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Graduate Education

by Zodiac Webster

June 1997

This is a version of an article that will appear in a special issue of Mercury magazine (the journal of the
Astronomical Society of the Pacific) devoted to graduate education in September/October of this year.

In 1994, 953 full-time graduate students were enrolled in Astronomy programs in the United States and 140
graduated with Ph.D.s. Every year there are around 50 tenure-track faculty positions in astronomy
available. What are the other 90 students going to do with a Ph.D. in Astronomy?

(These statistics are from a report by the National Research Council, titled "Reshaping Graduate
Education" distributed at the Examining Graduate Education Regional meetings. It can be found at
http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/grad /index.html. The NRC home page is at http://www.nas.edu/nrc/)

The astronomy career path used to read like a standard recipe

Until recently there was no problem with the standard career track – Ph.D., post-doctoral position,
tenure-track position – but today's numbers tell a scary story. The number of astronomy post-doc
positions has doubled in the last 10 years (1985-1994) which has allowed the ever increasing numbers of
doctorate holders to be rather successful at the first step in the post Ph.D. career ladder. After that rung,
however, the situation becomes more grim as the number of tenure-track positions open world-wide
each year in astronomy has remained roughly constant at around 50 in the past few years. (This number is from a packet of statistics given to us in Tuscon by R. Milkey. The number cited is from the graph: AAS Job Register Listings.) It is clear that in the future a significant fraction of astronomy Ph.D. holders will be forced to abandon their hopes of being an astronomy professor. But what exactly will they do, and will they be prepared?

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) and the NSF sponsored a series of three regional workshops
entitled "Examining Graduate Education in Astronomy." The purpose was to address the "goals
and funding of graduate education" within the astronomy community in order to be proactive in
making changes, much in the tradition of the decadal reports. The meetings were designed to bring together
department chairs or graduate program chairs, "thoughtful" graduate students, and industry
representatives to discuss three major issues: funding of graduate students, broadening the graduate
curriculum, and implementation of a meaningful Masters degree. The meeting I attended as the
graduate student representative from my school was the third in the series, held in Tucson, Arizona. The
one and a half days of discussions were attended by 28 faculty representing 20 schools, 11 graduate students, and 4 representatives from industry.

The workshop involved numerous discussions attended by the represented constituencies. Each
participant was encouraged to read two recent studies as background material and to discuss the salient
issues with other members of her or his own department. (Reshaping the Graduate Education of
Scientists and Engineers, COSEPUP Report (Griffiths, 1995), http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/grad/ and Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Training in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences, (Armstrong, 1996) http://www.nsf.gov/mps/workshop.htm.) To further frame the context for our discussions, we heard from Judy Franz, with the American Physical Society, who summarized recommendations about similar issues made in the Department Chairs' Conference Report (http://www.aps.org/jobs/dcc/DCC.html). We were also presented with the relevant national enrollment and funding statistics for the physical sciences and astronomy.

We separated into three groups to discuss graduate funding, the astronomy Masters degree, and curriculum broadening in detail. The conference organizers charged us to think about the issues and suggest creative solutions. In many ways these are inter-linked subjects, and issues from all three areas came up in each group. There were 3 hours of breakout sessions followed by a summary session consisting of a report by each group and further group discussion. The AAS has followed up with on-line summaries, with sessions at the Toronto meeting, and plans to present a compiled summary of all three workshops at the June AAS meeting in Winston- Salem.

Given the numbers, are students getting the skills they need to succeed, and is the federal government getting its money's worth?

It was clear to me from dinner conversations, the breakout sessions, and the summary session that two
categories of schools were represented at the meeting: those ready for change and those that were not! The
schools ready for change were already creatively approaching local industry to form closer ties, and
preparing students to work in those companies. These schools tended to be those with smaller departments.
The schools happy with the status quo tended to be the schools with larger, more established departments. These schools have been successful placing their students in faculty positions in the past and did not seem willing to recognize that any changes in their programs were needed.

Incoming and current graduate students are very aware that the academic job market is tough. However, most individuals (at least in my own department) think that they will be the lucky one to get a job. Once starting graduate school, students are surrounded by people who have been successful at getting a faculty job. Most recent Ph.D.s are able to find a first post-doc position which also leaves a favorable impression on younger graduate students.

Additionally, astronomy faculty are distanced from non-academic science career track requirements and
don't have much valuable information to pass along to the students about the alternatives that may be
available to them. Even advice about the astronomy job market is rather suspect, as it is no longer clear
what is needed to succeed in the rapidly changing and competitive astronomy job market. Students are
in a situation where they only have information about academia from the point of view of successful

In addition to not being fully informed, students are not confronted with their future for 5+ years once they
start graduate school. Programs are designed with no clear point for students to stop and reconsider their options. Leaving a Ph.D. program with only a Masters degree is considered a tremendous personal
and professional failure, so is not usually discussed as a viable option. In this situation, there is no time to
consider alternative options, and no gracious path in which to exit the program early. It is understandable
that most students pick the path of least resistance: stay in the Ph.D. program and work towards the
career path they understand.

One serious issue brought up repeatedly in Tucson, but consistently left unaddressed in discussions, was that the status quo is changing as the federal government tightens its belt. Astronomy has ridden the coattails
of basic science research funding since World War II without having to justify its contributions to society.
However, when faced with the possibility of a 30% cut in basic research funding, it is entirely realistic to
expect that fields that do a better job of proving their cost effectiveness and value will receive a larger
portion of the shrinking budget pie. The US government wants to maintain its position as a world
leader in science and technology and is willing to pay for graduate education in science in order to maintain
that. However, astronomy Ph.D. students may not be learning skills that are easily transferable to industry.
Additionally, Ph.D. students are spending around 6 years beyond their undergraduate degree learning these marginally useful skills.

I think people are ignoring an impending astronomy budget crisis because it is so intangible and unrelated
to day-to-day research activities. PI's are having more difficulty getting grants, but other PI's in same
department are having the same difficulties. Everyone then assumes cuts are being spread around
equally and no action can be taken to reverse the downward funding trend, or they assume that this is
just a temporary problem and funding levels will eventually "return to normal." It has not yet become
imperative to a typical faculty member or graduate student to lobby in order to achieve changes at the national level.

Unfortunately, the prevailing view seems to be that since astronomy is "interesting,"astronomers are
"entitled" to funding by the government. It is my opinion that this view is naive as every scientist
thinks the same about his or her own field. I firmly believe it will be necessary in the very near future to justify funding with more concrete arguments focusing on direct benefits to the American public.

How should my workers, ahem, the graduate students be funded?

Most students are funded through PI grants for the majority of their time in graduate school. However,
students are frequently paid as Teaching Assistants (TA's) early in their graduate career due to program requirements, or before they have found a thesis advisor (PI) to work for. At the meeting, we discussed ways in which we could change this funding model, especially in the context of encouraging curriculum changes and better preparing students for a wider range of careers.

One funding model already in limited use is unrestricted, entry level research fellowships primarily funded by the National Science Foundation. These research fellowships allow students to be flexible in picking projects that may be of interest to them, or that may enable them to further develop skills that they think are weak rather than working on a project because it can pay them. Students can focus on their own development as a scientist and are better able to design a program to fulfill their needs. Fellowship students do not usually have to serve as TA's as often as non-fellowship students because their research funding is
guaranteed over multiple years.

One suggestion presented at the outset of the meeting was to redistribute money from PI grants to more
portable research fellowships. The faculty were overwhelmingly against increasing the funding for such unrestricted entry-level fellowships at the expense of funding graduate students through PI grants. The main arguments against the increased use of these fellowships seemed to be counter to the stated goals; fewer students will be available to perform menial data reduction tasks and teach the undergraduates since fellowship students don't have to TA to support themselves and can choose projects that will help them reach their goals instead of well funded but not necessarily useful projects.

As a beneficiary of such a government fellowship, I must confess my bias in favor of fellowships because
they do allow such flexibility. I have been able to choose projects to round out my computational skills
and that enabled me to learn more about observational astronomy. Most importantly, I was able to choose projects that piqued my interest and advisors I thought would be most helpful in my professional development.

Mine was the minority view, however, as further discussions revealed that the majority of people at
the Tucson workshop (as well as the graduate students from my department) thought that the
current model of funding graduate students through PI grants was a satisfactory method of funding. In my
opinion, connecting with a single PI for funding leads the student to specialize early in the graduate career.
Instead of working on a few small projects in different areas, students are enticed to work with a single big
money project that will provide some measure of financial stability in the long term. These types of
projects may not be the most conducive to timely completion of a thesis as the overall scope of the
project is broad and the graduate student may frequently be called upon to perform mundane
tasks to further the goals of the project but that detract from time spent on their own research. The best evidence that this system for funding graduate students is not ideal is that the time to degree is currently increasing in the system. I hope that funding changes are considered at the national level at least on an experimental basis.

Is there room in astronomy for a terminal Masters degree?

Currently most terminal Masters degrees are awarded if the student leaves the program after "failing"
some aspect of her or his degree program and is unable (or unwilling – which is often viewed as failure in
the mind of academics) to continue the program to earn the Ph.D. Outside academia, a Masters degree
in science is recognized as a positive achievement, but within astronomy the Masters degree is viewed as a "booby prize."

Industry representatives mention two drawbacks to hiring a person with a science doctorate: the high
level of specialization and the length of time the new hire has spent in school. Both drawbacks are
eliminated for students who have left school after obtaining a Masters degree. By putting together a
Masters degree program that has a strict set of requirements and introduces students to useful
information and skills as an integrated part of the program, it would be possible for students to receive
the many benefits of having Ph.D. training without over-specializing. Additionally, these skills would
be imparted on a far shorter timescale, making these students more attractive to non-academic employers.

The biggest question everyone asked was, "what is a Masters degree in astronomy good for?" The obvious
answer is "very little" as it is currently structured. However most agreed that, if designed correctly, a
Masters degree program with its own admissions cycle (to avoid the confusion with the"booby prize" Masters degree currently available) could be a pipeline for people interested in education or instrumentation, or who would like to learn astronomy while getting an advanced technical degree. If the degree included teamwork activities, practical projects, and personnel and/or project management skills, it would be more useful to students who do not go on to become professors, but instead join the technical community outside academia.

An alternative to the suggestion of a separate Masters track was proposed; the Masters degree should be a mandatory first step in receiving a Ph.D. Students would then reapply to schools in order to continue their degree. In order for such a system to work, it would have to be adopted by the majority of graduate schools. This would enable Ph.D. programs to be more selective in their Ph.D. admissions process, as students will have had to prove themselves at the Masters degree level before moving on. An additional benefit is that there would be a natural point for students to stop and think about the next step in their career and to possibly leave academia to pursue other career tracks. This type of system could also increase the pool of people available to teach undergraduates as it would be possible to have a larger number of Masters degree candidates than eventually stayed on for the Ph.D.

During discussions at my school, people expressed mixed reactions to the idea of a mandatory Masters degree. I personally think there are benefits to a well-designed mandatory Masters degree program, but it is not clear if my school is the right place for such a program because of prevailing attitudes about our department's niche in the graduate education market. As a matter of fact, I got the impression in
Tucson that many schools had similar doubts about whether a Masters degree program was right for
their school. On the other hand, there are schools that are already implementing a more meaningful
Masters degree program because they did feel it was appropriate for their school.

How can we make the curriculum more useful to the majority of students (i.e. the ones not going on in astronomy)?

The topic of how to, and whether to, broaden the graduate curriculum sparked very lively debate
among the participants. The main issue to be addressed was: since the majority of students will not
be doing what they are spending many years training to do, perhaps the training should be re-tooled to more accurately reflect the skills the students will need. One of the ideas presented as a way to broaden skills of astronomy graduate students was participation in government sponsored internships at national labs (or even summer internships in industry).

The reaction to this suggestion was quite negative. First, people could not see what value would be
gained by working in a non-academic environment. Second, it was felt that a summer away from the
academic environment might lengthen time to degree. And last, a small minority of faculty did not want to
waste their time during the year training people who would be away for the summer. The views expressed
by participants in Tucson are the same as the views expressed by the graduate students from my school.
Everyone with an opinion seems to think that time away from the academic environment will be detrimental to the Ph.D. process.

I heartily disagree. People in academia may have little or no knowledge of what may lie outside
academia, but it is close-minded to assume that there is nothing to be learned there. Having worked in the
"real world" for a short time before returning to graduate school I can safely say there are plenty of
areas in academia that could use some sprucing up by taking cues from industry. Learning to work on projects with clear deadlines and meeting those deadlines is one example of something that could be learned in industry and then easily transferred to academia and may even shorten time to degree.

Since the idea of using an internship to learn new skills was dismissed, it was suggested that skills be
taught to students in graduate school, for example, project management skills, or focus on teaching and
learning styles. These suggestions were met with "we don't know how to teach those things..." which may
indeed be the case. However, this is not the same thing as "it should not be done." The fact that "noone"
within the astronomy department knows how to teach those things is an indicator that perhaps an
outside person should be brought in to teach everyone, faculty and students, at once. One day project
management seminars are taught around the country by professional organizers. Many schools have
education departments that could be worked with to improve the teaching skills of the astronomy
graduate students.

Another way students can improve their teaching skills, and thus better market themselves to the small college market, is to spend time later in their career serving as Teaching Assistants. This seems like a logical thing to do, as with a bit more maturity, more knowledge and without having the added pressure of taking classes while teaching, the graduate student can focus on improving teaching style. I think this would have benefits for the graduate student who will hone teaching skills and for the undergraduates who will have a better learning experience. However, it is true that any time spent teaching is time not spent on research.

All the suggestions related to adding more to the curriculum had one objection in common; time to
degree. Any activity, it was argued, taking the focus away from thesis research (as in the above examples) may cause students to take longer to receive their degree. I disagree with the assertion that adding
more necessarily leads to taking longer to graduate. Successful multi-tasking is a valuable skill to
develop and one that is difficult to master if you spend all your time working on one thing!

The students' view was that any time spend doing internships, additional teaching, or other activities
not directly related to research would reflect negatively on future job prospects. Graduate students
think only those focused 100% on research will be successful in getting academic jobs. Here again, I
disagree. I do not believe that developing team-work skills or organizational skills outside of the
astronomy framework will hurt your astronomy career. However, the students believe, and it is
anecdotally known, that people doing the hiring do not recognize the value of any activities outside of
research. Until the focus changes at the hiring level, it will be difficult to convince students to partake in
any skill broadening activities.


There are many barriers to widespread reform. The first and most fundamental change that needs to be
made is a change in attitude: about the potential value of a Masters degree and about the value of
teaching. The majority of students will not leave a doctoral program with a Masters degree, nor enroll in
a terminal Masters program, unless the astronomy community places a positive value on the Masters degree. In the same spirit, students will not attempt to develop teaching skills or seek jobs where teaching is the primary focus unless their mentors, the professors, encourage them to do so. Until there is a fundamental shift in attitude of the entire astronomical community, it will be difficult to implement changes in the curriculum that emphasize the Masters degree or teaching.

The second challenge is changing the current no-win situation for the graduate students. It is the
prevailing wisdom that students who invest time to develop teaching skills or work outside astronomy for
a summer in order to broaden their skills are thought to be less serious about their astronomy career by faculty who write letters of recommendation and do the hiring. However, it is extremely likely that
graduate students can spend all their time on research and still not end up with an astronomy faculty job at
the end of the pipeline. Students who have spent time preparing for the possibility of not receiving an
astronomy job are guaranteed not to get one, but people who have maintained a narrow research focus in
order to maximize their chance of obtaining an astronomy job will not be fully prepared for a job
outside of astronomy. Until this dilemma is resolved, students will continue to do what they think is most
likely to get them an astronomy job in the future, even if this is not likely to be the career path they follow.

Third, we need to strike a balance between adding new material to the graduate curriculum to broaden
the skills and information obtained with the need to reduce the time to degree. Most people were convinced
that modifying the curriculum to create a wellrounded student would lead to an increase in the length of time for that student to obtain a degree. Since students are already taking too long to get the Ph.D., adding more to the curriculum, in the majority opinion, is out of the question. I believe it is possible
to do more in less time in a well planned program, and I think that departments should strive to maximize
the benefits for the students by implementing more and reducing time to degree.

The final barrier to reform is the lack of information. Statistics about what people who leave astronomy
are doing are non-existent. There is very little information within the academic astronomy community about what can be done with the training received in an astronomy Ph.D. program or what skills are valued outside of astronomy academia. It is imperative that complete statistical information about the astronomy job market and about alternative career paths others have taken be gathered and disseminated to current and incoming graduate students so that advisors can provide up-to-date information and students can make informed choices.

It is clear that changes can and will be made at openminded institutions. At the national level, making
changes will be difficult until a larger segment of the community becomes serious about reform. Current and
recent graduate students will be caught in the middle until widespread reforms in curriculum and attitude

Departments and faculty members nation-wide need to open their eyes to the current and future challenges
graduate students face and ensure the needs of the students are placed at the forefront. Mentors for
graduate students, or senior undergraduates, must examine their own attitudes and biases. As we move
into the 21st century, the astronomy community will experience many changes. We need to be ready to
embrace the career paths of the future, not look to the past.

Persons interested in discussing these issues further can subscribe to the Mercury magazine listserv by
sending a "subscribe" message to mercuryrequest@ lists.best.com. Messages can be posted by mailing to mercury@lists.best.com. An additional discussion forum sponsored by the AAS is available on the world wide web at /ast1.spa.umn.edu/AASgrad/.

Zo Webster is just completing her second year at University of California, Santa Cruz, zodiac@ucolick.org.

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