Astronomers Reflect on Graduate Education

The American Astronomical Society (AAS), like any good professional scientific society, has a vested interest in graduate education. At its January 2003 meeting in Seattle, organisers held a session entitled "Innovations in Graduate Education in Astronomy." The purpose of this session was to keep graduate education front-and-centre within the organisation, and to encourage astronomy departments across North America to consider revamping their programs to adhere to best practices.

Many postgraduates in astronomy have a long-term career goal of acquiring a teaching and/or research position in an academic setting and, traditionally, the astronomy curricula and training at the graduate level has reflected that objective. But reduced government funding for basic research in astronomy in the 1990s and a subsequent shortage of academic positions in that period has presented a real challenge for Ph.D. graduates looking for employment in North America. Professional societies such as the Canadian Astronomical Society ( CASCA) and AAS are concerned about the situation and have been engaged in continuing discussions in recent years about how to improve current postgraduate training programs in order to prepare students not only for research careers, but to give them a broad skill set that would enable them to pursue more diverse career paths.

Few Research Positions Outside the Lab

In Canada, there are a few positions in astronomy education and outreach but relatively few research positions for astronomers outside university and government labs. It is estimated that between 50% and 90% of graduate students continue in astronomy; the rest go into fields such as computing, remote sensing, financial services, and school teaching.

As chair of the education committee of CASCA, and as secretary of the Graduate Student Committee, respectively, we were given the opportunity at the AAS meeting to describe the Canadian situation based on our recent survey of graduate astronomy departments across the country. The survey was conducted in autumn 2002 and was designed to identify current issues and practices in graduate astronomy education in Canada. Thirteen of 15 astronomy departments in Canada participated.

What we were able to convey to meeting participants is that it is a time of progress and change in astronomy in Canada. Exciting research results are streaming in from new space- and ground-based telescopes, and from complex computer simulations and theory. And these research results are coming in despite a decade of decline in government spending on research. Canadian researchers have had to become accustomed to doing more with less; in a recent international survey, Canadian astronomy ranked first in impact per unit funding.

New Initiatives Helping Research in Canada

But new federal spending initiatives, such as the Canada Research Chairs and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) infrastructure grants, are breathing new life into scientific research in Canada. Canada now has shares in several large optical, submillimetre, and radio telescope facilities and is a partner in the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope. Furthermore, the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics has developed an international reputation. So with access to these and other facilities, Canadian astronomers can now work in most of the subfields of astronomy, although planetary science is still underrepresented.

Moreover, the academic job situation for astronomers in Canada has improved in the last few years, owing to the retirements of the large cohort of astronomers hired in the late 1960s and the fact that university enrolments have swelled as a result of population growth, the baby boom echo, and increased participation rate.

But although the job market is always the number one concern of graduate students, a second concern is the fact that university tuition fees have been rising steadily as a result of cutbacks in government funding. Astronomy graduate students are funded through a combination of federal, provincial, and local scholarships, teaching assistantships, and research funds from their supervisor's grants. All of these sources have been squeezed in the last decade, putting additional strain on graduate students. Nevertheless, graduate enrolments in astronomy have remained steady.

The survey revealed interesting demographic changes as well. The proportion of women graduate students in astronomy departments remains high (about one-third). And while women have traditionally been underrepresented in faculty positions, the situation finally appears to be changing. Astronomy and physics at the University of Toronto, for example, now have half a dozen women in tenure-stream positions--a significant improvement from none a decade ago. Nevertheless, although Canadian astronomy graduate students come from increasingly diverse ethnic backgrounds, the faculty does not yet reflect this diversity.

Curricula Changes Making an Impact

Trends in curriculum are also changing. At the University of Toronto, which boasts the largest graduate astronomy enrolment in the country, the compulsory Master of Science degree has given way to a direct-entry Ph.D. program. This was motivated in part by a desire to shorten the time to graduation, which, in turn, was motivated by the university's decision to guarantee funding to graduate students for 5 years. Someone--such as the department--must foot the bill for this financial support however, so required courses have also been pared back in a time-saving measure and replaced by individual research projects. Not all faculty members favoured this change, and there is still a feeling that graduate students should receive a broader education than they are currently receiving. Many enter graduate school, for example, with little or no astronomy background and yet their "bread and butter" in academic positions is teaching general astronomy to nonscience students.

The survey also revealed a wide range of graduate curricula: programs within astronomy, physics-astronomy, and physics departments; direct-entry Ph.D. programs, and programs which required, and valued, the MSc; programs with extensive and compulsory course requirements, and others which replace courses with minicourses, self-study courses, or extra research projects; programs in which coursework (if any) was purely astronomy, and others which included physics or other subjects; programs with comprehensive exams, and others without or with an exam which was basically a defence of the Ph.D. proposal. We had the feeling that the "success" of the graduate program depended less on its nature, and more on how diligently it was implemented. Were graduate students--especially international students--given effective orientation at the beginning of the program? Did their program address their individual backgrounds and needs? Did the supervising committee provide mentoring? Did it function at all as it was supposed to?

The issues facing astronomy departments that were revealed in our survey are not unique to Canadian universities; many of the same issues were also raised at the meeting by Chien Pang, a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Pang emphasized the need for more effective mentoring and the value of career development seminars on topics such as teaching and proposal writing. He also mentioned the importance of the undergraduate-to-graduate transition, and the need to track students after graduation in order to get feedback on how well their education had prepared them for the workforce. He stressed the need to prepare students to move from the supervisor-apprentice mode to one which recognizes the importance of team projects in modern astronomy. Some of these changes have been implemented at the University of Arizona; others are still on the wish list.

These views are consistent with the results of a recent study by Steven J. Smith et al. [published in the American Journal of Physics 70(11), pp. 1081-1092 (2002)], a summary of which was presented at the 2003 AAS meeting in Nashville. Smith concluded that there is something of a mismatch between the skills which physical scientists learn in graduate school and those which they use several years into their career: Although they received good training in data analysis, some aspects of project design, and critical thinking, many were not well trained in oral and written communication, teaching, project management, and, in particular, working in an interdisciplinary context.

Unlike AAS, CASCA has an active graduate student committee which is beginning to make some headway on issues surrounding research training and career development. At every annual CASCA meeting, the committee organizes a 1-day workshop on a topic of interest--usually one which is neglected in the formal curriculum. In 2002, it was education and outreach; in 2003, it was writing proposals. The committee is now working on a plan for intensive 1-week summer institutes on other topics of interest and concern. Funding these workshops will be a challenge, given the low density of astronomy grad students in Canada and the small membership of CASCA. But it is a drop in the bucket compared with an employer's multimillion dollar investment in their lifetime career in astronomy. Real progress will come when every graduate department takes issues surrounding graduate education and career development more seriously.

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