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The American Astronomical Society’s Examination of Graduate Education in Astronomy

In 1995 the AAS Astronomy Education Policy Board organized a series of discussions leading to this report, intended to enable the astronomical community to shape graduate programs which are responsive to the needs of students, the discipline, and the society which supports us.

Published onDec 01, 1997
The American Astronomical Society’s Examination of Graduate Education in Astronomy
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The full report is available as the following PDF file:

Below, the executive summary is reproduced.

Executive Summary

Astronomy is entering an era which promises unprecedented discovery enabled by powerful new observational and computational tools undreamed of 20 years ago, and an enthusiastic cadre of recent PhDs eager to exploit these new capabilities. At the same time, long-term prospects for funding basic research are more uncertain than in recent decades. While it is dangerous to predict future funding patterns, there is near unanimous agreement that the growth astronomy and other sciences have enjoyed over the past 40 years cannot be sustained. As a consequence women and men who aspire to careers in basic scientific research will exceed the number of available long-term positions traditionally sought by young people following receipt of the PhD. These projections have led many to urge that the nation and its graduate schools take steps to decrease the PhD production rate.

Other participants in the national debate argue that ‘‘birth control’’ is far too simplistic a response. Their major concern is that adopting this approach will discourage young people from pursuing graduate education in the sciences and consequently decrease the pool of technical talent vital to the nation’s future. They view graduate schools as a national resource which for more than 50 years have trained the scientists and engineers who have developed ideas and technologies which have been central to the economic health and survival of the United States. Rather than decreasing the number of entering students, they urge that graduate schools be challenged to re-examine their goals, to devise curricula and cultures which continue to attract first rate students, and to prepare students not only for research in a particular discipline, but for a broader range of post-graduate careers.

In response to the unpredictable climate for support of basic research and the sometimes conflicting visions of the role of US graduate programs in society today, the scientific community has organized a number of studies aimed at re-examining the goals of graduate education in science. In 1995, the AAS Council charged its Astronomy Education Policy Board to structure a series of activities directed specifically at examining graduate education in astronomy.

This report summarizes the results of those activities, which included both society-wide discussions of the issues confronting graduate education in astronomy, and three focused regional workshops attended by astronomy department chairs and graduate students from 59 PhD granting institutions, along with representatives from other professional societies, the industrial community, the science education community and the funding agencies which provide the bulk of support for astronomy.

The discussions were focussed on the following questions:

  • Should some/all graduate schools continue to focus solely on producing the next generation of research astronomers and if so, how can we match PhDs produced to ‘‘traditional’’ career opportunities?

  • Should some/all graduate schools examine ways to broaden academic options or restructure current degree options to prepare students for both traditional research and alternative careers?

  • Could enhanced MSc or professional Master’s programs play a more significant role in graduate training today? If so, what is the appropriate relationship between Master’s and PhD programs?

  • Are changes in the ‘‘academic culture’’ and the current reward structure required in order to facilitate desirable changes in graduate education?

  • Are there changes in funding patterns which would facilitate desirable changes in the goals and content of graduate education?

The discussions were both lively and thoughtful, and perhaps surprisingly, reflected or developed consensus on a number of points, among which the following are particularly noteworthy:

  • While there was agreement that graduate education in astronomy should retain a primary focus on producing the next generation of research scientists, there was a clear commitment to exploring curricular changes that would prepare students not only for research careers, but for a broad range of post-graduate jobs.

  • Both student and faculty participants were near-unanimous in their view that it would be unwise for either graduate schools or funding agencies to adopt practices aimed at matching graduate admissions to perceived ‘‘traditional’’ (academic) job opportunities.

The AAS Education Policy Board and its Graduate Education Advisory Committee developed from the discussions a series of recommendations which they and the Society believe will enable the astronomical community to shape graduate programs which are responsive to the needs of students, the discipline, and the society which supports us. The full set of recommendations is included in the body of the report.

Key Recommendations

Three recommendations merit particular note:

Define and Support Experiments to Enrich Graduate Education

Federal and state resources should be allocated to develop pilot programs aimed at providing students with structured opportunities to gain broader experience and exposure to cultures outside academia during their careers. Example programs might include (1) developing new curriculum options involving partnerships between astronomy and other university departments, with industry, or with local schools; (2) developing enhanced MSc or specialized professional Master’s programs which provide students with exposure to additional ‘‘hard’’ (e.g. high speed computing and visualization techniques; instrumentation; teaching) and ‘‘soft’’ skills (communication; team problem solving) in addition to basic training in physics and astrophysics; and (3) providing fellowships/traineeships targeted at exposing students to instrumentation development, formal and informal science education and curriculum development, and the demands, expectations, and culture of industry and national laboratories.

This recommendation is made with the understanding that in times of constant or declining budgets, funding such experiments — even at a modest level — comes at the expense of other more traditional programs. The long-term gains, however, will likely outweigh potential short-term displacements. To ensure that limited resources are invested wisely, the community and the funding agencies must work together to subject any experiments to rigorous peer-review and evaluation.

Re-examine the Master’s Degree in Astronomy

The astronomical community should carry out a national review of the merits and liabilities of (1) enhancing Master’s degree programs to ensure they provide the broad and thorough training necessary for students either to pursue a PhD, or to leave graduate school armed with the skills necessary to embark successfully on a variety of career paths; and (2) requiring an MSc for admission to a PhD program. Central to this recommendation is a commitment to ensuring that a Master’s degree would represent a desirable and ‘‘marketable’’ outcome for many students, and would come to be recognized widely as a mark of significant academic achievement rather than a ‘‘failed PhD.’’

Enhanced MSc degree programs would incorporate rigorous course work, research experience, a range of technical skills and exposure to the scientific world outside of academia, through internships or local partnerships. Such degrees — of duration 2 to 3 years — would provide a mix of academic and ‘‘real-world’’ experience that would benefit both students who pursue an astronomy PhD, and those who choose other careers.

Several arguments persuade us to recommend further discussion of the possibility of admitting all entering students to an MSc rather than a PhD program: (1) it would allow institutions to recruit more widely and take greater risks in admitting potentially talented individuals; (2) it would provide both students and faculty with an opportunity to ‘‘pause and reflect’’ prior to making a commitment to pursue a PhD or to choose a different career path; (3) it would allow institutions to be more selective in admitting students to a PhD program; and (4) it would allow graduate programs to grow in stimulating and potentially beneficial new directions, by forging links and partnerships with a wider scientific community.

Provide Students with the Information and Experience Necessary to Make Informed Career Decisions

Both graduate departments individually, and the AAS collectively, should (10 develop comprehensive databaseswhich summarize employment histories of astronomy Master’s and PhD recipients and (2) develop mechanisms to expose students to a variety of career options. Together these actions would provide prospective and current students with the background needed to make informed choices among graduate schools and realistic assessments of their post-graduate career options. These might include short-term activities, such as sponsoring career seminars featuring astronomy PhDs engaged in challenging and stimulating non-academic careers, and longer term investments, such as developing graduate curricula which incorporate ‘‘real-world’’ skills and/or off-campus experiences.

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