Wednesday, February 3, 2010

215th AAS: The Longitudinal Study

At the AAS Meeting, the CSWA hosted a special session on the Longitudinal Study of graduate students in astronomy. Pat Knezek of NOAO gave some background about the survey, and Rachel Ivie from the American Institute of Physics presented some initial results. Although some of these results were recently reported in Nature (see also here), the presentation at the AAS Meeting gave a more complete description of the survey. Here are notes on the session compiled by Michele Montgomery and Rachel Ivie.

1. Of the respondents in the study, 447 are female and 696 are male, and 77% are U.S. citizens.
2. The median age is 27, and the students have been in the program an average of 3.5 years (because there is a sizable group of older graduate students who have been in grad school only a short time).
3. 53% of females use observations for research compared to only 40% of men.
4. 54% of women and 62% of men want to eventually teach at a university.
5. Graduate students interact with faculty on research, course materials, and career opportunities but are less likely to discuss other graduate students, advisors, or their personal life with faculty members.
6. Students who are not mentored are less likely to feel welcome in their department, to feel that they cannot succeed, and to feel that they are not as smart as their peers.
7. Research Assistants with good lab equipment available to them feel they will make good researchers someday. Likewise, teaching assistants feel they will make good teachers someday.
8. Women are more likely than men to say that other people helped them succeed.

Women seem less likely to concentrate in theory or instrumentation than their male counterparts. Over half of Ph.D. graduates want a profession like their mentors or advisor (editors note: thereby showing that institutions of higher learning should be doing a better job of promoting all careers in astronomy/physics).

This is a longitudinal study, and the study ultimately hopes to show whether:
1. feeling engaged within the department reduces the likelihood of dropping out of the program.
2. whether the process of deciding to stay in astronomy is different for women and men.
Bottom line is that mentoring matters! Mentoring can help students to feel welcome in the department, to feel that they can succeed, and to feel that they are at least as smart as their peers. However, the study also found that the longer the student remained in the program, beyond three years, the less likely the student is to think they will succeed and the more likely they are to be afraid that someone will find out that they really don’t belong in astronomy.

If a student spent a majority of their time as a Research Assistant, then they feel that they can be a good researcher provided they had good research equipment during their studies. Likewise, if a student spent a majority of their time as a Teaching Assistant, then they feel that they can be a good teacher. With regards to success, women are more likely than men to credit their success to hard work than their innate ability.

Future studies may include more statistics on race and ethnicity.