Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why Did You Decide on a PhD in Astronomy and not Physics?

Data from the American Institute of Physics indicate that the fraction of PhDs awarded to women is twice
as high in astronomy as in physics. Similar disparities exist at other levels. Note the difference in scales!

When thinking about the participation of women in astronomy, one of the most intriguing questions is why the percentage of women at each level is much higher in astronomy than physics*. 

Some readers of this blog may feel that there are enormous differences between the culture of astronomy and the culture of physics, and these cultural differences lead to different rates of participation by women. But, from a distant and broad perspective, it would difficult to identify two academic disciplines that share more in common while still, in many cases, having separate departments: Most astronomers (at least those educated in the U.S.) completed an undergraduate degree in physics, or at least have completed many of the same courses as physics majors. The core methodology of the two disciplines are very similar. The requirements for admission to graduate school are nearly identical; for example, nearly all U.S. PhD programs in astronomy require the Physics GRE and advanced coursework in physics and math.

Despite this, the fractional participation of men and women is quite different, particularly at the junior levels. The Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics has a wealth of helpful data. (If you haven't read their reports, I urge you to sign up for their notifications: The reports are brief, clear, and contain helpful graphics.)  In particular, their June 2014 report on Astronomy Enrollments and Degrees summarizes the comparison (at the undergraduate and graduate level) of Astronomy and Physics as follows:
"The proportion of women among astronomy bachelor’s recipients has not varied much in the last decade. There were 147 (38%) women in the class of 2012... The representation of women among astronomy bachelor’s is almost twice that of physics bachelor’s, where in recent years, women have represented about 20% of the degree recipients.
Women earned 32% of the astronomy doctorates in the class of 2012, a decline from a recent high of 40% two years earlier. Over the longer term, the proportion of astronomy doctorates earned by women has been steadily increasing. The past two and a half decades has seen more than a tripling in the proportion of astronomy doctorates earned by women. 
Similar to astronomy undergraduates, women represent a larger proportion of astronomy doctorates than they do among physics doctorates where they comprised 20% of the class of 2012."
A separate study from August 2013 entitled "Women Among Physics and Astronomy Faculty" addressing the faculty level summarized the situation as follows:
"Overall, 19% of the faculty members in departments that grant degrees only in astronomy are women, which is larger than the percentage of female physics faculty members (14%) in physics departments... In astronomy departments, women are represented among assistant professors (30%) at about the same rate as PhD recipients, which was about 33% in 2007. There are astronomy faculty members in physics departments, and about 20% of these are women... 
 The representation of women among faculty in astronomy departments has consistently been about 5 percentage points higher than that of women among faculty in physics departments." 
I think this pattern is fascinating, and worthy of close investigation to discern the cause. Perhaps such an effort would reward us by allowing us to discern strategies for further increasing the participation of women in both physics and astronomy.

In an attempt to make progress on this question, I thought I would do something complete radical and begin by... just asking you, Dear Reader! So, today I am launching a survey. Basically, I would like to hear from current astronomy PhDs or recent PhD recipients to learn why they chose to pursue a graduate degree in astronomy. 

Audience: This survey is intended for individuals of any gender who are either currently pursuing a PhD in an area of specialization in the field of astronomy and/or astrophysics, or who have received such a degree in 2012, 2013, 2014, or 2015.

Purpose: Nearly everyone in this group began undergraduate studies with some courses in physics. At some point, you made the decision to pursue a graduate degree in astronomy and/or astrophysics. I am curious to read each individual's story and thoughts about how you arrived at this decision. What experiences, events, encounters, and reasoning shaped your decision? I am particularly interested to hear if you considered graduate work in (other branches of) physics, and if so, why did you choose to specialize in astronomy and/or astrophysics?

Outcome: I realize that the simple, narrative format of my survey is perhaps naive. Nonetheless, I will analyze the text results to see if patterns emerge. My hope is to begin to gather a picture for how these decisions are made. If I can discern some helpful patterns, I'll report on those in a future post. Your responses will be enormously helpful, and perhaps lead to a larger survey with more focussed objectives that also surveys individuals who didn't chose to pursue a PhD in astronomy. 

Anonymity: The survey doesn't ask for any personal information. However, it is a free format text response so it is up to you to decide what to write.  My plan is to report primarily on the results in aggregate, and I would never share the individual responses without your permission. If you wish, you can indicate on your response that I can include quotes, which would always be done anonymously and without identifying information.

If you fall within the target audience, please participate!

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GQG95NV

*I realize that some readers will be distracted by the simplistic binary framework I have set up here, insisting that Astronomy IS Physics, and I certainly appreciate that perspective. So, perhaps a more nuanced (but less readable) description would be to replace "astronomy vs. physics" with "astrophysics vs. other branches of physics".