What’s Behind Door Number Two? Other Chemistry Education Research Career Options- Part 1

By: Stephanie Ryan, Ph.D., Science Test Development Specialist, American Institutes for Research

A common misconception that many graduate students (and others) have is that there is a single career path after the completion of a doctorate degree. We are all familiar with the traditional route in academia.

After graduation (or before depending on the time of year you finish), you either secure a prestigious Postdoc or you find an Assistant Professor position where you will begin your own research group. Then comes the tenure process and fingers crossed you are promoted to an Associate Professor. That dotted line is a hurdle that some do not cross and for others it is merely a step on their path to becoming a Professor and perhaps even a Distinguished Professor. This ladder looks something like the picture on the right. Straight up and you climb the rungs in order to make it to each level. In some ways, this can make graduation feel like you’ve limited your options. I have listened to many people struggle as they consider accepting a position that they don’t seem convinced is the right path for them—simply as a means to an end. A piece of advice that was given to me rings true here: “Five to seven years is a long time to be unhappy.” It is true- life is short. Do you want to spend a significant portion of your life doing something you don’t enjoy?

I’m here to tell you that a doctorate degree actually opens up a variety of paths you may not have considered. And that these paths and the academia track are not mutually exclusive!  A Ph.D. in Chemistry Education (or Learning Sciences in my case allows you to be a multi-faceted and ideal candidate for many positions. You are a trained bench chemist and you have experience with educational theories, methodologies and analysis techniques. This leaves you with a lot of opportunities! 

You may decide that the traditional academia route is the one for you—but you may not have known that you are not limited to Chemistry Education programs.  Depending on your background and interests, you may find a home in a Science Education or Curriculum Development program. Your degree opens many doors and going through one door may lead to another door. Trajectories can cross. The traditional view of Chemistry Education Research (CER) is that we are at the intersection of the Teaching of Chemistry and Research on Learning.

But the truth is: It can be so much more than that!  There are a series of questions you need to ask yourself. First and foremost: What do I enjoy doing? For some of you reading this, it may be that you are interested in teaching but want to apply research findings to your classroom. Others reading this may only be interested in conducting research on how students learn chemistry. Again, this traditional view of CER might be exactly what some readers envision for their lives. All of these are valid choices that lead to a very happy and successful career. Life is too short to spend your days resenting your job. There are lots of resources out there about the traditional path, but I’d like to spend some time to share other avenues with you.

There are two types of jobs out there: soft money and hard money. Soft money is grant money. If you accept a grant-supported position (typically research-oriented), you will be working contract to contract. Your job will be dependent on the funding climate and you will likely work on another person’s project. This gives you the opportunity to work on a variety of different projects, but you will not be the ‘owner’ of a project. These jobs can be very fulfilling and engaging. However, a consideration when thinking of soft money position is to always have your next project lined up. Money can run out and it is possible for a contract to be cut short. The other type of position is funded with hard money. Hard money is money that is provided by the university or a company that you work for. This type of job is more secure but performance goals are more important. You also may be the owner of the project.

Teaching is your passion?

If you answered my question with: Teaching is my passion but research isn’t really my thing, this section is for you! In general, you can teach people science at any level in informal or formal contexts. This can range from high school students to training programs for adults. Rather than focus on each of these examples, I will elaborate on a few of them. Other blog writers have described some of these positions in previous posts. 

Instructor at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI)
As the name suggests, PUIs have a predominately undergraduate population. They may have a Master’s program as well. The bulk of your time would be spent teaching multiple courses and mentoring undergraduates. Your teaching evaluations will be instrumental in your overall movement on this trajectory. There are tenure track positions and these are likely hard money positions. If you conduct research on student learning, it would occur in the summer months or in your free time. An example of a PUI is Oregon Institute of Technology. Check out earlier blog posts to learn more about the rewarding path of teaching at a PUI!

Instructor at a Community College
Community colleges are 2-year institutions that prepare students to enter the university at the completion of their degree. If you teach at a community college, you likely will not teach advanced levels of chemistry (e.g. analytical chemistry). These positions typically do not have tenure track positions available and are likely contracted hard money positions. If you teach at a community college you are likely to teach multiple courses to a largely non-traditional student population. Your main task is to develop students for university. There is a lot of research currently being conducted at and about community colleges. If you are interested in conducting research, research will likely occur in the summer and there is the potential for collaboration with larger institutions.

Other Teaching Opportunities (in general)
 You may choose to teach in informal learning contexts. These can include museum education programs, after school outreach programs, and non-profit organizations. Many of these places offer learning environments for field trips or additional science experiences for students. They seek instructors for these positions and specialist to advise the design of the programs. Some positions may be short-term contracts and some may be full time. They could be a mixture of hard and soft money.

You can work with pre-and post-service teachers through professional development (PD). There are a lot of curricula out there and many have PD programs for teachers. Depending on your content expertise, you could be qualified to design and implement PD programs. In this type of position you could end up coaching teachers in their implementation of the curriculum and make site visits. This could be a soft money position if you become a PD specialist for a research project, or hard money with a textbook company.

Yet another option is to teach high school chemistry. This could require additional training but in some contexts it may not be necessary. For example, charter schools and private schools may not require a certificate for teaching. These positions are hard money positions, but do depend on the state’s funding climate.

Your degree also positions you well to work in the field of assessment development. This type of role requires a strong content knowledge and an understanding of how students learn. Quality assessments use questions that are well aligned to standards and assess the specific knowledge that a student has so that their understanding is truly tested — and not their test-taking skills. Your skills as a teacher will be especially useful here as you will think of the best ways to assess content as if they were students in your own classroom. Often, you will also be working with teachers who will be administering the test in their classroom to develop items. These positions can be with publishing companies, curriculum developers, or even non-profit organizations and are not tenure track. The funding for these positions is a mixture of hard and soft money with an emphasis on contract work.

Adults need training too! Many large corporations have sophisticated training programs and outreach to develop talent at their organization or to train on expensive equipment. These programs need training specialists and consultants to help advise how better to train employees. These positions are hard money and do not offer a tenure track.

What I hope that you take away from this post is that 1) Do what you love. 2) Your degree opens doors- research them! 3) One path is not better than another- but there is one that is the best for you. And guess what? One path does not preclude another. Rather than a ladder as depicted above, it is more like this.

Research is your passion?
If you answered my question with: Research is my passion but teaching isn’t really my thing, be sure to stay tuned for my next blog post.

Stephanie Ryan is a Science Test Development Specialist at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). She earned a B.S. in Chemistry from Saint Mary's College, an M.S. in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Ph.D. in Learning Sciences from the University of Illinois at Chicago.