What’s Behind Door Number Two? Other Chemistry Education Research Career Options – Part 2

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

Welcome to Part 2 of the “What’s Behind Door Number Two? Other Chemistry Education Research Career Options” series. Check out Part 1 for introductory material and a discussion about teaching opportunities.

Research is your passion?
If you answered the question “What do I enjoy doing?” with: Research is my passion but teaching isn’t really my thing, this section is for you!

In general, you can conduct research on how people learn science at any level in informal or formal contexts. This can range from elementary school students to training programs for adults. This category also involves using your skills to develop materials (e.g. assessments, curricular materials).

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.

Don’t forget! You have a degree in Chemistry. You can still apply for bench chemist positions in industry if that is something you are interested in pursuing. This work is often hard money but can sometimes be soft money grant work.

You have a unique skill set that will allow you to train others in instrumentation and you understand the chemistry behind the work. Many companies in industry also have outreach programs in which you could study the efficacy of such programs.

Researcher at an Institute
Principal Investigators (PIs) rely on many people to conduct large-scale research studies. You encountered this as a graduate student or postdoc working on a project with your advisor. If you really enjoy conducting educational research, many positions exist for you to do this. This type of work is soft money and you would work contract to contract. This can occur at a not-for-profit company or at an R1 university. Many R1 universities have a STEM education research center or other types of educational research/resource centers.

Contracts can range in number of years from short term to 3-5 years. You may have the opportunity to renew your contract depending on the success of the project. There will likely be a management aspect to the position such as overseeing junior staff and you will report directly to a PI. Your job will include writing papers and possibly presenting your research at a conference.

There are many examples of institutions where you conduct this type of work. A few of them are: Learning Sciences Research Institute, American Institutes for Research, and WestEd.

Curriculum Development / Commercial Education Materials
These positions can be hard or soft money and can be contract work. You could work for a textbook company like Houghton Mifflin collecting and analyzing data for research studies. You could also research the efficacy of a curriculum or how it is used in an educational setting at a University. For example, my postdoc work was to help develop and study The Connected Chemistry Curriculum in order to redesign the simulations and materials with the stakeholders using it.

Kit development companies also offer opportunities to train instructors, develop materials, and research outcomes. You could work with companies like Flinn Scientific or Ward’s Science.

If you want to get your feet wet in this realm, there are often consulting positions available for short term work as a chemistry education specialist.

Professional Development (PD)
Remember when I mentioned PD in the Part 1 blog post? The same applies for research! Just add “conducting research on” before it! Commercial education development companies and PIs want to study their curricular materials and how they are used in educational settings. They also want to make sure that they are delivering the most effective PD to teachers. This all involves collecting data and analyzing it to determine what aspects of PD could be improved.

Some university and college campuses have centers for learning and teaching to help faculty and teaching assistants to become better teachers by offering professional development events. They often conduct research or aid in the design and analysis of research on the efficacy of instruction. The person doing that research could be you!

There are many scientists who write for chemistry blogs, magazines, and national news articles. Having a background in chemistry education makes you uniquely qualified to do this. You are able to communicate scientific information to the masses. This type of work is hard money but also is likely contract work.

If you have written or reviewed a grant, you may have noticed an “advisory board” or “evaluator” component. Granting institutions want to ensure that a PI has an outside perspective on their work to make sure that it is progressing forward and that their analysis of data is unbiased. You could join an educational consulting firm or work part time on your own in this capacity. This is a consulting position that is dependent on other people’s soft money. Others can write you into grants as their external evaluator on their research. Some people make their living on this as a consultant, but work is dependant on the economic climate.

Assessment Writing
You can write test items for standardized tests. This can either be a full time position at a company like American Institutes for Research or contract work with a company like The American Chemical Society. In a full-time position you can write formative or summative exams for a variety of different content areas. Sometimes companies seek outside item writers to write items and this work would be contract-based. Textbooks are often accompanied with a test bank and textbook companies often hire freelance item writers. Item writers are usually required to have some kind of teaching or assessment background and a strong content background. For example, the American Chemical Society regularly hires outside item writers to create test bank items. This is something that I worked as a contractor doing for years while in graduate school.

I presented these two blog posts as a talk at the 2013 National ACS Spring Meeting. Several months later I interviewed and was hired for my current position at the American Institutes for Research. I identified that assessment was my favorite aspect of all of my project work and decided to make a career of it.

So what next?
If after reading these two blog posts you still aren’t sure which aspects of Chemistry Education you like the most, that is totally fine. Your degree just opened a lot of doors and a postdoc is a great experience to try out other areas and develop other skills.

The piece of advice I mentioned in Part 1 still rings with me years later. “Five to seven years is a long time to be unhappy.” Think about what interests you and makes you happy and investigate opportunities. Remember that choosing one path does not preclude other paths. Choosing an opportunity that doesn’t end up being your favorite isn’t a failure – it is building your skillset.

The YCES Blog is a great resource for this exercise. Guest bloggers describe their different paths and a variety of tools for teaching and research that might be useful for your development. If you have already chosen your path, volunteer to write a blog post so that others can learn!

Meeting people in our YCES community is also a great way to learn more about the different paths out there. We are active at ACS meetings and BCCE meetings. Come visit us!

Stephanie Ryan

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.