The life of a chemistry education research (CER) graduate student

What does a graduate program in CER look like and how do you find one?

by Allie Brandriet, Miami University, OH

This blog is based on a presentation that I gave in the What is Chemistry Education Research (CER)? symposium at the 2013 spring ACS National Meeting. The purpose of this symposium was to offer an introduction to the field of CER for those who may not be familiar with the discipline. My hope for this blog is that it can be used as a tool for students interested in pursuing graduate level degrees in CER. Please pass it along to students who may be interested!

Introduction
My name is Allie Brandriet, and I am (currently) at the end of my fourth year of graduate school at Miami University. However, I didn’t walk into my undergraduate institution knowing that I wanted to pursue CER. In fact, I started out in an animal science program intending to become a Veterinarian. After taking courses, I found that I really enjoyed chemistry and started pursuing a B.S. in chemistry. While at Saint Cloud State University (SCSU) I met Dr. Rebecca Krystyniak, a CER faculty member, and started conducting research with her. I also participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the University of Montana with Dr. Mark Cracolice. I am sharing these experiences with you to show you that there is no “typical” way for a student to become involved in CER. I feel that each graduate student that I have met has had a unique path that has led them to CER. You have many options!

I just want to start with a quick caveat: this blog is in no way meant to be an all-encompassing description of CER graduate programs. All programs are different! This blog is meant to describe programs that are based in chemistry departments. This means that CER is a research driven division of chemistry much like any other division (e.g. organic, physical, analytical, etc…). The CER programs described below do not include education as a double-major or a teaching certificate in addition to a chemistry degree. If you would like to share other experiences, I highly encourage commenting at the bottom of this blog!

Chemistry program requirements
CER is a division of chemistry, much like any other division. As a CER graduate student you will take entrance exams, courses, qualifying & oral examinations (PhD only), and defend your dissertation/thesis exactly like any graduate student in your department. For the sake of brevity, I will not describe these aspects.

CER-specific program requirements
As a CER graduate student, you will conduct PhD or M.S. research in CER (see below). However, in addition you will also have some variety of bench-chemistry research as a requirement. This is a really difficult topic to discuss succinctly because it varies so much from program to program. At Miami University our bench research is called the cognate, and it can be educationally focused (such as creating a laboratory for undergraduate students) or purely bench-chemistry (such as synthesizing an organic molecule). Either way, the purpose of the project is to build students’ bench-chemistry skills and to learn more about specific chemistry content. The cognate can be highly tailored to your interests, and it can be done concurrently with your CER research. Other programs require the bench-chemistry research to be completed before you start your CER research. In some cases you may write and defend a thesis to receive a M.S. degree in your bench-chemistry work. Find out as much information as you can about the bench-chemistry requirement at the different programs that you are pursuing; ask about the pros and cons of the requirements so that you can make an informed decision that best fits your future career goals.

In addition, all chemistry graduate students will pass entrance exams or take courses to fulfill chemistry proficiencies (e.g. organic, physical, analytical, etc…), and CER students will also take courses in their chosen bench-chemistry content area. Further, CER students take additional courses for their CER work which may include: CER methods (statistics and/or qualitative methods), educational psychology, curriculum development, etc… A few schools also offer CER specific courses in their departments.

CER research
CER researchers study teaching and learning in chemistry. To do this we generally use rigorous and thoughtful data collection methods such as interviewing students and distributing surveys. Much like other chemistry graduate students, CER students conduct thorough literature reviews, determine research questions, collect & analyze data, make conclusions, and publish their research in a variety of science education and CER specific journals (such as http://pubs.acs.org/journal/jceda8). Examples of CER research projects may include:

  • Assessing student understanding
  • Assessing student affective outcomes (relating to attitudes, feelings, motivation, etc…)
  • Creating and testing a curriculum intervention
  • Improving the chemistry laboratory

I make it sound so easy here, but I have to say, graduate school is quite a challenge. Along with working on your CER project, you may be working on qualifying or oral exams, coursework, bench-chemistry experiments, going to conferences, writing manuscripts, attending seminars, and teaching an undergraduate laboratory! Don’t let this frighten you; graduate school is also very rewarding!

Financial Assistance
The good thing is that the universities know that being a graduate student is a full time job, and they don’t expect you to find outside employment. Most programs offer teaching assistantships that require teaching in an undergraduate laboratory course. This usually comes with a tuition waiver and a competitive stipend, but requires ~20 hours of work per week on top of your research, courses, and exams. If the advisor you choose to work with has external funding, you may have the option of a research assistantship that does not require teaching, and instead requires you to focus your time on your research. There are also fellowships which are available to CER graduate students that can be applied for through the National Science Foundation- Graduate Research Fellowship Programs website (www.nsfgrfp.org).

Selecting a program
I’ve given you a lot of information, but now the question is ‘how do I select a program?’ A good place to look is a website created by Dr. Stacey Lowery Bretz at Miami University: http://chemistry.miamioh.edu/bretzsl/cer/gradprograms/. This is a comprehensive list of the Ph.D. and M.S. CER programs in the U.S. Graduate programs are an average of a 5 year investment in your future, so make an informed decision. Entrance requirements for CER programs are the same as that of the chemistry department.

Further, many schools will pay for your travel, lodging, and food so that you can visit the school. When you visit, make sure to ask questions! Here is a list I compiled that may help you start your list:

  • What does a “typical” day look like for graduate students in your program?
  • What is the department culture? How available is the research advisor?
  • What is the cost of living of the city? What financial assistance is available?
  • Where are your past students now? What percentage of students complete the program?
  • How is student progress evaluated?
  • What are the pros and cons of the CER-specific features of the program?

If you have a chance to do CER research at your undergraduate institution, do it! This will give you the opportunity to learn about the type of work required for CER. If you do not have this option, look into Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) opportunities through the National Science Foundation (http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/list_result.cfm?unitid=5048). Schools that have CER programs and REU funding will pay you to do CER work for a summer! Contact the CER faculty at the institutions for more details about their REU program.

For more information about chemistry graduate programs, I’m going to leave you with a link to the ACS ‘Planning for Graduate Education in Chemistry’ website: http://portal.acs.org/portal/acs/corg/content?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=PP_SUPERARTICLE&node_id=1122&use_sec=false&sec_url_var=region1&__uuid=2c0e283e-5941-4140-8f47-e2fecd4776dc

Good luck with your endeavors, and feel free to leave comments!

Allie Brandriet
Graduate Student
Miami University
Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry

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