going from science to education [policy]?

[I wrote most of this awhile ago and it was languishing in the drafts folder. I’m still thinking about possibilities in education, but I’m leaning more towards writing opportunities at the moment for a variety of reasons. My thoughts on careers are still decidedly unsettled, expect me to continue thinking-out-loud a lot.]


I was working on my PhD in microbiology, but decided to leave my program with ‘just’ a masters. My decision to leave involved many factors, which I might explore at another time, but for now, let’s just say it was a difficult decision and not one I expected to have to make.

That said… while I’m not 100% thrilled with how I got here, I’m not entirely unhappy with the fact that I’m being forced to reevaluate my options and my goals. I’ve been racing towards my biology PhD for years, and in my mind I had closed the door on a lot of other interests outside of science, at least as career options. Now, with my old plan shattered, I have the freedom to step back and re-ask myself: what am I really good at? What are all my options?

And I’m finding some things that are surprising me. Case-in-point for this post: I have considered going back to school for an education degree (probably an EdD, but there are other options as well), and then going into education policy.

Note: this is just one of many options on the table, and I have quite a few months left before I would be making any decisions about applying to new graduate programs.

But why am I even thinking about it at all? Well… because I’ve graded a lot of exams. And it’s frustrating as hell, in part because many of my students–juniors and seniors in college–seemed surprisingly inept at answering essay questions, but more importantly, because some of those questions are themselves less-than-perfectly well written, which makes scoring answers problematic.

This is a huge pet peeve for me–poorly written exams. In fact, bad teaching methods (including bad assessments) have gotten under my skin for years. There are few things I’m more passionate about than doing education right, or at least better than we’re doing it now.

STEM people often seem to have little respect for education students/researchers, and I’ll admit to having thought that way myself at times. There are reasons for this disrespect–the field of education research is heavily influenced by fads and political biases, and it makes it hard to do good science. And historically, being a teacher in the US is not a particularly well-respected or well-compensated endeavor, so it doesn’t always attract the brightest students. That said, those are problems with the SYSTEM, not with education as a career choice or with the concept of doing education research.

The fact is, there IS valid science about how people learn, and better teaching techniques CAN be developed in evidence-based ways. And it drives me crazy that instead of going “ok, the literature has bias issues but I’m going to try to figure out what best practices are supported by the evidence”, many instructors at the college level (most of whom have NEVER taken a teaching course) figure that winging it is just fine, because teaching is a straightforward task that anyone with a brain can do well.

But teaching is not easy. In particular, teaching well, teaching in a way that facilitates the development deep conceptual understanding in our students, INCLUDING any students that our particular subject does not come easily to… that’s hard.

And I want that reality respected. I want teachers who are constantly looking for ways to be better, and I want solid research behind their efforts as much as possible.

Personally, I’m particularly prone to nerd-ing out over assessment design, because a) if your assessments aren’t any good, you have no way of knowing if your teaching is effective and b) how we assess learning shapes what is learned.  I developed this fascination way back in middle school, when I started being singled out for high standardized test scores. I always excelled at the state tests, and eventually that lead to gifted summer camp programs, and later to PSAT scores that were so good they ultimately ended up financing most of my college education. (Almost perfect PSAT scores –> National Merit Scholar. State universities, including the one I attended, often seek out National Merit students to help build honors programs. In addition, Indiana suffers from severe brain drain and is trying to counter that. At Purdue, this meant National Merit Scholars got automatic full tuition scholarships, and often other money as well towards living expenses.)

But while I was getting these scores, over and over, and being told they made me special… I was also realizing that the kids defined as “smart” by tests like these… didn’t always do well in life. In fact, a lot of them had no work ethic, or were paralyzed by crippling perfectionism (*raises hand*). Sure, some of the ‘smart’ kids are ALSO quite successful, but plenty of them aren’t. Clearly, though the college board brags that the SAT predicts success in college, the test is missing something.

I’m not necessarily criticizing the SAT here (though I do think it is overvalued in college admissions… another post for another time). No one test should be expected to measure everything. I bring it up as an example though, of how assessments have a huge impact on what types of skills are valued. This is just as true in an individual classroom as in college admissions–if you give grades based on essay exams that require deep knowledge, your students have an incentive to learn that. If you try to teach at a “deep knowledge” level, but give crappy multiple choice exams because they’re easy to grade, then your students don’t have an incentive to get the full value out of your teaching AND you won’t know if you’re teaching effectively. Pretty straightforward.

Anyhow, ranting over. Point is, assessment design is important, and it’s not trivial work. It’s not a coincidence that my favorite teacher in college gave incredibly well-written exams. He was my favorite teacher because he was a scientist who also valued teaching as a craft, as a skill to be honed… and therefore he wrote good tests.

So yea… I care about this stuff, I like thinking about it, I like learning about it. And I like teaching, but I’m not really interested in teaching k-12 because of the all-around raw deal that most public school teachers get (little respect, little independence, lowish compensation, etc)… basically cause the system sucks. So maybe teaching outside public k-12 schools, or maybe policy to be part of making the system suck less?  Dunno. Still thinking out loud on this one.

P.S. For what it’s worth kids, test-taking is a great superpower to have… up until college. And then it becomes significantly less valuable. And once you leave academics entirely, it’s virtually useless. I’m currently interviewing for jobs in pretty much the only field high standardized test scores will help you get into… the test prep industry. Okay money, but not exactly glamorous.