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My first year in graduate school in a terminal Ph.D. program wasn’t pleasant for me (and I have met few people who felt differently about their first year). Between a demanding course load and TA responsibilities, I felt overwhelmed. But while many of my classmates complained about their TA responsibilities taking time away from their class work, I found that TA’ing was the one thing that helped me get through my first year. Being able to help someone learn something was very rewarding to me. I loved the moments when a student who was having great difficulty with a concept had their “Aha!” moment. I also discovered that this moment couldn’t be faked no matter how much the student wanted to give up and go home. Moments like these made me discover the teacher within myself.
By the end of my first year, I had found in the graduate catalog that my physics department offered a Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree. I decided to pursue it since I wanted to become a better teacher and I was willing to do the additional work of the educational courses (and I already had most of the required physics course work done) and a thesis. I then notified my department that I wished to earn the M.Ed. and was greeted with a response along the lines of, “We don’t have an M.Ed. option.” I had to show the office staff that it was offered in the catalog. This is not a slight against my graduate program in any way, it is merely the indication that it had been so long since any graduate student pursued this that it fell out of recent memory. Of course, the staff then agreed to my pursuing the M.Ed. and did everything in their power to support me. But that’s when I started thinking… I want to be an educator in higher education. Why does the profession think that TA experience is all I need to become a good teacher? Why has no one else doing this in my department?
I was initially worried about taking graduate education classes since I had never taken an education class at the undergraduate level. To my pleasant surprise, the professor was receptive to my opinions and my classmates came from a variety of backgrounds. I learned the core theories behind how people learn and how curricula are designed. I read more than I had for any other class and wrote (what felt like) even more. I thoroughly enjoyed my education classes and they not only added a little variety to the mathematical rigor of the physics curriculum, but they also gave me the breadth I needed to see it as a whole in a new way.
After completion of the M.Ed., several other graduate students who were in the same physics program opted to earn their M.Ed. as well. I was happy that not only had I reminded the department of this option, but that other people were doing this now too.
My M.Ed. has been invaluable to me as it distinguished me from my peers as someone who put effort behind becoming a better educator. As a graduate student, when unique teaching opportunities became available, I was usually on the short list of people recommended to fill the position. When I was looking for my first professional position after earning my Ph.D., I believe my M.Ed. made me stand out from other applicants. I am currently a Caltech postdoc who works remotely from the LIGO Livingston Observatory in Louisiana; I spend about 60% of the time performing traditional gravitational wave research and the other 40% working with the LIGO Science Education Center (SEC). With the SEC staff, I work with visiting students giving them tours of the observatory and answering their (amazingly deep) questions; I help develop programs for pre-service and in-service teachers; I interact with the public at open houses; I contribute training to docents to understand our exhibits so that they can help visitors understand as well; I participate in educational research. While I am not privy to the ultimate reasons for my hire, I am confident that my M.Ed. contributed. And since I can’t be a postdoc forever, I am sure the M.Ed. and all of the experiences it opened up to me will help me in the future as well.
So my question to the physics profession is, why aren’t more graduate students pursuing formal education training? I am not suggesting that all graduate students should be earning education degrees or that you need to have this training to be an outstanding educator. I am also not declaring that the M.Ed. is the only option for graduate students to become better educators and to distinguish themselves as such - there are other amazing programs like the GK12 program or recognitions offered by graduate schools that require training in education. But with 56%  of Ph.D. graduates in the classes of 2005 & 2006 ultimately seeking employment in academia, why do so few students earn M.Ed.s? Perhaps these degrees are not offered by many departments. If that’s so, why not? If the degree is offered, advertise it! For me, the physics department had already done the bulk of the work by instructing me in the first year courses which I largely used to satisfy the degree requirements.
I will be glad if the day comes that the M.Ed. no longer sets you apart from your peers because there are so many professors (and other physics professionals) out there with formal education training. I can’t help but think that the quality of the physics education being offered to that generation will be improved and a service to the profession as a whole will have been done.
 P. Mulvey, and C. Tesfaye, “Initial Employment Survey of Physics PhDs, classes of 2005 & 2006” (Figure 6), AIP Statistical Research Center.
Amber Stuver is the FGSA Councilor and a postdoctoral scholar for Caltech at the LIGO Livingston Observatory.