Education Research Spotlight

Can Solar and Space Physics Students Find Research Careers?

Research shows that 80% of graduate students who received their Ph.D. between 2001 and 2009 continued to publish for at least 3 years, and 60% are still publishing.

Source: Space Weather


The field of solar and space physics is still young, arising during the space age from a broad range of fields. With the discovery of the solar wind and Earth’s radiation belts, fields like cosmic ray physics, geophysics and geomagnetism, atmospheric science, radar engineering, and solar astronomy all gathered together under a single banner. In part because of its age, solar and space physics is still a relatively small field, with only 50–70 graduates per year in North America. But in the late 2000s, solar and space physics received a large influx of students that was not correlated with increased funding.

The 2013–2022 decadal survey by the National Research Council found that the career goals of these solar and space physics Ph.D. students are very similar to those in other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, with most desiring a research position. Unfortunately, other studies have shown that less than a third of STEM Ph.D.’s in general are able to find research jobs. There is therefore recent concern that given the lack of increase in funding for solar and space physics and the 2008 recession, new Ph.D. students in the field may not be able to find the research jobs they desire.

To investigate this potential problem, Moldwin and Morrow examined a cohort of Ph.D. students who graduated between 2001 and 2009 to determine whether they were able to find research careers. They compiled a database of 416 Ph.D. students whose dissertations were published during this time period and then performed a literature search for publications by these individuals to determine their persistence in research.

The researchers found that four out of five Ph.D. recipients published in the year following their dissertation and that more than three quarters of these scientists continued to publish for another 4 or more years. They found differences between individual years, but overall, there were no discernible trends with time.

In addition, despite solar and space physics doctorates being more male dominated than STEM fields in general, the authors found that gender did not affect the likelihood that Ph.D. candidates would continue to publish after graduation.

Finally, the team also found that there was no relationship between department size and a Ph.D. candidate’s likelihood of finding a research career.

However, there were still large differences between individual institutions. The authors suggest that it may be worth investigating whether factors such as financial support models, admissions, qualifying exam processes, and department culture could play a large role in determining the future careers of their students. (Space Weather, doi:10.1002/2016SW001382, 2016)

—Aleida K. Higginson, Freelance Writer

Citation: Higginson, A. K. (2016), Can solar and space physics students find research careers?, Eos, 97, Published on 27 May 2016.
Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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