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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute
offers a dual-title graduate program that awards a Ph.D. in a traditional science discipline and astrobiology.4 At the University of Washington, astrobiology graduates are awarded a Ph.D. in a traditional discipline and a graduate certificate in astrobiology.5 However, most of the students who have graduated from these programs have not been formally employed as astrobiologists and are filling positions in traditional disciplines. Former NAI postdoctoral fellows reported to the committee, however, that although astrobiology was not specified in the title for the position they filled, during the interview process their interdisciplinary training and astrobiology background were seen as a plus and served to set them apart from other candidates. In short, anecdotal evidence suggests that the interdisciplinary training of students in astrobiology is producing a new generation of scientists whose education has encouraged them to see the world in a broader context, although validating such a claim in a quantitative manner is beyond the scope of this study.
Most astrobiology students remain active in the broader community, continuing to bring creative research ideas to the field and making efforts to foster collaborations with other departments and successfully tap into new sources of research funding.
It is too soon to gauge the full impact of the NAI’s training efforts. Simply counting the number of graduates currently employed as astrobiologists not only is misleading but also glosses over important issues that are key to the continued growth and eventual acceptance of astrobiology as a formal science discipline. At this time, most scientists categorized as being “astrobiologists” are in faculty or other senior positions (e.g., in the civil service, and so on) not usually filled by newly minted Ph.D.s. The fact that some graduates continue on in their traditional discipline, and that many NAI postdoctoral positions are filled by people with no prior association with astrobiology or the NAI, is consistent with the early stages of a developing field. Recent graduates bring astrobiology into their home discipline, and up-and-coming researchers from traditional disciplines bring their expertise into the astrobiology community and the NAI specifically. This kind of interchange between fields is integral to the development of astrobiology as a science.
A better approach to measuring the NAI’s success in training the next generation of astrobiologists is to follow these recent graduates through their postdoctoral years to see if they are publishing significant papers on astrobiology-related issues in major scientific journals, collaborating with a wide variety of scientists in other disciplines, successfully applying for astrobiology grants, winning awards (Table 3.1), attending astrobiology conferences, teaching astrobiology classes, and, in general, contributing to the field of astrobiology.
The first astrobiology graduates are only just now reaching the point in their careers where they are obtaining faculty jobs (Table 3.2), principal investigator (PI) status on their own grants, and/or stable positions as research scientists. It is not unusual for a new Ph.D. to spend 5 years or more in postdoctoral positions before obtaining a permanent position.
It is important to note the particular challenges young researchers face when trying to conduct interdisciplinary research within the highly discipline-oriented organization of research universities but outside the bounds of an existing astrobiology group.6 Graduate students and new assistant professors, for example, who need to impress the faculty in their home departments, can be under intense pressure to prove their competence in the departmental discipline, and this constraint can influence the way research is carried out and published. The particular challenges posed by undertaking interdisciplinary research include the following:
Communications and cultural barriers that reflect the ways in which different scientific disciplines regard each other, use different vocabularies to describe common concepts, and have different ways of doing things.7
Organization of research and structuring of teaching activities around discipline-based departments—frequently mirroring the organization of funding organizations, professional societies, and scientific journals—in ways that affect decisions relating to hiring, promotion, tenure, and allocation of research resources (e.g., laboratory space).8
Requirements for additional training and/or for undertaking the research activities (e.g., field studies) necessary to be proficient in multiple disciplines, which can cut down on apparent research productivity and harm careers.9
The difficulties posed by the evaluation of interdisciplinary activities within the context of a single-discipline departmental culture.10