3 things Neil deGrasse Tyson would change about higher ed

Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the most famous scientists in the world, once aspired to be an academic. But his experiences as a graduate student led him down a different path.

In conversation with Vimal Patel at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tyson discusses what he would change about higher ed and how academia can better support (and retain) students like him.    

1: Reward faculty for communicating their research to the public

Traditional academic culture "does not embrace the access I have to pop culture," says Tyson. Deepening the appreciation for science among Katy Perry's followers or the Sharknado 6 viewers (in which Tyson has a cameo) adds value that isn't appreciated in academia, he says.

But academics should care whether the public understands their research, he argues. Some UK universities prize a person's ability to communicate to the public. Tyson points to Oxford University and Cambridge University, which each have tenured professorships focused on improving the public understanding of a discipline. 

Professors would get better at communicating their research to the public if that skill was tied to the tenure process, says Tyson. "All of a sudden universities open up, and people learn about what you’re doing there, whether it’s bird wings or paramecia."

Related: The new research communications environment

2: Train graduate students how to teach

As a graduate student, Tyson recalls learning how to teach on his own. "I said to myself that if you’re going to throw me in front of 100 people as a graduate student, I should at least understand how people learn, how to keep them interested, how to pay attention to their attention spans, to read their facial expressions," he explains.

Many colleges don't train graduate students how to teach and don't incentivize good teaching, argues Tyson. "You are not rewarded for being a good teaching assistant," he says.

3: Challenge the over-worked culture graduate students

Graduate students can feel a lot of pressure to see a return on their educational investment and throw themselves completely into their work, psychiatrist Dion Metzger told The Atlantic in 2016. "It’s this culture where you’re only happy when you’re sad, when you’re overworked," says Tyson. One study found that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety, compared to the general population.

Keep reading: More than a third of grad students show signs of depression

Graduate students may also feel discouraged from pursuing other interests while in school, says Tyson. He recalls how his extracurricular activities (competitive dance, rowing, and wrestling) led others to believe he wasn't a serious graduate student. "How could I be if I'm rowing when I should be in the lab?"

For Tyson, these interdisciplinary interests propelled his professional success. "All those activities I did contributed to my socialization. I met different people, people who weren’t scientists. Artists who used their bodies as instruments of expression. All of that helped me be who I am when I communicate. When I’m on stage in front of 3,000 people, I’m using my body to communicate."

Despite his frustrations with higher ed, Tyson says he would still be open to an academic job. "To this day, I could walk away from all of this. Interacting with the public remains pretty low on the list of things I would choose to do in a day," he says. But he also recognizes that his ability to boost people's appreciation of science is important. "I would be irresponsible if I didn’t undertake those activities. I view them as kind of a duty," he says (Patel, Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/16).

Also see: 4 tips for getting inside the mind of a prospective grad student

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