Exploring how gender figures the identity trajectories of two doctoral students in observational astrophysics
[This paper is part of the Focused Collection on Astronomy Education Research.] This paper presents the cases of two doctoral students in observational astrophysics whose circumstances and experiences led them on a career trajectory out of academic research. In this article, I employ a sociocultural lens that provides insight into the dynamics of students’ experiences in astrophysics, which can in turn enrich our understandings of the lack of women in physics. I documented ethnographically two doctoral students’ experiences in a physics department at a large research university in Canada. In turn, I employed an analytic framework of figured worlds, cultural models, and identity trajectories to understand the challenges these two doctoral students faced. I use data drawn from observational field notes, interviews, and participants’ photo-narrative journals to explore the dominant cultural models of astrophysicist that were reproduced in their doctoral program. The analysis shows cultural models for recognizable astrophysicists in this doctoral program often did not fit neatly with these students’ experiences, and at times interfered with their trajectories into astrophysics careers. Additionally, results indicate that a prevailing discourse of gender neutrality and the rejection of normative femininity in astrophysics both afforded and constrained participants’ opportunities for recognition as insiders to astrophysics. However, the two participants repositioned themselves on alternative trajectories into physics teaching outside of academia, which had positive consequences for their astrophysicist identities. This study provides insights into the experiences of doctoral astrophysics that figure students’ insider or outsider identities, and the role that gender plays in the shaping of those identity and career trajectories.