How to Become an Education Researcher

Dr. Aki Murata, professor and educational researcher at Stanford University, has earned renown for her research on improving methods of mathematics education in elementary classrooms. Encouraging a move away from traditional staid techniques, Murata encourages “teachers [to] support each individual’s learning by stimulating it with multiple ideas and approaches that naturally emerge from different learners.” Anyone aspiring to a career centered on education will glean several lessons here.

Can you recall the moment when you decided to embark upon education as a formal career?

My entry point to my career in education was teaching. I recall vividly how I decided to become a teacher. I was born and grew up in Japan, and becoming teacher was “not” my ambition then. It was after I came to the United States (as an undergrad), got married, and when my oldest son started attending kindergarten in a local school in Ohio, I was surprised/fascinated by stories he brought home from school because they were very different from what I had known in Japan. No better/worse, good/bad, but just different. I started volunteering in his classroom, that led me to become a teacher’s aide (it was a small private school that needed lots of help), which led me to become a teacher. I also recall how “happy” I felt whenever I was in classroom working with students. That gave me a lot of pleasure, and one thing I knew/know is that when you find yourself that way (happy), you should pay attention to what it is that you are engaged in.

Many people believe careers centered around early childhood education involve nothing but observing kindergartners all day — a gross misconception. What other fallacies about educational research in primary schools do you often have to dispel?

When it comes to talking about careers working with young students, people often seem to think the most important quality is to be patient. They also seem to think it’s “easy” because we are working with young students. First of all, I think patience has very little to do with being an educational researcher, no more than it is required in any other careers. You will have to be mindful and pay attention to what is going on in research settings, being reflective and analytical as you make sense of data — these aspects are more important than patience. Working with younger children does not make our work any harder or easier than working with older students, as their needs differ and you are required to bring different sets of skills and knowledge into your work.

For the benefit of our students, could you outline a typical day you might experience on the job?

Of course. I may have a few meetings as I arrive at work in the morning — either meeting with students who are working on their thesis/dissertation, or committee meetings at a school/university level where we discuss current issues pertinent to running school/university and make decisions. I may then have a class to teach, and for that, I may meet with my TAs first, to touch base on the timings of the lesson and make sure all the materials are ready for the class. Most classes are long (three hours), and only meet once a week, so it is important that I know what is going to happen (as I won’t have another chance to see the students for a week). I may then head out of campus and have a research meeting at a school site with teachers whom I conduct research project with. These school-site meetings need to happen at the end of the day, as teachers are usually busy during the day. I may go to these meetings with a research assistant and bring my video camera and record, and as it ends, I will make sure my RA (research assistant) will take the video tape home and work on her field notes and send me the summary of the meeting before the next morning. I will then start analyzing the portion of the data. This is a typical full day of work for me.

What was the academic avenue that led to your current standing in the educational research community? Which classes do you feel are the most relevant to you now?

In order to become educational researchers, you will have to get your doctoral degrees. I went to a PhD program at Northwestern University after having taught a few years at an elementary school. In a doctoral program, you take courses, of course, but you also work on your own research project. That was the most relevant experience for me. You work very closely with your dissertation advisor on your research, and you learn how to design and conduct a research on a topic you are very much interested in, under closer guidance of the very experienced mentor.

Could an interested student feasibly develop a career in educational research with just a bachelor’s degree, or is a graduate degree preferable? Of the two primary graduate degrees, the PhD in education and the Doctorate of Education, which do you feel holds more water?

You will have to have a doctorate in order to develop a career in educational research.

What personality traits would help someone achieve success in educational research in early childhood education as a profession? Conversely, what qualities or habits would hinder progress in education as a profession?

I think you will have to be genuinely interested in this topic. Developing a career in educational research means you will be pursuing your life-long goals to understand a very narrow topic (e.g., how young children learn). If you are not really, really interested, you will get bored! Find your passion, and follow it!

What advice or warnings would you have for a student contemplating educational research in early childhood education as a potential career?

Again, I would say to find what you really like, and pursue it. If you want to have a career, any career in that sense, you will have a very intimate relationship to what you will be doing, so make sure that is something makes you feel happy and good about yourself. If you want to become an educational researcher in primary education, it would be good if you like working with children and teachers, and if you find it fascinating to see how children think and do certain things in educational settings. It has to be fun for you. If not, find something else that makes you happy.