Key to a Diverse Pool of Doctoral Students? 'Relevant' Research – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Ashley Watson is a sixth-year doctoral student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Like many graduate students of color, she doesn’t just want to do some good research. She wants her research to do some good.
“Well, who doesn’t?” you might reply. But for doctoral students from demographics that are underrepresented in Ph.D. programs and on the faculty, the chance to perform relevant research can tip the decision about whether to stay in graduate school, or go at all. “Relevance” in this case means research that matters to one’s community, broadly conceived. These are students who retain a strong connection to the people and places they came from — and want to give back.
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Ashley Watson is a sixth-year doctoral student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Like many graduate students of color, she doesn’t just want to do some good research. She wants her research to do some good.
“Well, who doesn’t?” you might reply. But for doctoral students from demographic groups that are underrepresented in Ph.D. programs and on the faculty, the chance to perform relevant research can tip the decision about whether to stay in graduate school, or to go at all. “Relevance” in this case means research that matters to one’s community, broadly conceived. These are students who retain a strong connection to the people and places they came from — and want to give back.
The relevance question also affects retention. Attrition rates are higher than average for graduate students from underrepresented groups. Put simply, many minority students want to do research that reflects their social commitments. And they’re more likely to quit graduate school if they don’t get a chance to do that.
Until recently, Watson, who is seeking a doctorate in organizational leadership, policy, and development, was facing just such a crisis of purpose. She felt disconnected in her doctoral education, and it was affecting her confidence. “Something was missing,” she said. She started to question whether “I had things worth saying.”
Meeting the needs of students like Watson is a challenge that graduate schools have not answered very well. In my previous column on how to find a research topic, I recommended a fine new book — Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters to You (and the World), by Thomas S. Mullaney and Christopher Rea. It contains a lot of good advice but is aimed at academics generally.
In this month’s column I want to consider the issue of research topics more specifically for doctoral students from underrepresented groups, and how graduate programs could better attend to the professional goals of minority students. I’ll focus here on a program that already does, and offers a model to emulate: the STAR Scholars Network (STAR stands for “Society of Transnational Academic Researchers”).
Founded in 2018, it has a self-described mission to create a global community of scholars through support of research, teaching, open-access journals, seminars, and online conferences. This past spring, the group began offering a new professional-development program to help budding scholars “develop their (intellectual/disciplinary) research agenda, foregrounding a social impact and social-justice mission.” I interviewed the program’s two creators: Nela Navarro, an assistant teaching professor of English at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, and Shyam Sharma, an associate professor of English at Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York.
The training starts, Navarro said, with a fundamental question about academic work — “What are we doing this for?” — and aims to help graduate students answer that question with what Navarro calls “a vision of scholarship, teaching, and community engagement for social impact.”
It was a vision that Watson said she sorely needed. She signed up for the STAR program this year with some skepticism. After many tries, she said, “I was kind of done with mentoring opportunities.” More important, she had also become “skeptical about the potential of scholarship and education to create change.” The STAR program changed her mind. “It gave me what was missing in my doctoral education,” she said: a broad sense of how and why her research matters.
Here’s how it works. Fifty-one students finished the inaugural training last spring, and Navarro and Sharma plan to run the program two or three times in 2022-23. It attracted participants from 21 countries across five continents, with the largest group — about 20 percent — from the United States.
Navarro describes the six-week program as an asynchronous seminar. Although the training takes place online, it’s not impersonal. Navarro and Sharma take an active role, meeting with their “students” in groups and one on one, while they complete four self-paced modules. By the end of it, participants have generated a spreadsheet with information on each of their research areas and interests. During the training, they can interact with one another and with the program leaders via a Facebook page and a Whatsapp group.
Module 1 focuses on self-assessment. Navarro and Sharma have formulated exercises that help graduate students identify what matters to them intellectually and then figure out how to shape those interests into a workable research question that resonates with local and global audiences — as opposed to limiting it to conversations between academics. The goal is to help each participant become a “social-mission-driven” scholar.
To that end, participants in the first module follow prompts to assess their own research agendas. For example, they’re asked to draft a “future CV” — dated five years hence — reflecting what they hope to have achieved by that point. As part of that exercise, participants are asked: “What did you realize you need to do differently or better, what do you need to prioritize, what do you want to do less of or worry less about?” By the end of the first module, the scholar has a long-term research plan in hand.
Module 2 is on moving from plan to implementation. It shows them how, specifically, they can take their work out of academe and into society at large — often in other languages. “It’s about how to present your research and explain why it matters,” said Sharma. “Just as important, it’s about figuring out who you can present your work to, and where.”
Participants at this phase develop three lists: (1) diverse groups that they believe their research must reach, (2) languages they can use to increase the access of their work to those diverse audiences, and (3) genres of communication for engaging people more deeply and widely — meaning, not just scholarly articles and books. “Increasingly, scholars cannot afford to just talk to each other,” said Sharma. “Scholarship can and should be defined and practiced more broadly.”
That bridge between theory and practice proved crucial for Michaela Dengg, a third-year doctoral student in higher education and student affairs at Ohio State University. Dengg is doing research on the experiences of international students at institutions in the United States. “It’s the nature of Ph.D. programs to focus on developing researchers,” said Dengg. The STAR program “really focused on practice. It helped me ask: What is this doing for my specific community? How can I improve the lives of international students around me?”
When Phuong Quyen Vo entered the STAR program last April, she decided to quit after the first module because she felt intimidated by the transition from theory to practice in Module 2. Originally from Vietnam, Vo is now in her third year as a doctoral student in education at the University of Newcastle, in Australia. But timely intervention by Sharma and Navarro motivated her to stay. For Vo, that support was an example of “inspired mentorship.” She returned to finish what was, for her, the hardest part.
Such praise for Sharma and Navarro’s mentoring surfaced repeatedly in my conversations with students, who used words like “constructive,” “supportive,” “responsive,” “patient.” They “exemplify the things they’re talking about,” Watson said. “They’re preaching a message that they’re actively living every day.”
Module 3 is devoted to teaching. How do you bring your socially informed research mission (from the first module) and your strategies of engaging diverse audiences (from the second) into your classroom teaching or into the “teaching” you do in trying to reach people beyond the campus?
As every academic knows, conventional, peer-reviewed research is the coin of the realm at four-year colleges and research universities. Public outreach is “extra” and doesn’t have the same weight in tenure and promotion. The divide between scholarship and outreach dovetails with another: the familiar division between research and teaching. There, too, research typically counts for more in faculty evaluations, so teaching — which is its own kind of public outreach — gets squeezed to the margins.
Module 3 teaches participants “research-integrated teaching” — an approach that aims “to tear down the research-teaching binary and train scholars to multiply their research impact,” Sharma said. The goal of teaching, she said, is not “simply to transmit” knowledge (as through lecture) but to “advance and apply knowledge” by actively doing things with it. In this way, both teachers and students may help themselves and their communities.
In this stage, participants read articles and watch videos about active-learning strategies and then adapt those strategies to their own teaching. In one exercise, they are asked to take a specific course they’ve taught and “challenge yourself to evenly split a class hour between teacher-led and student-engaged work.” The program asks participants: “How would you prepare? And how would you have your students prepare for class?”
The training shows STAR participants how those same questions can be applied to public outreach. Teaching, in other words, becomes an important tool for participants to invent themselves as “scholar-teachers who are driven by education as a social mission,” Navarro said.
Module 4 is about being a “scholar-citizen.” “The overarching aim of the program,” said Sharma, “is to teach scholars to create a thoughtful, ethical balance between contributing to the academic community and to the larger social community.” The final module, in particular, encourages participants to face the scholar-citizen tension — for it is a tension, given that academe can be so insular and parochial in its demands on faculty members — and to face it head-on.
In Module 4, as they do throughout the program, Navarro and Sharma present exercises to encourage this thinking. For example, participants are asked to “imagine that STAR Scholars Network invites you to train a group of scholars in your country/region or department/institution” in ways that balance traditional objectives of a faculty career (such as peer-reviewed publication) with broader ones (such as contributions to social justice, “stewardship for environmental sustainability,” and “greater inclusion and equity across borders”). Participants are asked to look back across the modules and prepare training materials, design activities, and anticipate possible resistance.
After completing the modules, students meet for a final Zoom meeting that alternates between a large gathering and breakout rooms. The first cohort “called it a conference,” said Navarro, “and I realized that name was spot-on.” Like all good conferences, this one enabled collaboration.
During the small-group sessions, students present what they worked on during the training. That could be a grant proposal, a syllabus, an article, or any other form of communication that displays their commitment to the social-mission goals that they have identified. Watson assembled a book-chapter proposal (which was ultimately accepted), and she began work on a policy memo and a blog post. She also started a proposal to create a six-week graduate-student workshop at her home university on multicultural and international-student solidarity.
This model of graduate-student training succeeds by balancing instruction with reflection. It asks students to consider their own mission and purpose — and, in Navarro’s words, “how your scholarly work can help you meet it.” In this way, participants from all over the world seek to “become the kind of scholar they want to be” in their own chosen context.
That goal is consistent with the tradition of many other countries where the academic intellectual is a respected public figure. American higher education, Navarro said, “pushes people away from their local spaces.” The problem for many students — and especially students from underrepresented groups in the United States — is the emphasis on one-size-fits-all disciplinary achievement: Everyone should want to publish in particular journals, present at particular conferences, and so on.
As a result, said Navarro, “the profile students were embracing had nothing to do with who they were.” Hence the problems with recruitment and retention experienced by American graduate schools.
Navarro and Sharma have created a program that leads by example — and points to the insularity of the American model of doctoral education. If graduate schools are to survive, let alone thrive, during times of increased austerity and heightened scrutiny, we will have to make graduate education more outward-facing. The STAR program reaches out to a group of students long overdue for attention, and shows them how to pursue work that is meaningful to their lives beyond the ivory tower. Graduate education badly needs to do both.

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