Education

Researchers-in-Training

January 07, 2004 4 min read
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Heather D. Hill/Northwestern University | David S. Lustick/Michigan University | David F. Feldon/University of Southern California

Heather D. Hill

When Heather D. Hill decided to dedicate her life to researching poverty and welfare policy, she scouted out doctoral programs around the nation in economics, psychology, and other disciplines. The only education school on her short list was at Northwestern University.

“The main thing that attracted me is the interdisciplinary approach,” says Hill, 31, who is now a second-year doctoral student at the university in Evanston, Ill. “Rather than get a degree in economics or psychology, I could learn the theories of all those disciplines.”

In fact, says Penelope L. Peterson, the dean of Northwestern’s school of education and social policy, two-thirds of the school’s faculty members come out of disciplines other than education. The school also encourages students to do additional coursework outside its walls.

Hill enrolled in the human-development and social-policy program—one of two doctoral degrees the school offers. The other is in learning sciences. Both are Ph.D. tracks.

Hill was one of just six students accepted last year. She took three economics classes outside the school and has studied both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. Because she had already worked for three years for a research firm in Washington, Hill managed right away to land jobs with research projects that let her try out both approaches firsthand.

But Hill thinks her interdisciplinary training will be an asset to her future career.

“One criticism about interdisciplinary programs is that students don’t come out with as deep of an understanding of any one theoretical framework,” says Hill. “I want to be able to think about issues from multiple perspectives.”

David S. Lustick

Research has been an acquired taste for David S. Lustick, who came to Michigan State University to earn his Ph.D. after teaching high school science for 15 years.

“I came with the understanding I was going to become a teacher of teachers,” he says. “Over the course of the program here, I became very intrigued by the whole process of research.”

Lustick’s intellectual journey is typical of many education researchers learning their trade at large, public universities. Like Lustick, many students come to such programs as former practitioners, says David F. Labaree, a Stanford University professor who is writing a book on education schools.

The challenge for these education schools, including Michigan State’s, is to help students make the transition from practitioners who think in terms of the day-to-day needs of particular classrooms and schools to analytical researchers who can think on more abstract levels.

Lustick, 40, is among a cohort of 26 doctoral students in the curriculum, teaching, and educational policy program at the university in East Lansing. But the education school also turns out dozens more doctoral candidates each year in its 12 other programs.

Because of the school’s size, Lustick can find all the courses he needs. Now in his fifth year, he believes that he has acquired a solid grounding in quantitative research methods and a better-than-passing acquaintance with qualitative research.

Lustick, who also holds degrees from Harvard and Cornell universities, won a two-year grant from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to study what teachers learn by undergoing the board’s process for national certification.

If more students knew how to pursue outside funding, Lustick says, the result would be bigger, more comprehensive, better-quality research.

David F. Feldon

David F. Feldon, 28, realized he was in the wrong doctoral program at the University of Southern California when he heard the kinds of questions his classmates were asking.

The other students, most of whom had been practicing educators, wanted to know how to implement the educational approaches and programs they were learning about in their education courses.

Feldon, a former cognitive-science and philosophy major, wanted to know why those things worked and how to go about measuring their effects. Then it hit him: He belonged in the school’s Ph.D. program, where he could pursue a career in research, rather than in the Ed.D. track.

According to Karen Symms Gallagher, the dean of the Rossier school of education at the university in Los Angeles, Feldon was probably not alone in his confusion over which degree path to follow.

“We had a set of courses, but people sort of decided if they were going to get an Ed.D. or Ph.D.,” Gallagher says. “We weren’t necessarily clear on what we thought the differences were.”

Two years ago, the school took steps to sharpen the distinctions between the two programs. The program leading to the Doctor of Education degree is now clearly the place for future superintendents and other kinds of educational practitioners; the Doctor of Philosophy program is the path for future researchers like Feldon.

University educators also cut back on the number of Ph.D. students the school would accept. With fewer students, school officials figured they could do a better job of providing degree candidates with the academic and financial support they would need to commit to full-time classroom study and research.

As for Feldon, after switching to the Ph.D. program, he undertook advanced coursework in both quantitative and qualitative research methods and took part in studies involving both kinds of methodology.

When he finally lands his hoped-for job on the faculty of a major research university, he hopes to pursue his own studies on the role of expertise in learning.

“My dissertation proposal is on the extent to which expertise influences the teaching of research methods,” he says.

—Debra Viadero

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