“Working with Reality”
USC Rossier’s PhD students receive hands-on experience
By Matthew C. Stevens
In May 2015, as USC Rossier graduated its most recent cohort of PhD students, Associate Professor Tatiana Melguizo, chair of the PhD governance committee, took to the podium and evoked the words of Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez: “Ultimately, scholarship is nothing but carpentry. With both, you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.”
Melguizo had taken the liberty of using the word “scholarship” in place of García Márquez’s original term (“literature”), demystifying any notion that the graduates had been locked away in an ivory tower over the past four years.
“We have these amazing artisans who are going to make a big difference in the world,” she said to the audience. “We have taught them, we have learned with them, we have learned from them. We look forward to continuing to mentor them throughout their academic and professional careers.”
“Ultimately, scholarship is nothing but carpentry. With both, you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.”
—Associate Professor Tatiana Melguizo paraphrasing Gabriel García Márquez
It’s no accident that Melguizo had evoked a classic apprenticeship model in celebrating the transition of 18 graduates from student to peer. A decade ago, USC Rossier had taken bold measures to transform its doctoral program, separating the PhD and EdD tracks, thereby creating small, cohesive cohorts in a PhD program that fully funds every student.
“The adviser guides you through the doctoral process: the academic transition into research, socialization at conferences, the networking at events, the writing process. You can do great research, but if you can’t articulate it into a brief or a journal article or even a blog post, no one is going to read the great work that you do.”
—PhD student Eric Felix
Third-year PhD student Eric Felix is in the thick of this apprenticeship process, working under Estela Mara Bensimon, professor of higher education and co-director of Rossier’s Center for Urban Education (CUE). He recently completed a summer research fellowship at Penn’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education under Executive Director Shaun Harper (former director of Rossier’s EdD program).
“The adviser guides you through the doctoral process: the academic transition into research, socialization at conferences, the networking at events, the writing process,” he says. “You can do great research, but if you can’t articulate it into a brief or a journal article or even a blog post, no one is going to read the great work that you do. I chose USC primarily because I knew I would be paired up with Dr. Bensimon.”
Katharine Strunk, associate professor of education and policy, embraces the role of mentor. “The adviser’s role is to help students think about what they want to do over the time they’re in the program,” she says. This includes encouraging graduate students to publish papers independently, work on large-scale research projects, and work as teacher assistants for one or more courses.
“We’re training them not only through coursework,” says Strunk, “but also by showing them how research is done and walking them through every step of the process, from writing a grant to collecting the data to writing the paper. The goal is to graduate students who can produce rigorous, innovative and policy-relevant scholarship that not only furthers the field but also impacts policy and practice.”
A Fertile Training Ground
This training happens to take place in the heart of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the country—a setting that provides extraordinary opportunities for graduate students like Susan Bush-Mecenas and Ayesha Hashim. The pair worked under Strunk and Associate Professor Julie Marsh on an evaluation of LAUSD’s Public School Choice Initiative.
“This was a big study with a big scope,” wrote Education Week in April 2014, after then second-year student Hashim presented initial findings at the conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), where she talked about the impact of turnaround reform on student achievement.
“Ayesha is tireless,” says Strunk. “She really has a pursuit of perfection, which I think is critical. She will be an amazing faculty member after she completes her PhD.”
“Both Dr. Strunk and Dr. Marsh taught me the importance of working closely with district leaders to develop research projects that will have a direct impact on the work of education practitioners and help unpack the complex theory of change that informs their ongoing efforts to improve schools,” says Hashim. “I have seen firsthand that this collaborative research approach leads to publishable, informative and—most importantly—interesting research, and I hope to continue producing scholarship in this vein as I pursue my own career in academia.”
Meanwhile, Bush-Mecenas, who served as project manager on the longitudinal LAUSD study before matriculating to Rossier’s PhD program, is compiling an equally impressive track record, earning praise from Rossier faculty for a strong theoretical base to her work and helping to lead qualitative data collection, conducting solo interviews with senior district leaders.
“I have seen first hand that this collaborative research approach leads to publishable, informative and—most importantly—interesting research, and I hope to continue producing scholarship in this vein as I pursue my own career in academia.”
—PhD student Ayesha Hashim
“Susan has been an intellectual partner in all of our work,” says Marsh, who is Buch-Mecenas’ adviser. “She often leads the development of conceptual and theoretical frameworks as well as the data collection and analysis. Susan has emerged as an expert on qualitative research, frequently leading seminars and mentoring students and faculty on how to use coding software to manage data and facilitate analysis. She is an exceptional scholar and will be an asset to any faculty she joins after graduation.”
Strength in Diversity
Melguizo takes pride in the ways Rossier’s small cohort model draws strength from the racial and ethnic diversity of its students. “We are well aware of the meaning of homophily, or love of the same,” she explains, “the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others.”
Rossier faculty strive to think critically about this natural bias in order to avoid perpetuating this practice when forming the composition of its student cohorts. “The fruits of this effort are reflected in the racial and ethnic diversity of our students,” says Melguizo, “and we believe the diversity of our program will better prepare them for the reality they will encounter after graduation.”
This article was featured in the October 2015 Issue of Rossier Reach