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The Spencer Research Training Grant at the Penn Graduate School of Education: Implementation and Effects

by Thomas A. Kecskemethy - 2008

Background/Context: The Research Training Grant (RTG) program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education aimed to create strong research training experiences for predissertation fellows through generous financial aid, mentored research apprenticeships, and cocurricular experiences. Collectively these offerings sought to broaden knowledge of urban education and exposure to diverse research methods. Initiated in a context of significant institutional growth and change, the RTG also sought to improve the research training experiences of PhD students outside the RTG program, making broader discussions of urban education, educational research, and social research more integral to the general PhD student experience and to the life of the school. This was attempted with the launch of a schoolwide seminar series on educational research, the introduction of an annual student research symposium administered by the RTG fellows, and continuing faculty attention to policies affecting doctoral student mentoring and research training.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The article describes the aims and organization of the program and discusses strengths and challenges identified by students and faculty.

Research Design: This is a qualitative case study.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The operation of the RTG program at Penn offers several insights into how education schools might get the most out of their investments in doctoral students and doctoral education: (1) Its support of rigorous, discipline-based research training complemented by opportunities for interdisciplinary exposure seems to be important. Further, such initiatives are systematically supported with investments by the faculty and the administration. (2) The opportunity for students to approach research and problems of practice from multiple disciplinary perspectives was a significant perceived benefit of the RTG program’s operation at Penn. (3) A flexible model of research apprenticeship, creative seminars, and symposia all helped to illuminate the strengths and limitations of discipline-based research. (4) Penn GSE PhD students who engaged in discussions that promoted epistemological diversity were better off for it. This sort of work is unlikely to occur at the level of the individual degree program, so engagement and support from the whole faculty are implied. (5) “Institutionalizing” these sorts of experiences and opportunities for students may mean consideration of structures and supports for doctoral student training that are unconventional, multidisciplinary, and collaborative.

In 1997, the Spencer Foundation awarded $1 million in fellowship funding for predissertation PhD students to the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE) as a part of the Foundation’s Research Training Grant (RTG) program. A $1.1 million renewal of the grant was awarded in 2000. The grant funds were awarded to support doctoral students in their research training and also were meant to encourage institutional practices that support excellence in research training schoolwide. This article is a description of the operation of the RTG program at Penn GSE and an assessment of its impact on our students and on the school. I discuss the operation of the program, including its purposes and administration, and the cocurricular and academic initiatives it produced. I then briefly discuss the data I used to identify program impacts. I devote the remainder of the article to discussion of the influence of the RTG on PhD students and on the school. The former is derived through an analysis of the experiences of RTG fellows at Penn, and the latter from a broader review of the climate for student research training in the school. I conclude with several observations about how Penn’s experience with the RTG might inform broader discussions of doctoral student research training.


Penn GSE is one of 12 schools of the University of Pennsylvania, a large, private research-intensive university located in urban West Philadelphia. During the years of operation of the RTG program, the school’s tenured and tenure-track faculty consistently numbered about 40. The school does not have an undergraduate program (though it supports undergraduate minors in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences). While the RTG was in operation, the total graduate student population grew significantly (total enrollment rose about 40% to nearly 1,000). The PhD student population was intentionally held to a very small cohort: The school typically enrolled about 25–30 PhD students per year.

Eight academic programs in the school have PhD courses of study, all of which emphasize research preparation. The programs vary broadly in subject matter (e.g., curricula in education policy and interdisciplinary studies in human development) and epistemological bent (e.g., programs in policy research, evaluation and measurement and education, and culture and society). Research production is a dominant concern of the school’s faculty.

Also important is the fact that the RTG operated at Penn during a time of significant institutional change (1997–2004):

The school had undergone an internal review of its entire PhD program by non-GSE Penn faculty in 1995. This review was critical of the school’s PhD program in many respects, calling for a reduction in the size of the PhD student cohort, more stringent admissions criteria, and attention to dissertation quality.

A new dean came to the school in 1995. An education policy specialist, she brought with her a funded research center of considerable size and an agenda for making GSE eminent in the production of education research.

The entire school underwent an external review (part of a routine cycle of reviews commissioned by the university provost) in 1998 which, among other things, called for more coherent, coordinated curricula and a reduction in the number of program specializations in the school.

Externally funded research activity increased dramatically, from a low of $8.5 million in annual expenditures in 1997 to an average of about $19 million annually, creating more funded research positions available to doctoral students in the school.

The PhD admission rate decreased from above 50% in the early 1990s to below 20% in the early 2000s.

In 2000, the faculty instituted a program of internal/external curriculum review that led to a complete overhaul of the curriculum in the school’s largest academic division, and ongoing reviews of the remaining three academic divisions.

Offers of financial aid to PhD students in the early and mid-1990s was scant, awarded only to a small percentage of PhD matriculants. A decade later, the school committed to guaranteed full funding (tuition, fees, and stipend) for 3 years for all incoming PhD students.

These changes to GSE no doubt influenced norms and policies bearing on doctoral student preparation in the school. The 1997 RTG award, which brought a great deal of attention to research training and to PhD student mentoring in the school, was one part of this larger picture of growth and change.


With the RTG program, Penn GSE aimed to create strong research training experiences for RTG fellows through generous financial aid, mentored research apprenticeships, and cocurricular experiences; collectively, these offerings sought to broaden knowledge of urban education and exposure to diverse research methods. A total of 28 RTG fellowships were awarded at Penn, and the fellows enjoyed a degree of financial support unprecedented in the school: a 4-year guarantee of tuition and fees, and a generous stipend ($12,500 annually in the program’s early years, and nearly $20,000 by 2004). It was the school’s thinking that this funding “package” would give the RTG fellows greater academic freedom to participate in a variety of research experiences and settings. Their experiences were tracked carefully, and the students were given additional administrative support to keep them focused on strong research and professional development.

Also, using the Spencer program as a lever, Penn GSE aimed to improve the research training experiences of PhD students outside the RTG program, making broader discussions of urban education, educational research, and social research more integral to the general PhD student experience. This was attempted with the launch of a schoolwide seminar series on educational research, the introduction of an annual student research symposium administered by the RTG fellows, and continuing faculty attention to policies affecting doctoral student mentoring and research training. The operational elements of the Spencer program at GSE are briefly described next.


Virtually all the $2.1 million that Penn received from the Spencer Foundation for the RTG project went directly to financial aid for the fellows in the form of tuition, fees, and stipends. The total financial aid awarded to RTG fellows was comparatively generous: Fellows averaged about 41% more financial aid in their tenure at Penn GSE than non-RTG PhD students.

Penn’s Spencer Fellows were obligated to enter into an apprenticed research experience with a faculty research mentor in their second semester of study. With their research mentor, they agreed to engage in research activities for the calendar year ahead, setting formal goals for research training that would represent a reasonable workload (about 20 hours per week), sensitive to their commitments to coursework. As such, RTG fellows did not begin research apprenticeships in their first semester in graduate school; the idea behind this provision was to give fellows an opportunity to become acquainted with the school and its faculty, and, with assistance from faculty advisors and the RTG program coordinator, to identify the faculty member or project that would best fit their research interests.

The so-called research apprenticeships for Spencer Fellows at Penn GSE evolved into an experience whereby the PhD student was responsible, at least in part, for formally negotiating the terms of his or her own research training. The student’s advisor and research mentor had the most to say about the range and depth of a student’s training, and the RTG coordinator and Spencer Steering Committee periodically reviewed fellows’ programs of study. But, in fact and theory, the students were the key players in shaping their scholarly experiences and in identifying the faculty with whom they would work through their doctoral careers. By the third year of the program’s operation, the following statement on research apprenticeship was drafted by the Spencer Steering Committee to describe the school’s evolving understanding of the Spencer experience:

The “research apprenticeship” is a mentored experience, through which the doctoral student is introduced to a spectrum of research activities and the conceptual framework(s) in which they are grounded, under the guidance of an orienting mentor or mentors, at least one of whom is a GSE standing faculty member. Recognizing the range of disciplinary, interdisciplinary, theoretical, and methodological research paradigms within which our faculty work, the diversity of backgrounds students bring with them to their doctoral studies, and the variety of requirements built into the different doctoral specializations at GSE, we support a flexible model of the research apprenticeship, with respect to time commitments and apprenticeship structure, as well as mentoring relationships and apprenticeship activities.

Over the course of a calendar year, we expect the doctoral student to dedicate an average of 20 hours a week to research apprenticeship activities; this may be as part of an independent study with their faculty mentor, funded research assistantship or non-funded participation in a research project with their mentor, or other apprenticeship structure. The mentoring relationship may be based on a single mentor or multiple mentor model: i.e., students may work consistently with one faculty mentor throughout their studies at GSE, or with a series or collaborative team of mentors. Research apprenticeship activities may include (not necessarily in this order): processes of generating a research question, entry into a fieldwork site, conducting library-based or conceptual research, collecting data, analyzing data, writing and editing research-based scholarly papers or books, presenting research at professional conferences, and participating with a research team. In all cases, the apprenticeship activities of Spencer fellows will be recorded and tracked on a series of annual plans of study and research (current forms in operation held by the RTG Coordinator). The plans of study and training are developed by the Spencer fellow and his/her faculty mentor.

The emphasis on flexibility and breadth of training experiences in the statement above was no accident: When this statement was drafted, the steering committee was responding to an ongoing faculty discussion about the meaning and purposes of research mentoring, and student experiences through the program’s first 2 years of operation. The consequences of operating a fellowship program characterized by freedom and flexibility of student experiences were largely positive, but not without challenges, some of which are described later in this article.


Penn GSE’s Spencer Steering Committee was established in the second year of the RTG program to guide the dean and RTG coordinator in program administration, conduct regular reviews of the fellows’ academic progress, and advise the faculty on policies and procedures aimed at bringing productive elements of the program to the rest of the school. Examples of the steering committee’s work include taking the lead in developing themes and ideas for the seminar series; making policy regarding the school’s requirements for the fellows in their research apprenticeships; meeting with all the Spencer-supported scholars to solicit their feedback on the program; leading faculty conversations about research mentoring that culminated in a new requirement for “scholarly apprenticeships” for all PhD students in the school; advising the faculty on policy discussions concerning research methods training; and working to clarify the roles of the academic advisor, research mentor, and dissertation chair in PhD study.

Chaired by a senior faculty member and including faculty, the RTG coordinator, and RTG and non-RTG PhD students, the committee had no formal standing to approve or reject the fellows’ research training plans (RTPs) or to endorse or question the relationships of RTG fellows with their research mentors. Rather, the committee stayed current on the progress of the RTG fellows and worked with the RTG coordinator to informally intervene with the fellows and their advisors/mentors if it became clear that the fellows were not making adequate progress toward degree completion, or if mentor/mentee matches became problematic. Occasionally, members of the committee assisted fellows who needed to “negotiate out” of research apprenticeships in which neither the faculty mentor’s nor the student’s interests were being served. Fellows were often given direction and advice by steering committee members regarding whom they might seek out as potential mentors.


The RTG program gave rise to a monthly research seminar series called the “Urban Education Research Seminars.” The Urban Education Research Seminars became a fixture in Penn GSE’s efforts to promote discussion of issues related to urban education, education research, and research training. Not for credit, yet well-attended by PhD students and faculty depending on topic and publicity, the seminars were presented by GSE faculty, students, and guests from across the university. They usually lasted 2 hours and varied broadly in content. Appendix B presents the topics of a sample of seminar sessions from 1999 to 2000. RTG fellows were required to attend the sessions, and their faculty advisors and research mentors were encouraged to attend—all GSE PhD students and faculty were invited.

Broadly speaking, these seminars explored the content and form of urban educational research (research issues, topics, questions and design, methods, conceptual frameworks, disciplines). The goal was for students to learn about issues in urban education and to come to understand how different research methods can build knowledge about them. Faculty and students were regularly reminded of the limitations of their own work during the seminars, as they considered how their research could be complemented by alterative approaches. For example, a session by Robert Boruch on controlled trials that examine states’ use of monetary incentives to encourage teen mothers to engage in schooling was valuable to seminar participants engaged in qualitative fieldwork and dissertation preparation. His explanation of the findings of the controlled trials helped students understand some of their own observations, viewed from a very different methodological perspective, and contributed to the development of their inquiries.

Student and faculty interest in deeper conversations of social research methods surfaced through the Urban Education Research Seminars and was addressed directly in 2001–2002 in the Rigor and Relevance in Social Research series, which replaced the urban education series for that year. These seminars, organized in response to a proposal from two PhD students (one of whom was an RTG fellow), included eight sessions that reexamined education research methods at just the point that the U.S. Department of Education began to challenge common conceptions of evidence-based knowledge and how disciplines, audience, and context shape research practice. Appendix C presents the goals, session names, and presenters of the Rigor and Relevance series.

Attendance at the series averaged 30 people, 20%–25% of whom were GSE faculty representing a broad and diverse range of disciplinary traditions. A number of graduate students and GSE faculty members were regular participants, attending multiple sessions and, in a few cases, the entire series. Over half of the attendees at any given session had attended the previous one.


Another important piece of RTG fellows’ experience at GSE was the requirement that they organize an annual student research symposium on urban education. The event changed in form over the years but consistently benefited from the imagination and energy of its student sponsors. RTG fellows, with only limited input from the steering committee and other faculty, took charge of every aspect of each symposium, from the development of intellectual themes, to booking keynote speakers, to logistical support and follow-up, to reviewing abstracts and crafting presentations.

The first symposium, Exploring the Boundaries of Urban Research, was held in April 1999 and was widely recognized among faculty and students as a remarkable moment in the life of the school. First-time presenters from Penn included students from the Schools of Education and Social Work, and the Departments of Sociology and Anthropology. Also joining were student researchers from Temple University, LaSalle University, and Teachers’ College, Columbia University. This momentum continued through the 2002 symposium, at which 37 students presented at 31 sessions.

After 4 years of presentations and keynote speeches, the fellows changed the title of the 2003 symposium to “So What?” and organized a daylong series of more intimate discussions of social capital and standardized testing, focusing on how research can matter to education practice and theory. This format featured four student papers that symposium participants read beforehand and that faculty, graduate students, and local teachers discussed. The fellows’ sixth and final Urban Research Symposium, held in March 2004, with the theme Educational Spaces: Extending the Map of Learning, considered the following issues: what education looks like, where it occurs, whom it serves, and how its purpose changes in different spaces. Participants attempted to assess views of education that limit its scope to teaching subject matter in K–12 classrooms.


Over the years of operation of the RTG at Penn GSE, data were collected to document the progress and experiences of RTG fellows in the school. Annually, fellows completed RTPs, which summarized the following features of their program experience: progress toward degree completion, progress of their research training during the previous year, and new goals for academic and research training in the coming year. These forms were cosigned by the fellow’s academic advisor and research mentor (who were often, but not always, the same faculty member). These plans were submitted to the Spencer Steering Committee for review (a sample form is included as Appendix A), and faculty members on that committee used them regularly to track fellows’ progress and inform program administration and planning. The RTG coordinator also used them to inform annual progress reports to the foundation. The RTG coordinator also kept records of regular counseling sessions with fellows between 1997 and 2004. At least annually, he scheduled formal interviews with each student to discuss academic progress and experiences in the program.

These data, along with annual reports of the RTG at Penn GSE, minutes of meetings of the Spencer Steering Committee and GSE faculty, records of seminars and symposia held, and other institutional enrollment and financial aid data informed the reflections and findings reported in this article. Additional data sources include a series of focus group interviews held in January 2005 with two groups of RTG fellows and two groups of non-RTG PhD students about their experiences and research training at Penn GSE, and structured interviews held with six members of the GSE faculty in February 2005 about the impact of the program.


The influence of the Spencer RTG on PhD students in Penn GSE may be summarized as follows: RTG funding provided greater freedom in research training to the fellows; structured support for research training outside of mentored activity with faculty mattered to the quality of fellows’ experiences; the RTG fellowship likely gave PhD students a broader, more holistic understanding of education research, especially of alternative methodological approaches and of epistemological diversity; and the existence of the RTG program at Penn did not seem to affect the content and quality of individual student advising and mentoring relationships.

I discuss each of these findings in the following sections.

RTG funding provided greater freedom in research training to the fellows. Focus group and interview data strongly suggest that RTG fellows were more likely to enter into meaningful apprenticed research experiences in their tenure at Penn than non-RTG PhD students. Apprenticed research activity certainly happened for PhD students outside the program—very successfully in many cases—but the program was supportive of apprenticeship placement.

The RTG also introduced, for the first time in GSE on a broad scale, long-term financial aid that was not “attached” to faculty with funded research projects. This gave the fellows more freedom in their study, including greater ability to sort out for themselves the kinds of research training activities that would be meaningful to them. The opportunity for meaningful participation in research without concern for financial support was the most prominent perceived benefit of the program to the fellows. Faculty members with limited funding for PhD aid were able to bring a fellow onto their research team. Faculty members with no funding for a graduate assistant were able to pursue research with a Spencer Fellow whose interests were consonant with theirs. Faculty members interested in mentoring a fellow through that fellow’s independent research project were able to do so. No matter the circumstance, fellows were able to turn their attention fully to academics and research, finding the best possible fit in GSE for their interests. The following comments from RTG fellows are representative:

My experience would be very different if not for Spencer. Because I have this mentorship experience, I am in the field doing work and gaining skills.

My big story is being part of a research team. I wouldn’t have had this kind of access or exposure without the RTG program. I’m getting “outside” perspectives on urban research through the monthly seminars and “inside” perspectives through my work with the team.

Because of this program, we’re getting good students into education who may well have gone into other disciplines. . . . I would probably not be completing a PhD if it weren’t for Spencer.

If I had to go to school part-time, I would have had to do research at the single site where I was working. The big benefit has been a great mentor, and the freedom to work with whom I choose on what I want.

From an outcomes perspective, is it beneficial that RTG fellows had more freedom and control over their research experiences than did many of their peers? This remains an open question. I do not attempt to assess the impact of the RTG experience here in terms of contributions to the scholarly research base or service to educational practice. The data do suggest, though, that on balance, RTG students in GSE had greater breadth of research training experiences than their peers and greater opportunities to participate in research that matched their interests.

Although the glowing comments reflect a link between the flexible funding provided by the RTG and fellows’ satisfaction, they do not represent all the fellows’ experiences. The data suggest a potential “down side” to this funding model. Many of our fellows did, indeed, quickly enter into working relationships with research mentors that yielded fulfilling and varied research opportunities for the fellows, including close attention to their professional development. However, a small minority of fellows did wander from project to project, faculty member to faculty member, their funding intact yet never engaging seriously in research training, at times until they took up work on their own dissertations. A representative comment:

I worked with [name deleted] for that first year and that was fine. He had me in the library and working on his stuff which was interesting, but it wasn’t really my thing. It wasn’t really until my third year, when I hooked up with [name deleted], that I really felt like I found my place.

In that third year of study, this student was finishing coursework and turning attention to preliminary exams.

This fellow was in a clear minority but not alone, and several RTG fellows warned that consistent, dependable financial support can easily lead to complacency and drifting in doctoral study. A decade ago, when PhD financial aid was difficult to come by in Penn GSE, this would not have been an issue; almost all aid was tied to specific research projects and therefore to discrete tasks of research. But, like many other top-tier research-oriented ed schools, Penn GSE has come under enormous pressure to fully fund all its PhD students in order to compete for the very best. My point here is to make it clear that flexible, full funding brought stability and freedom to the student experience but that the freedom carried risks as well as rewards.

Structured support for research training outside of mentored activity with faculty mattered to the quality of fellows’ experiences. To GSE’s RTG fellows, the perceived benefits of the program went beyond the freedoms associated with full funding. To almost all, it seemed to matter a great deal that beyond the mentored research experiences, there were structures and experiences to support their intellectual growth and their efforts to negotiate the student experience at GSE. For example, submitting detailed RTPs (cosigned by faculty members) to the RTG coordinator and steering committee each year helped keep the fellows focused on research training goals. This supports Nyquist and Wulff’s (2000) assertion that explicit goals, written guidelines, and structured activities for community building among doctoral students and their faculty mentors (in individual and group settings) are invaluable contributions to a strong research training experience.

A prominent example of this kind of structural support was the seminar series that fellows were required to attend. When the RTG grant proposal was written, members of the Penn GSE community felt that doctoral students would benefit from increased opportunities to rethink their research assumptions and to review these in light of diverse disciplinary perspectives on educational practice. Similar to the interdisciplinary proseminar at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (Metz, 2001), the seminars at Penn were often enlightening and sometimes disconcerting to students. They were also reported to be a very solid contribution to PhD students’ overall academic experience. Faculty members and non-RTG doctoral students who joined the fellows at the seminars shared that view. One non-RTG doctoral student wrote,

I wasn’t sure after the first session what this seminar series was going to shape up to be or if it would be of any value to me at all. But after the second two sessions, I started to realize how many different ways there are to “do” social science. It was a bit daunting then, but now I look back on it as one of the best academic discussions I’ve been a part of here.

And a faculty member reflected,

I think the Spencer seminars were great and got stronger every year. The Rigors and Relevance ones where there’s a real focus on methodology were terrific and when they brought faculty and students in conversation with each other it was particularly strong—when they were set up to engage the group in conversation it was great.

Perhaps the most important intellectual contribution that the seminars made to the life of the school was that they increased attendees’ exposure to epistemological diversity (discussed later) and that they increased, too, students’ exposure to the faculty’s, student peers’, and other GSE members’ work on issues related to educational improvement.

Another example of structured activity supportive of research training was the annual student research symposium organized by the fellows. The impact of this symposium on the students was either substantial or insignificant, depending on the year. A faculty member characterized the symposium best by saying, “when it worked, it worked beautifully.” From the first year of the RTG’s operation at Penn, the symposia were conceptualized, organized, and administered by the RTG fellows (typically, the second-year fellows took on the bulk of the work). Whereas the early symposia lived up to our highest hopes for student engagement and possibly student learning (Boyle & Boice, 1998)—one RTG fellow even called it “the best work I did in the school”—the last several symposia were regarded by many students as “a decent learning experience in some ways, but drudgery.”

Finally, the administration of the RTG program made more human resources available to RTG fellows than to typical PhD students in GSE, increasing the likelihood that students would find the support needed to make informed choices throughout their programs of study. By design, RTG fellows had the support of a research mentor, faculty advisor, RTG coordinator, Spencer Steering Committee, and other Spencer Fellows across the yearly cohorts. “I know [non-RTG] students in GSE who are at their wit’s end with their advisor and don’t know where to turn,” said one fellow. “At least I know I have [the RTG coordinator] and the other guys in my cohort to fall back on.”

The RTG fellowship likely gave PhD students a broader, more holistic understanding of education research, especially of alternative methodological approaches and epistemological diversity. I cannot claim with certainty that RTG fellows have broader and deeper epistemological understanding than non-RTG students, but I can certainly say that they talk about it a good deal more. Focus group and interview data reveal that RTG students were more inclined to talk about research from multiple methodological perspectives than non-RTG students and that they carried on those conversations more comfortably. Fellows seemed to conceive and talk about educational research in different terms. Their conversations about research training experiences at Penn were marked by references to the importance of understanding research in context and accounting for multiple modalities.

I suspect that the fellows’ participation in the full range of RTG activities gave them this perspective and that they were especially influenced by the annual seminar series. The seminars—in particular, the year dedicated to epistemological diversity with the Rigor and Relevance sessions—put scholarly understandings of knowledge in social research squarely on the table for RTG fellows and others who attended. The Rigor and Relevance series was very well received by students and faculty alike and continues to be discussed in the school as a possible model for more comprehensive research training.

The existence of the RTG program at Penn did not seem to affect the content and quality of individual student advising and mentoring relationships.   Although the RTG fellowship seemed to increase the likelihood of students’ entry into productive mentored research training and provided valuable academic and administrative supports for research training, there is no evidence that the fellowships led to higher quality mentoring relationships between the fellows and their research mentors than otherwise would have been the case. Positive and negative war stories of mentor/mentee relationships were told by RTG fellows and non-RTG PhD students alike. Importantly, though, RTG students seem to think of mentoring and advising more as a collective activity, not limited to their relationship with one or two members of the faculty. The fellow’s formal mentor takes center stage when it comes to academics and research, of course, but the fellows relied heavily on other faculty, administrators, the RTG coordinator, and peers for advice on negotiating the complete PhD student experience at Penn.


My earlier discussion of Penn GSE as a setting for the operation of an RTG highlighted significant changes in the school, many of which influenced norms and practices for PhD education. In this atmosphere of change, it is difficult, in the words of one faculty member, “to sort out the specific influence of the RTG in all of this.” Perhaps the only easily identifiable direct effect of the program is its invaluable contribution to the school’s pool of available aid for PhD student recruitment and a resultant increase in admissions selectivity. PhD applications in the fall of 1997 numbered 197, with an acceptance rate of 25%. By the fall of 2003, 379 PhD applications were received, and the acceptance rate was 12%.

Although GSE was better able to compete for the best possible students over the years given this generous aid, faculty opinions about changes in the quality of the PhD student body were mixed. It is also interesting to note that the rate of attrition among PhD students in the RTG program was slightly higher than the attrition rate in the general PhD cohort (17% and 12%, respectively, during the operation of the RTG). These data might be explained in a number ways and certainly merit additional exploration.

Data do suggest, though, that aside from contributing to greater admissions selectivity, the RTG affected the broader PhD preparation program in GSE in the following substantive ways: (1) the RTG promoted a growing climate of seriousness in GSE regarding PhD study; (2) the RTG helped to build a common language of research training in the school and a common set of experiences around research preparation to which the faculty could refer as they worked to improve doctoral education in GSE; and (3) the RTG program introduced new models of academic and administrative support for doctoral students and for research training in the school. I discuss these next.

The RTG promoted a growing climate of seriousness in GSE regarding PhD study. Faculty reflections on PhD courses of study in the school indicate that the RTG helped to focus attention on difficult issues of quality, coherence, and rigor in research training. Prior to the RTG, PhD study at GSE was taken seriously but research training practices varied tremendously, whole-faculty attention to PhD student admissions criteria was not nearly as serious, and GSE, like so many other education schools (Deering, 1998; Labaree, 1999, 2003; Osguthorpe & Wong, 1993), struggled with poor delineation of PhD and EdD programs and lack of faculty consensus on what constitutes first-class PhD preparation. One faculty member may have put it best in saying that “the RTG is building an internal climate of ‘this is a graduate school, folks, and we train PhD students here’. . .  [the RTG] was symbolic of that and everyone knew what the grant was a symbol of.” Over and again in the years of the RTG’s operation at Penn, faculty meetings returned to discussions of topics such as doctoral student advising, research mentoring, standards for methods training, dissertation quality, and students’ time to degree. The RTG can not be solely credited with making these conversations happen, but many of the discussions were either initiated or informed by experiences in the RTG program. Here are two examples. In February of 2000, the Spencer Steering Committee engaged in a discussion of what rigorous interdisciplinary work should mean in GSE and the extent to which it could be promoted through the Urban Education Research Seminars. Margaret Beale Spencer and Kathleen Hall agreed to work through some ideas on the meaning of interdisciplinary work and write a brief piece on how it might be conceptualized—which they did and brought forward to the full faculty for discussion. And in January 2001, the centerpiece discussion of the faculty’s annual retreat was “research mentoring” and the roles of academic advisors and research mentors in successful PhD student training. The discussion began with a presentation on RTG program experiences and lessons learned.

Students, too, had to cope with the change in climate. PhD students consistently reported in the early years of the RTG program that their academic experience was increasingly competitive, a situation exacerbated by the fact that some of students were receiving generous funding and some were not. In fact, at one point, RTG fellows approached the RTG coordinator as a group, asking that they not be referred to publicly as “Spencers” anymore because they did not want to have to deal with questions of perceived differential treatment that followed from their peers.

As funded research opportunities in the school grew, and as the school committed more institutional resources to PhD student aid, RTG funding increasingly became a tool to achieve equity. Said one faculty member,

The fact we fund all of our PhDs [now, in 2005] is a great thing . . . the problem 5 years ago was that because there was competition between grad students, the big centers that had the most money had the first pick of grad students so that if you did projects not funded with huge dollars, even if you could give students the best experience, they would go to the highest bidder, but students wouldn’t get the best research experience. Now students have a wide range of experiences. That eased some inequities.

The RTG helped to build a common language of research training in the school and a common set of experiences around research preparation to which the faculty could refer as its members worked to improve doctoral education in GSE. Before the RTG program, there was not much talk of “research apprenticeship” as a central feature of the PhD student experience at GSE. According to the faculty, the Spencer RTG provided part of the impetus for discussions of research training schoolwide and contributed to the adoption of a “scholarly apprenticeship” requirement for all PhD students in the school. How the requirement was carried out varies by advisor and research setting. However, the faculty at least began talking about PhD training as a mentored and apprenticed activity. Too, the transportable funding model of doctoral student aid that the RTG introduced in GSE gave the faculty, as a whole, cause to discuss essential elements of research preparation in the school and the variety of research training activities available to doctoral students en route to their degrees. The impact of this funding model was mentioned by each of the faculty members I interviewed as an important variation on doctoral student training in GSE. From the faculty, I heard arguments for and against the transportable funding model but, in our conversations, faculty members referred to variations in research preparation they had observed through the RTG program or to faculty conversations about research training brought about by the operation of the programs at GSE.

This growing common language among the faculty could arguably result in positive changes in the school. Improvement of the PhD education programs over the longer term implies the use of a common language and common experiences to which colleagues can refer as they manage change. Arguably, too, a faculty might build a lexicon and set of references that would never spur healthy change. But a representative remark from one faculty member gives me cause to hope for the former. He said,

Culture is difficult, but the spirit of the RTG and the fact that it was long-lasting meant that, in unintended ways and ways hard to trace, it created a different set of expectations and a language shared among most of us, or at least a large enough proportion of us to create those kinds of conversations, a mindset, and an orientation that it will continue.

The RTG program introduced new models of academic and administrative support for doctoral students and for research training in the school. I have already discussed the impact that the seminars series and student research symposia had on GSE students and faculty who participated in them. Remarkable, too, is the presence of the Spencer Steering Committee in the school. Consider the following comments from a GSE faculty member who was a mentor to a Spencer Fellow:

[The RTG program] had a powerful committee—the Steering Committee—and in some ways it was steering the RTG group but also issues that filtered down to the PhD program. I wonder if it would be a good idea to have a “group think” about PhD preparation even without the RTG because it kept in play a conversation that I think is important.

This faculty member’s representation of the work of the Spencer Steering Committee is notable, first because he described the group as “a powerful committee” when, in fact, the steering committee had no formal authority in the school whatsoever. It was appointed by the dean annually to oversee the operation of the RTG program and to be of use to the whole faculty as it considered issues of PhD student preparation. But the committee was not involved in the selection of Spencer Fellows, had no authority to affect policy in the school, and was involved in RTG fellow/research mentor “matching” only insofar as it reviewed fellows’ progress annually, intervening in faculty-student relationships rarely and strictly on an informal basis. Second, this faculty member accepts the view (shared by a clear majority of faculty with whom I spoke) that the steering committee influenced the work of the larger faculty on issues related to PhD student preparation. Finally, the faculty member goes on to imagine a “‘group think’ about PhD preparation even without the RTG,” indicating that the steering committee’s presence in the school had provided the faculty with an impulse to discuss PhD preparation on a continuing basis.

All this suggests that the steering committee was useful to the school and perhaps helpful to the faculty as it worked to improve norms for research preparation, even though the committee was established outside conventional programmatic and faculty support structures for students. The committee had perceived power, perhaps because it was attached to GSE’s premier fellowship program, but perhaps too because it was doing work that other faculty groups and school committees did not advance as effectively. This is supported by interview data from other faculty members, one of whom said,

I was on the steering committee, which I thought was a great opportunity to reflect more seriously and deeply about what PhD preparation in a school of education meant, and the range of experiences that preparation needed to include. Some of the most interesting conversations were around what kinds and what forms of mentoring we should take . . . and whether there are different models of mentorship. These conversations didn’t happen in other places. It allowed us to have more analytic precision about the different types of preparation we’re involved in and what rigor meant in each tradition and what preparation was needed.



There is urgency to improve research training in schools of education. Mounting critiques of the quality and relevance of education research (Lagemann, 2000; Levine, 2005; Pellegrino & Goldman, 2002; Whitehurst, 2003) and the genuine needs of practitioners for knowledge of what works, why, and in what circumstances (Stipek, 2005) clearly shape the imperative. It is also arguable that my school of education can no longer financially afford anything less than excellence in research training. Penn GSE now guarantees each of our admitted PhD students tuition, fees, a generous living stipend, and health care coverage for at least 3 years of study, committing some $60,000 in institutional and external resources per year to every PhD matriculant. Schools of education owe it to their students, to the education research community, and, most important, to teachers and school children to make the most of that investment. How? The operation of the RTG program at Penn offers several clues. Principally, the experiences and testimony of our students and faculty support the importance of rigorous, discipline-based research training that is complemented by opportunities for interdisciplinary exposure. It is important, further, that such initiatives be systematically supported both by the faculty and the administration.

Without question, the opportunity to view research and problems of practice from multiple disciplinary perspectives was a significant perceived benefit of the RTG program’s operation at Penn. The flexible model of research apprenticeship, the seminars, and the symposia all helped to illuminate the strengths and limitations of discipline-based research. Without exception, GSE PhD students who had the opportunity to engage in healthy discussions that promoted epistemological diversity were better off for it. This sort of work is unlikely to occur at the level of the individual degree program (Pallas, 2001), so engagement and support from the whole faculty is implied.

It follows, then, that “institutionalizing” these sorts of experiences and opportunities for students may mean consideration of structures and supports for doctoral student training that are unconventional, multidisciplinary, and collaborative. At Penn, the operation of the RTG program allowed a few new structures and supports to emerge, and the faculty and students did begin to think about research and research preparation in different ways as a result.

Appendix A.

Research Training Plan: Second- and Third-Year Spencer Fellows Who Will Not Complete Coursework in the Current Semester

Part I: Coursework











Proposed Research Apprenticeship Mentor






Current Research Apprenticeship Mentor






Area of Study

Courses Completed


Courses to Be Completed


Courses Required for Specialization (Core Courses)


Elective Courses


Courses Transferred


Research courses completed (or to be completed)

Quantitative methods_________________________________

Qualitative methods_________________________________

Distribution courses completed (or to be completed)

________________________________       ____________________________________

Semester/year in which all coursework will be completed


Research Training Plan

Part II: Benchmarks Toward Degree Completion

Doctoral Candidacy

Date:                                                         (anticipated/complete)

Preliminary Exams

Date:                                                          (anticipated/complete)

Written Proposal

Date:                                                          (anticipated/complete)

Oral Proposal

Date:                                                          (anticipated/complete)

Final Defense

Date:                                                          (anticipated/complete)

Part III:  Research Training Apprenticeship: Review and Proposal

A. Review

Write and attach to this form a one-page summary of what you have learned and experienced through your research training apprenticeship. Use the list on the following page as a guide for your summary. Remember that you are not necessarily expected to have training and experience in all of these areas in the last year.

B. Proposal

After you have reached agreement with your research mentor about the activities that you will undertake as part of your research training apprenticeship, write and attach to this form a one-page summary of the research training apprenticeship that you propose to complete next year. In your proposal, please highlight what you expect to learn and experience through your research training apprenticeship. Use the list on the following page as a guide for your proposal. Remember that you are not necessarily expected to receive training and experience in all of these areas in the next year. If you will be finishing classwork in less than one year, please indicate when your research training apprenticeship will end.

Guide to Research Training Apprenticeship Activities

Activities may include one or more of the following:

Research Design

Generating research questions

Choosing/designing a research methodology

Literature Review Experience

Library research

Reading and reviewing literature

Fieldwork Experiences

Negotiating entry and relationships at a fieldwork site

Location and time spent doing fieldwork

Activities at fieldwork site

Data Collection and Analysis Experience

Data collection design

Data collection

Data analysis

Writing and Presenting Results



Critiques/reviews/articles submitted for publication

Proposals for funding

Major papers (15 pages or more) written for your coursework based on experiences related to your research apprenticeship

Appendix B.

Recent Urban Education Research Seminars

January, 1999–April 2000

January 21, 1999: Chris Ashford and Joe Youngblood

Doctoral students Ashford and Youngblood presented and took questions on “The Start on Success Scholar’s Internship Program: A new paradigm for work transition and career development in inner-city special needs populations.” Their research and participation as leaders in this comprehensive school-to-work program was presented with concrete examples of the practical relationships of theory and practice. They discussed the issues and obstacles facing the “at-risk,” special-needs high school kids whom their program serves and demonstrated how their knowledge of child development theory has informed the development of the program itself. They took questions on their own dissertations (flowing from their work on this program) and also on whether this model of school-to-work programming is replicable or able to be “scaled up.”

February 18, 1999: Dr. Diana Slaughter-Defoe

Dr. Defoe presented and led discussion on “Studying Successful Philadelphia Public Elementary Schools,” a proposed study that emphasizes the many positive achievements of schools that counter expectations and appear to produce disadvantaged students who excel academically and socially. She examined why public opinion of Philadelphia schools and their students, as expressed in the newspapers, reflects little faith in the quality of education provided and exceptionally low academic and social expectations for the mostly minority and low-income students who attend the schools. She described a two-stage research project involving local urban elementary schools and the culture surrounding the education they offer to disadvantaged children. The seminar was an opportunity to discuss the study’s background, describe preliminary research plans, and get critical feedback from colleagues and peers in urban education.

March 18, 1999: Dr Rebecca Maynard

Dr. Maynard presented led a discussion titled “The Role of Mentoring in the Doctoral Student Experience.” The seminar took the form of a frank, interactive workshop on mentoring relationships as a part of the doctoral student experience. She focused on the opportunities, expectations, and boundaries that bear on mentoring relationships, beginning the discussion with students and faculty members reflecting on Webster’s definition of a mentor as a “loyal friend and wise advisor.” The rest of the discussion centered on the participants’ expectations and needs vis-à-vis the mentoring relationship:

Gaining the skills needed to enter a discourse community

Gaining the inspiration and focus one needs to impact the lives of children

Demystifying the processes of coursework, research, and dissertation

The extent to which a mentor must be supportive of the values of the mentee

The extent to which the mentor must be free to challenge and/or reject the work of the mentee (i.e., tough love)

September 16, 1999: Dr. Deanna Burney

“Professional Development—Creating Technical Cultures in our Schools.” Dr. Burney gave a presentation on her reform work in New York’s Community School District #2 that is centered on professional development programs for teachers. She led a discussion on the following questions: How do we get teachers engaged in long-term improvement of pedagogical practice? What are some ways to engage teachers with peers around problems of practice? What are the responsibilities of school principals and central office staff in this work? How can we, as members of GSE, support the creation of public school workplaces where people can thrive, and we can see a dramatic change in the makeup of the teaching force and in the performance of students? She believes that we are where we are in public education because of an absence of faculty development, administrative structures, and school organization that are designed to support a sustained investment in teacher and principal learning.

October 14, 1999: Dr. Susan Lytle, Gale Seiler, and Tom Kecskemethy

“An Exploration of Research on Practice.” Dr. Susan Lytle, doctoral student Gale Seiler, and administrator/doctoral student Tom Kecskemethy led a discussion of research on practice. They shared perspectives on the issues that were raised at the MSU Spencer Conference on the subject and led an interactive discussion on:

what “practice” is,

what research on/with/for practice should look like, and

how students can best be prepared to enter into this kind of research.

The seminar also explored whether there is a “critical mass” of faculty and students at GSE who are interested in developing an intellectual community around research on practice (there was significant interest, and further opportunities to explore this subject matter are being pursued).

November 11, 1999: Dr. Robert Boruch

“Children, Education, and Monetary Incentives: A Review of Controlled Field Experiments on Public Policy.” Dr. Boruch reviewed evaluative research that has been done in this public policy arena and led a discussion of the experimentation, findings, and implications. Dr. Boruch discussed how, since 1996, 30 states of the United States have enacted laws designed to motivate teenage parents who are on welfare to complete high school or attain a GED. He examined how all 50 states have produced statutes that concern teenagers in families who receive assistance through welfare programs (regardless of whether the teens are parents) and that bear on the teens’ educational attainment. He discussed how the intent of this legislation is to encourage adolescents to engage in schooling, thereby enhancing their self-sufficiency, and also how the legislative encouragement is exercised, notably, by making the receipt of welfare payments depend on the teens’ engagement in an education-related effort.

December 9, 1999: Dr. Elijah Anderson, Charles & William Day Professor of the Social Sciences, Professor of Sociology

“The History of Urban Ethnography.” Dr. Anderson discussed the history of urban ethnography, addressing the emergence of the “Chicago School,” and traced it up to the present day. He looked at the social issues with which the early Chicago ethnographers dealt, comparing their times—and problems—with ours. Whereas they were dealing with issues of industrialization, we are dealing increasingly with the dislocations and opportunities brought about by deindustrialization and globalism. He also spoke about the philosophy of the ethnographic method, exploring its strengths and weaknesses.

February 3, 2000: Dr. Jeanne Vissa

“Fostering ‘Self-Directed’ Learning: A Conversation About Theory and Practice Implications.” As GSE’s first “Practice Professor of Education,” Dr. Vissa is concerned with instructional strategies across subject areas, which help students develop independence and sustain their motivation to learn. Dr. Vissa explored how researchers and practitioners can work together in this area which, she suspects, will be promising for the work of the new Penn-assisted K–8 Neighborhood School. Dr. Vissa brings perspectives from existing research, her recent position as an elementary school principal, and her present work in teacher education at GSE.

April 6, 2000: Dr. Janine Remillard and Spencer Fellow, Melisa Cahnmann

“What Counts and How: Researching Mathematics Teaching and Learning in Bilingual/Bicultural Classrooms.” Dr. Remillard and Ms. Cahnmann presented their collaborative research on the relationship between mathematics reform education and urban education with culturally, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse (CLSD) student and teacher populations. They discussed the process of their collaboration and questions that have arisen about the role of reform mathematics in today’s urban classrooms. Dialogue among participants focused on tensions inherent in improving educational opportunities for students in CLSD classrooms.


Appendix C


In Social Research: Thinking Across Perspectives

The Rigor and Relevance Seminar Series is sponsored by the Spencer Foundation Research Training Grant and the Office of the Dean. The series aims to generate discussion concerning the various methodologies and perspectives of social research available to education researchers and to social scientists. Topics, speakers, and information are detailed below. All sessions explore a core set of questions: Is there a social world that is “objective” and “knowable”? How do social research methods differ in philosophy and standards of evidence? How do understandings of audience and purpose influence findings? What are the core tensions that exist in contemporary thought on social research?

The cofacilitators of the series are Associate Professor Charles Dwyer and ECS PhD student Dana Holland.

Session #1 ~ Philosophical Underpinnings of Social Research

Dr. Michael Tierney (GSE)

Understanding the history of social research

Understanding the scientific method and challenges to it

Realist and antirealist approaches

Session#2 ~ Experimental Methods

Dr. Robert Boruch (GSE)

Understanding the “scientific/positivist” approach to social research, and its historical and contemporary challenges

Session #3 ~ Survey & Demographic Methods

Dr. Frank Furstenberg (Sociology)

Understanding the conduct and implications of longitudinal survey research, with a special focus on notions of causality, evidence, and the future of survey research

Session #4 ~ Historical Methods

Dr. Marvin Lazerson (GSE)

Understanding historical research methods and what is “knowable” in historical work

Session #5 ~ Ethnographic Methods

Dr. Elijah Anderson (Sociology)

A narrative of a life in ethnography: what one can assert, standards of evidence, the roles and responsibilities of the researcher

Session#6 ~Practitioner Inquiry

Dr. Susan Lytle (GSE)

How does practitioner inquiry square with more traditional approaches to education research? What does it offer that educators in particular value?

Session #7 ~ Multimethod Evaluation

Dr. Jolley Christman, Principal Researcher, Research for Action

What are contemporary approaches to evaluation research, including the assumptions about truth, evidence, and purpose, that underlie each approach?

Session #8 ~ Critical Theory and Interpretive Methodologies

Dr. Kathleen Hall (GSE)

An overview of critical and postmodern approaches to research, including the strengths and weaknesses of critical and postmodern work, the relationship between research and politics, and the purpose of research


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 7, 2008, p. 1397-1423
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14878, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 9:44:55 AM

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  • Thomas Kecskemethy
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    TOM KECSKEMETHY is assistant dean and director of communications at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, where he is also an EdD candidate in higher education. He managed the Spencer RTG program at Penn GSE for 7 years.
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