The Wisconsin-Spencer Doctoral Research Program: An Evaluation

by Mary Leonard & Elizabeth Fennema - 2008

Background/Context: At a time when educational research is recognized as capable of improving teaching and learning, it is under attack for falling short of this promise. Part of the solution lies in improving the preparation of educational researchers. Toward this goal, the UW-Madison School of Education (SOE) participated with the Spencer Foundation in developing a model program now called the Wisconsin-Spencer Doctoral Research Program. The program endeavored to educate selected students in interdisciplinary research and, as a result, indirectly affect the structure of doctoral education in participating departments.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The Spencer Foundation announced that its funding would end in 2007, requiring the SOE to make decisions about continuing the DRP and about doctoral education more generally. Therefore, the dean requested an extensive evaluation of the program’s impact. The resulting study analyzed faculty members’ and student fellows’ assessments of the DRP’s contribution to graduate education.

Setting: Research was conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Population/Participants/Subjects: The study included three populations: SOE faculty members on campus in 2001–2002 (n = 85), fellows admitted to DRP in 1997–2001 (n = 46), and fellows who had received their PhDs (n = 9). Thirty-four percent of faculty, 85% of fellows, and 100% of graduates participated.

Intervention/Program/Practice: The DRP’s guiding principles were interdisciplinarity (literacy in/respect for diverse inquiry approaches), methodological rigor, theoretical orientation, concern with practice, and research experience. The program was implemented through key components: 4 years’ funding for five fellows, professional expense funds, fall and spring proseminars, advanced research seminar, systematic training in methods/theory, mentor committee, annual progress reporting, participation in research, presentation of research, and community.

Research Design: We evaluated the DRP’s effectiveness in a case study approach that included both qualitative and quantitative data.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data collection included surveys (with Likert, multiple-choice, and open-ended items) of faculty and fellows, and semistructured interviews of faculty with key roles in the program and fellows who had graduated.

Findings/Results: The DRP was at least partially effective in achieving its goals. Students and faculty shared positive views of funding and the interdisciplinary focus, and there was some evidence of changes in departmental programs. Challenges included the top-down implementation approach taken in a faculty-governed institution and attempting to change departments with a student-focused program.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study raises questions about the DRP’s development and implementation, but it concludes that the DRP provided a good educational experience for many fellows, changed some faculty members’ beliefs, and acted as a catalyst and an opportunity to seriously consider graduate education for the 21st century.

During the last part of the 20th century and into the 21st, policy makers, educational researchers, and the public have increasingly come to believe that educational research can provide knowledge that will lead to major educational change and improvement in the teaching and learning of American youth. At the same time that the importance of educational research is being recognized, it is coming under attack for being trivial, nonrelevant, and poorly done; it is generally perceived as falling short of expectations for changing practice (Bruner, 1999; Lagemann, 1999; Miller, 1999). Part of the solution to the problem of the relevance of educational research lies in improving the doctoral programs that prepare new educational researchers (Heath, 1999; Young, 2001a). Toward this end, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) School of Education (SOE) participated with the Spencer Foundation in developing a program that sought “to support innovative ways to address the training of education researchers by enhancing resources for individuals, strengthening preparation programs at institutions, and enriching doctoral training within the larger educational research community” (Young, 2001b, p. 26).

In response to a request by the Spencer Foundation in 1993, the UW-Madison SOE submitted an application for funds to support a model doctoral program that would exist within departments’ ongoing programs. The proposal resulted in funds to support a small program cooperatively funded by the UW-Madison and the Spencer Foundation that began in fall 1994 and continues today. The program was known as the Spencer Research Training Program (RTP) until 2001, when it was renamed the Wisconsin-Spencer Doctoral Research Program (DRP) to reflect the financial and educational contributions of both the Spencer Foundation and the UW-Madison.

This program was designed to effect change in the SOE departmental doctoral programs to produce more future leaders in educational research. The challenge of preparing educational researchers for the 21st century was perceived to be, in the words of one of the proposal writers, producing “very talented researchers who have both the depth and the breadth to be able to tackle the critical issues of the future,” researchers who would be “conversant with methods for comprehending work across fields.”1 The program evolved as a unique and substantive Wisconsin program with two consistent goals: (1) to educate selected students in interdisciplinary research perspectives so that they would develop skills and orientation that would enable them to continue to produce and/or use high-quality research throughout their careers, and (2) to have an impact on the structure of doctoral research education in the SOE. Key aspects of the DRP’s approach to doctoral research education were to expose students to multiple perspectives of educational research in an interdisciplinary educational research community (Golde & Gallagher, 2001; Metz, 2001; Schoenfeld, 1999; Young, 2001a) and involve students early in practices of educational research (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Schoenfeld, 1999). Some of the principles that guided the program were breadth of vision—literacy in and respect for more than one approach to inquiry in education (i.e., the interdisciplinary focus); methodological rigor in understanding and applying the foundations and research methods of one’s field; orientation to research guided by theory; concern with role of practice in both guiding and interpreting research; and extensive and varied experience in research.


The DRP was designed to fit within the existing framework of the School of Education at the UW-Madison, and to understand the DRP and its impact, it is important to understand this context. UW-Madison is a public university with an enrollment of over 40,000 students. The graduate program of the SOE has consistently received high ratings by many sources. The DRP exists within the SOE, where major responsibility for a student’s doctoral program rests with an individual adviser who works within the structure of an academic department’s program. Thus, the program was designed to supplement the individual faculty member’s work with students and the department’s regular program, while at the same time having an impact on the doctoral education programs within the various departments. This impact was to happen by having faculty advisers involved with the DRP and by them spreading the program throughout departments. The DRP has operated within the five academic departments in the SOE that do education-relevant research: Counseling Psychology, Curriculum and Instruction, Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, Educational Policy Studies, and Educational Psychology.2

Academic decisions at UW-Madison are made by departmental faculty, who make most decisions regarding graduate education. Although departments must follow broad guidelines established by the graduate school of the university, each department is almost autonomous in structuring its graduate programs, and the programs differ across departments. During the evaluation period of 1997–2001, the number of faculty members in the five departments averaged 85; the number of graduate students averaged 477. Approximately 53% of faculty have been major professors of students enrolled in the DRP, but in a given year, 2001–2002 for example, only about one third of faculty had students participating in DRP. DRP student participation has averaged 6% of enrolled doctoral students. It is quite evident that the DRP has been working with a very small percentage of the total doctoral enrollment.


The DRP was never intended to replace the existing departmental doctoral programs but to complement them. The writers of the original proposal recognized that the possibility of influencing all SOE graduate education programs was problematic, given the separate departmental programs and the small amount of funds that would be received relative to the entire SOE. But the proposal writers hoped that by implementing a model program across departmental boundaries that would accomplish goals suitable for the 21st-century education of researchers, change in departmental programs would follow. Change was sought in part because of new challenges and requirements facing future educational researchers, as well as to promote more cross-departmental interaction and to expose all departments to a set of best practices for preparing educational researchers, some of which may have already been in use in one or more departments.

The proposal writers were a small group: The SOE dean and about five other faculty members. The overall attempt, led by a small group of people, to effect change in doctoral education was immediately suspect by many faculty. Some felt it impinged on departmental and faculty authority and responsibility. UW-Madison is a faculty-governed institution in which doctoral programs are controlled by departments and in turn by departmental faculty. Others felt, and rightfully so in many cases, that because high-quality research was consistently produced by UW-Madison SOE faculty, excellent graduate programs already existed. Because many graduates of the SOE were in positions of leadership throughout the world, a different program was unnecessary. But despite the somewhat negative beliefs of many, the small group decided to submit a grant proposal that, if funded, would result in a model program being developed to effect change throughout the SOE.

According to one of the proposal writers, departmental change was to come about indirectly by recruiting a few high-quality students from five departments across the SOE and providing them with a model program that included “elements that . . . would spread best practices” through the departments via the participating students and faculty. The hope was that these best practices—such as systematic advising, encouraging students to draw on the resources of the whole SOE, and encouraging students to be literate consumers of research produced outside their own paradigms—would enter the repertoire of the students’ advisers and would then propagate through the departments. The program developers saw the proposed DRP as an opportunity for “getting a conversation going that is really schoolwide, which is particularly important in a school like this one where we have, we are highly departmentalized.” As one proposal writer summed it up, “We were pushing faculty and . . . we were trying to change faculty with student money.”


The formulation of the DRP structure was initiated by the SOE dean. The dean appointed a director from among the faculty who then took responsibility for administration of the DRP. An advisory committee comprising representatives from each of the five departments advised the director about substantive matters and made decisions about DRP admissions.

Faculty participated in the program variously as director, department representatives on the advisory committee, mentor committee members, proseminar and advanced-seminar instructors, guest lecturers in the seminars, and/or as a fellow’s major professor. Although faculty members occasionally volunteered to participate, usually they participated after solicitation by the DRP director. Reaction to this solicitation varied widely. Some faculty members refused outright because of involvement with other activities, but many enthusiastically agreed to participate. Each year, all first- and second-year doctoral students in the five participating departments were invited to apply within their department for participation in the DRP. Students were asked to provide extensive application materials that included GRE scores, transcripts, curricula vitae, letters of recommendation, a plan for doctoral study, and a statement discussing intellectual interests that made explicit why the DRP would be useful in the development of those interests and career goals. Applicants were ranked by their home departments and their applications forwarded to the cross-departmental advisory committee. After reading and discussing the applications and considering the departmental rankings, this committee ranked applicants and selected students for admission. Students admitted to the DRP were those judged to have the best qualifications for conducting, and continuing to conduct, educational research. Because expectations for students in the first years of their doctoral programs varied by department, committee members also varied in their interpretations of who was best qualified. For example, in some departments, students beyond their first year in the SOE were expected to have formulated a sharp research agenda and to have it under way; other departments cast the first year of doctoral study as a time when students establish a broad foundation. Accordingly, some members of the DRP faculty advisory committee considered the strongest students as those with clear research agendas, whereas others identified the strongest as individuals whom they viewed as very thoughtful, sharp students. Some viewed the DRP as an “honors track” in doctoral research preparation. Admissions decisions required discussion and negotiation of perspectives among the committee members.

The advisory committee had at its disposal five fellowships that it awarded to selected students who appeared to have the most promise to successfully complete a doctorate and to continue to do educational research. The Spencer Foundation provided funds for 2 years of half-time fellowship support for each of three students; departments guaranteed these three students an additional 2 years of financial support, usually in the form of teaching assistantships. The UW-Madison Graduate School provided two additional fellowships intended to increase diversity in the program by offering support to students from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds. All other students who appeared to have the potential to become educational researchers were admitted to the program as nonfunded fellows. Admitted students participated in the DRP for 4 years (unless they completed their doctorate sooner). Fourteen cohorts of fellows have been admitted to the program to date. Table 1 provides demographic data for students admitted from 1997 through 2001.

Table 1. Demographics of the 46 Students Admitted to DRP in 1997–2001













































Average Dept. Total

Curriculum and Instruction



Counseling Psychology



Educational Leadership & Policy Studies



Educational Policy Studies



Educational Psychology



During the first 3 years of the DRP (1994–1996), only fellowship students participated in the program. Because of increased interest in the DRP as the years went by, additional qualified students were admitted without fellowship support. The numbers of participants steadily increased until admissions were capped at 20 per year in 2003. All students who participated in the DRP, on a funded or unfunded basis, were called Wisconsin-Spencer Fellows. Other than the funds received, no differentiation was made between funded (fellowship recipients) and nonfunded fellows.


The DRP comprised the following components, aimed collectively at achieving the program’s goals.

Four years of funding for five fellows. Funded fellows received fellowships that included various benefits, such as tuition remission, health insurance, and a monthly stipend.

Professional expense funds. All fellows were eligible to apply annually for funds to support professional expenses associated with research. The major criterion considered for approval of a request was whether it contributed to fellows’ research preparation; this criterion was broadly interpreted. Examples of professional expenses included costs for software, video recording equipment, transcription of research interviews, and travel to present a paper at a professional meeting.

Fall proseminar. In their first year in the DRP, fellows enrolled in a three-credit fall proseminar designed to have students become familiar with multiple research perspectives, gain facility in recognizing the types of questions that could be addressed in various perspectives, and learn to identify each perspective’s strengths and weaknesses. In the seminar, students read about, discussed, and critiqued research from different traditions. The seminar also offered an opportunity to form intellectual and social ties with peers in other SOE departments and other educational and research traditions. This seminar was usually taught by a team of two SOE senior professors who had worked in different research traditions. The instructors and specific content of the course varied from year to year.

Spring proseminar. Fellows enrolled in the one-credit proseminar in the spring semester of their first year of participation. Its format allowed fellows to present their work to a group of colleagues and to develop conversations about it across departmental boundaries.

Advanced research seminar. During their second through fourth years in the DRP, fellows participated in advanced seminars that varied in content and organization across the years but were designed around increasing their knowledge about multiple research perspectives and building communities of inquiry. This seminar was usually led by the DRP director.

Systematic training in methods and theory. Fellows took coursework designed to develop high-level expertise in at least one research perspective and also took sufficient coursework to become informed consumers of educational studies conducted within at least one additional perspective. These requirements supported and supplemented departmental research training requirements.

Mentor committee. Upon admission, fellows and their advisers set up a mentoring committee composed of the major professor and at least one faculty member from outside the fellow’s major department. This gave fellows the advantage of multiple adviser perspectives at an early stage. Membership of the mentoring committee sometimes changed as the fellows’ interests evolved or as the availability of professors changed.

Annual reporting of professional development. Each spring, fellows were asked to work with their advisers to review their doctoral program progress and plans, and to report on these to the DRP director. The director’s role was to facilitate participants’ fulfillment of program component requirements.

Participation in faculty research. Apprenticeship with faculty engaged in research was a critical element in fellows’ development. The DRP was not always able to create such opportunities directly, but fellows and their mentor committees were strongly urged to locate paid research assistantships for fellows or to consider voluntary research arrangements when circumstances permitted.

Presentation of original research. Before they reached dissertator status, fellows were required to write a paper based on original research and to present that paper in a public forum. Examples included master’s papers, expanded seminar papers, and papers connected to work on a project with a faculty member. It was required that the fellow be a major contributor toward all phases of the research project and its write-up.

Community. A sense of community was fostered during the first-year proseminars and continued through fellows’ participation in the advanced seminars. Various professional and social activities designed to support the spirit of community were also held periodically during the year, for example, brown-bag talks, an “ice cream with the dean” spring social, and an RTG breakfast at the American Educational Research Association.


In September 2002, the Spencer Foundation announced that support of institutional RTGs would cease at the end of the current round of funding. In Wisconsin’s case, this meant that funding would end in June 2007. Thus, it was necessary for the SOE to make decisions regarding continuation of the DRP. To facilitate decisions about the DRP in its current form, and about the future of doctoral education in the SOE more generally, the dean asked the DRP director and a doctoral student who had been a DRP fellow and graduate assistant to the director to carry out an extensive evaluation of the program. The resultant evaluation examined the impact of the DRP on fellows in Cohorts 4–8 (admitted from 1997 to 2001) and on the SOE faculty of 2001–2002. Complete results of the evaluation are reported in Fennema and Leonard (2003) and are summarized here.

The evaluation collected multiple types of data from multiple sets of people to create a database that would provide information to guide both the analyses and the conclusions drawn. The sets of people studied were3: SOE tenure-track faculty from participating departments who were on campus during 2001–2002 (n = 85); fellows participating in Cohorts 4–8 (n = 46); and all previous fellows who had received their PhDs (n = 9).

Surveys and semistructured interviews with fellows, departmental research leaders, proposal writers, past directors, and graduates of the program provided data, quantitative and qualitative. Thirty-four percent of identified faculty participated in the study, along with 85% of the fellows and 100% of program graduates. We present next a summary of the findings from analysis of participating faculty members’, fellows’, and graduates’ data, and follow with discussion of conclusions. Finally, we present the recommendations about the future of the DRP.


Although faculty4 response was somewhat limited (about one third responded to the survey), those who did respond expressed approval of the DRP and its goals. For example, asked about the program’s success, they indicated approval of the DRP’s purposes and the experiences that it provided their students. But their responses to the program’s components were extremely diverse.

Although faculty reported that funding for fellows was the most important part of the DRP, almost as important was its interdisciplinary emphasis. Faculty said that the emphasis on interdisciplinary education was substantively correct and necessary to prepare scholars for the 21st century. Faculty further asserted that it was critical for SOE faculty themselves to increase dialogue across disciplines and departments. One person commented succinctly, “I don’t think we can afford people in education anymore who know one little narrow band of how to do something and then proclaim that they are educational researchers.” The responding faculty believed that the DRP was one of the few places in the SOE where an interdisciplinary emphasis was stressed. This had an impact not only on the fellows but also on the faculty who were involved in the program. Faculty reported that they profited from their contact across departments and also from the thinking seen in their fellows. As faculty saw the fellows’ curiosity and desire to learn about other types of research, they were themselves encouraged to be curious and expand their knowledge about other paradigms.

Faculty believed that the DRP’s goals and components had changed their departments. Some reported a direct impact in that their department incorporated DRP components into its programs. Courses were modified or added and structural changes implemented. Others reported indirect change, stating that the DRP had encouraged discussion about graduate education and stimulated faculty to learn about other research paradigms. As one faculty member summed it up, “It has led us to think more carefully about the quality and coverage of our program. It has given us a stronger awareness of best and worst practices in the SOE, and given us goals on how to strengthen doctoral training.”

An expected finding was that the DRP’s influence on individual faculty depended on the amount of involvement that an individual had in the DRP. If a faculty member had taught in a proseminar or served as director or on the advisory committee, he or she had a correspondingly higher belief in the program’s value. In fact, one of the DRP’s most vocal critics changed beliefs almost completely after teaching the proseminar with a faculty member from another department who was previously unknown to this individual. Many faculty had no student participants in the DRP, and their responses tended to be less positive; alternatively, faculty who had several students in the DRP tended to respond more positively. However, a major finding of this evaluation was that the DRP was effective in spite of the relatively small pool of involved faculty. One faculty member said, “You don’t have to have everybody in a department in order to make change. . . . So, what you need is a few committed people who care a lot about it and believe in the goals of it.”

Faculty members’ perceptions of and reactions to the DRP’s advising and mentoring components were more varied than their responses to any other component, depending somewhat on the number of students for whom they had served as major adviser. Some thought that the advising and mentoring components of the DRP were highly important, whereas others thought they were completely unnecessary. It was hard to understand how faculty felt about the mentor committee because they were overwhelmingly positive that contact with faculty outside the home department was a benefit. The few comments that faculty made about this component were negative, such as it being “difficult to arrange” meetings of the committee. The range of responses might be explained by the changing nature of DRP requirements or their overlap with standing departmental requirements. Some faculty appeared to believe that the DRP infringed on faculty rights and responsibilities (in student advising) by virtue of an implicit assumption, in the DRP, that faculty had to be told when and how to advise fellows. This belief undoubtedly influenced responses to this component.

Faculty overall had somewhat negative views about the fall proseminar; many believed it was too time consuming for students or that it duplicated offerings within the home department. Some faculty reported that coteaching the proseminars with a colleague who worked in a markedly different tradition could be difficult. Instructors found the course challenging to lead, in part because it required them to confront their own assumptions about research and to coteach with a colleague from a markedly different research tradition with which they might not be familiar. Changing instructors annually may not have allowed them to become skilled in this role. Dynamics between coinstructors also appeared to have a major impact on how well the course ran. Other instructors reported how much they learned and how valuable the experience was. Teaching the proseminar offered a “professional development experience” and broadened faculty’s knowledge about research. One faculty member who had taught the seminar noted that “participating in the seminar as instructors has definitely made people more open to a variety of approaches, more aware of the perspectives represented in the school.” Because the proseminar was designed to be the major source for DRP fellows to gain interdisciplinary research knowledge, it is puzzling why most faculty did not rank it as highly as other variables. Because only a small percentage of their graduate students participated in the proseminar, and an even smaller percentage of faculty actually taught it, perhaps its contribution was not apparent to faculty.

Although faculty perceived DRP funding and its interdisciplinary emphasis to be important, their recommendations for the long-term future of the DRP varied widely. Although most believed that cross-disciplinary education was good for students, they expressed reservations about future financial costs as the reality that the SOE would have to generate or allocate the funds to continue it became apparent. It was clear that the DRP would have to take its place in any list of future funding priorities. Many faculty members did not believe it should receive very high ranking.


Fellows reported that overall, the DRP had a strong influence on their doctoral education. Of major benefit to students were fellowships, professional expense funds, and the interdisciplinary emphasis, all of which were in limited supply elsewhere in the SOE. Fellows also valued their preparation as researchers and the connections they made with other students in the school through the DRP. Some other aspects of the program, however, were considered peripheral, namely the advising components, facilitation of research experiences, and the proseminar.

Funds were particularly important. Although we detected few differences between responses of funded and nonfunded fellows in most areas, the possibility of obtaining a fellowship was the most important reason for applying. But it should be noted that even when students did not receive fellowships, they sought out participation in the DRP in progressively increasing numbers such that the number of applicants admitted eventually had to be capped at 20. This was probably due to the DRP’s increased visibility as the years went by. No doubt, the student grapevine was at work as fellows talked to their peers about their positive experiences in the DRP.

Of course, fellowship funds were invaluable to those who received them. These funds relieved students from working and allowed them to focus on participation in research, on coursework, and on development of their own research independent of funded faculty projects. Some fellows reported that having funds enabled them to broaden their research base by working on research projects of diverse faculty members. Many fellows reported that fellowships made it possible for them to complete their PhDs earlier than they would have otherwise. Others asserted that they could not have undertaken their doctoral studies without the fellowship support. Professional expense funds were also of great importance to all fellows. This funding not only supported fellows in attending conferences, buying research equipment and software, and so on, but it also gave them a feeling of support and recognition as research professionals.

According to all fellows, the second most important component of the program was its interdisciplinary emphasis. Fully half of the fellows credited the DRP with being the major place in their graduate programs where they developed a breadth of vision about educational research. They reported that it was primarily through participation in the proseminars and discussions with graduate student peers from other departments that they learned about other areas of research. Interaction with faculty other than in their home departments (e.g., the DRP director, seminar instructors, guest speakers, mentoring committee members, or primary investigators on whose research they worked) was also important. One fellow said that he/she appreciated “working with professors whom [he/she] might not have met without the DRP.” The spring proseminar was especially valuable to fellows because it exposed them to research that represented perspectives different from or complementary to their own. Fellows noted that the spring seminar “has really given us an opportunity to experience differences in methodology,” and “it is encouraging and stimulating to hear about other fellows’ research.”

Although many fellows credited the proseminar overall with providing breadth of knowledge about interdisciplinary research, its evaluations varied somewhat from cohort to cohort. Fellows’ reports about the three-credit fall proseminar tended to be negative, whereas their reports about the one-credit spring proseminar tended to be positive. It is no surprise to educators that classroom dynamics are very complex; often these affect course evaluations more so than does academic content. Reports from the fellows confirmed this interpretation of the responses. Dissatisfaction with the quality of discussion and disagreements among students in the proseminar were particularly important in shaping fellows’ views of it. This may have been the first time many of the fellows had engaged in a significant way in interdisciplinary dialogue about research. Some found themselves in a position of defending their major paradigm without the depth of experience and knowledge to do so effectively or comfortably. The dynamics between the proseminar coinstructors and the overall demands of a three-credit-hour course, in addition to pressures to respond to departmental requirements, were all sources of dissatisfaction to fellows.

Concurrent with gaining breadth of vision was fellows’ apparent development of egalitarian views of different research paradigms. Fellows spoke of consulting their DRP peers about different approaches to research and incorporating these into their own work or teaching. There was increased tolerance and intellectual appreciation for different research perspectives as fellows learned and worked as a community. When some found that staying within the bounds of their major paradigm to be overly confining, it was a development not always received well by their departmental advisers who sometimes asserted that breadth of vision can come at the expense of depth of understanding within one’s chosen paradigm. Whatever the outcome of this depth-versus-breadth argument, DRP graduates appeared to be well educated in diverse methodologies, and there were indications that fellows would assist in promoting cross-disciplinary conversation in the profession in the future.

Another benefit to fellows was the unique community developed through the DRP among fellow graduate students across cooperating departments. Although they could meet and get to know students from other departments in less formal ways, the DRP community was unique in that it formally brought together diverse students with a common interest in research. The strengths of fellows’ common interest in research, the structure that the DRP provided, and the cohort experience are all factors that might have helped to sustain this community of fellows beyond the traditional efforts of departments and social groups.

Other components of the DRP received less attention from the fellows during the interviews or in the open-ended survey questions. Some fellows expressed dissatisfaction with how the DRP facilitated their experiences in hands-on research with faculty members. Indeed, the DRP played only an indirect role by setting requirements for fellows to participate in faculty research. Not all fellows were able to find opportunities to participate in faculty research projects; one quarter said they had not had any such opportunities at all. Whereas the majority of fellows felt that they had adequate research experiences, primarily through appointments as assistants on faculty research projects they accessed through their advisers or other sources, a large number felt that their involvement in research was inadequate. Several suggested that the DRP could do more to make research opportunities known or available to fellows.

Fellows found the DRP’s advising elements to be peripheral because they were often redundant with the advising that their major departments offered. One component of the DRP that the fellows valued highly was the prestige conferred by being named a Wisconsin-Spencer Fellow. It was viewed as a mark of distinction not only on one’s curriculum vitae but also for the value it accorded DRP participants through their graduate student years. It led many fellows to take themselves seriously as researchers.

Overall, both funded and nonfunded fellows were extremely positive about the DRP’s impact on their professional development. They were eager to engage in the evaluation and often expressed informally their belief that the DRP was extremely important in their professional development. Current fellows overwhelmingly supported continuing the DRP when the Spencer Foundation’s funding ended and offered a number of suggestions for the shape that the program might take. Some of the suggestions were to spread the program’s goals across the SOE, to reallocate fellowship-type funds so that more students might benefit, to continue professional expense funds, and to provide more interdisciplinary experiences.


Graduates of the program were primarily employed in institutions where research was encouraged but not necessarily facilitated. These first few DRP graduates (n = 9) were too new to have established a research record, but they were overwhelmingly positive about the DRP’s contribution to their development, specifically in their preparation as researchers and the distinction of having been Spencer Fellows. Among the first group of 9 graduates from 2000 to 2002, 5 were involved 50%–100% time in research, and 4 were spending up to 25% of their time doing research. All professed an abiding interest in and desire to do educational research. Among a second group of 9 graduates who completed their PhDs in 2003, 8 went on to university faculty positions, and 1 took a job as a public school administrator. As far as we can predict, graduates of the program will continue to participate actively as educational researchers. The graduated fellows concurred almost exactly with the current fellows’ views about continuing the DRP.


The major finding of our investigation and our personal experience was that the DRP has been at least partially effective in achieving its goals for fellows and the SOE. Regarding its goal of educating some doctoral students in interdisciplinary research perspectives, the majority of faculty and fellows expressed positive views about the DRP and the education and experiences it provided fellows. Regarding its goal of having an impact on the structure of doctoral research, did DRP affect the SOE faculty and commensurately, the institution itself, as hoped? The answer with regard to faculty is yes and no, depending on one important element: how involved an individual faculty member was in the DRP. Of the faculty members who did not respond, a high percentage had never worked in the DRP nor overseen the work of a student in it. But the more a faculty member worked in the DRP as an instructor, advisory committee member, or adviser to a student, the more likely that person was to agree with the implementation of DRP components in her or his own department.

There is some evidence that the DRP had at least an indirect impact on the structure of doctoral education programs as well. Faculty who participated in the evaluation reported that many DRP components had been implemented and more discussion about graduate education had occurred in their departments. There was some evidence that having the opportunity to explore ideas about graduate education enabled change in faculty beliefs. With more of its faculty involved in the DRP, a department was more likely to discuss graduate education and to change its graduate programs. At the very least, the DRP provided a forum for discussion within SOE departments about the future shape of graduate education. A faculty member who held a leadership role in both the DRP and his/her department noted that departmental change “happened through the operation of a network of people who have been involved in the DRP. . . . This network ensured that when . . . the departments revisit their doctoral program . . . some of the DRP’s practices will be up for discussion.”

The reality and difficulty of effecting change in a large, complex university such as UW-Madison is evident. Faculty members at all universities are busy, and when a university places a high priority on scholarship, faculty time is split in many ways. Research takes time. As one contributes significant scholarship to a body of research, demands to provide national, international, and statewide service increase. There are increasing demands on faculty to serve on various critical committees. And although faculty at UW-Madison are dedicated to teaching, these other demands take a toll on what one is able to do. Perhaps if the amount of funding received had been sufficient to directly affect more faculty members, its impact on the instructional program would have been greater. But despite these factors, responding faculty appeared to believe strongly that the DRP did have an impact on the structure of their doctoral programs.

From our experience and the evidence we collected, we believe that the DRP, in conjunction with departmental programs, provided an excellent research education for the students it touched. It also was effective in changing some faculty and departments. But we should consider two points in relation to the limited change that resulted. The program was very small. How could change be effected if the number of faculty and students was so limited? Furthermore, the DRP may have touched more faculty if its implementation could have been more thoughtful in considering the dynamics of faculty governance at UW-Madison. The top-down approach to change in doctoral education could not be as effective as one might wish in a university that prides itself on, and takes very seriously, the tradition of faculty governance whereby departments and individual faculty have the authority, latitude, and expectation to determine the form of doctoral education. Although the enormity of undertaking schoolwide planning for change is enough to give one pause, perhaps more faculty input at the original RTG proposal planning and writing phases would have resulted in more change.

Although this study raises questions about the DRP’s development and implementation, it also concludes that at the very least, the DRP provided a good educational experience for many fellows, changed some faculty members’ beliefs, and acted as a catalyst and an opportunity to seriously consider graduate education for the 21st century.


1 Comments in quotation marks are taken directly from surveys or interviews collected during the program evaluation.

2 The nonparticipating departments are Art (includes Art Education), Kinesiology (includes Dance and Occupational Therapy), and Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education.

3 We discussed including comparison groups to help establish causation. However, because the extensive documentation required for selection as a DRP fellow was not available for other students, it was impossible to find a comparison group. Faculty change yearly, so a comparison group for them was difficult, if not impossible, to find.

4 When we refer to faculty in the results and discussion, we refer only to those who responded to the survey or participated in interviews. Only about one third of the total SOE faculty responded, and almost all the respondents had participated in the DRP to a greater extent than those who did not respond. Therefore, because of the knowledge that most of the 29 respondents had about the DRP, we decided not to generalize the results to the entire faculty.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 7, 2008, p. 1379-1396 ID Number: 14882, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 5:43:12 AM

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