‘I Cannot Think of Better Career Preparation:’ How the College of Education is Helping Doctoral Students Become Scholar Leaders to Tackle Pressing Educational Issues

When Arif Rachmatullah ’21PHD was earning his master’s degree in South Korea, he had the opportunity to become involved in several research projects. It was during this time that he came across a variety of papers published in top-tier journals and authored by faculty members in the NC State College of Education’s Department of STEM Education.

Reading these studies, he knew that the College of Education would be the best place to earn his doctoral degree in Learning and Teaching in STEM in the science education program area of study and reach his goal of becoming an education researcher.

“I knew that working with faculty members who are actively doing this research would help me develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes I would need to achieve my dream to become a successful education researcher,” Rachmatullah said.  

The doctoral programs in the College of Education aim to prepare scholar leaders who produce high-impact research, influence policy and lead change at local, state and national levels to solve critical problems in education through a future-oriented mindset. 

During an overhaul of the programs five years ago spearheaded by Dean Mary Ann Danowitz, D.Ed., who was serving as interim dean at the time, faculty in the College of Education took an intentional approach to the programs to ensure that students were able to think broadly and integratively while also developing content knowledge and skills in a specialty area. 

“We wanted to create structures that enabled us, working with our students at the highest level possible, to address authentic problems that we face in education broadly in North Carolina, the U.S. and the world,” said John Lee, Ph.D., associate dean for faculty and academic affairs. “Most important problems that we face do not fit neatly into academic categories, so we wanted to be able to configure ourselves in such a way that we would be able to support and activate our students to address those authentic problems.”

Preparing graduates to address interdisciplinary problems meant blurring the lines that existed around traditional academic structures and disciplines and recharacterizing the college’s five Ph.D. programs into three broad and integrative programs: Learning and Teaching in STEM, Teacher Education and Learning Sciences and Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development.

Within each doctoral degree program are several program areas of study that allow students to focus on a specific subject within their broader degree.

“By having program areas of study and not formalized concentrations, it allows faculty to change, adjust and grow the degrees as needed and to change and adjust as the future goes on,” said Professor and STEM Education Department Head Aaron Clark, Ed.D., who helped lead the implementation of the redesigned doctoral programs. 

The redesign, Lee said, led to more coherent Ph.Ds with students in each department now taking a series of common courses related to their degree, leading to a community of scholars. In addition, the college introduced two new courses required for all Ph.D. students: Diversity and Equity in Schools and Communities and Systemic Change in Education and Society.

These two courses, along with several research methods courses, are taken with students from all degree programs, allowing scholars from multiple disciplines to learn and share ideas with one another. 

“Educational problems are, by their very nature, interdisciplinary. By designing a program that is intentionally engaging doctoral students in interdisciplinary problem solving, we are preparing them for real-world issues that they will be facing as they enter the job market,” said College of Education Associate Dean, Friday Institute for Educational Innovation Executive Director and Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor of Literacy Education Hiller Spires, Ph.D., who helped lead the implementation of the redesigned Ph.D. programs.

James Smiling ’22PHD, a student in the Learning and Teaching in STEM mathematics and statistics education program area of study, said that the interdisciplinary courses helped to enrich his understanding of the ways in which policy plays a significant role in educational inequities experienced by students both locally and nationally. The courses also gave him the tools and resources to become an active voice in seeking change and challenging difficult problems in education.

Additionally, he believes that taking these classes with students who come from different educational backgrounds enhanced his learning experiences.

“Our discussions were taken from multiple perspectives and our lived experiences added richness and depth to understanding the complexities of systemic challenges we face,” he said. 

“Folks come into the college with such different life and career experiences and I believe that engaging with others’ perspectives helped us all to learn more meaningfully and grow as educators and researchers,” added Casey Holmes ’21PHD.

Holmes, who recently accepted a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of education at Drake University in Iowa, said her experiences as a doctoral student in the College of Education have thoroughly prepared her for her career. 

While earning her degree in Teacher Education and Learning Sciences in the social studies education program area of study, Holmes had the opportunity to work with peers on an interdisciplinary research project that was published in the Journal of Social Studies Research and presented at multiple conferences. 

She also won several awards for her work as a doctoral student, including the 2019 National Technology Leadership Initiative Award for her work on a project with Associate Professor Meghan Manfra, Ph.D., and the NC State Graduate Student Association Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching for her role as an instructor of record in the undergraduate middle grades English Language Arts and social studies education program.

Holmes is one of many doctoral students in the College of Education to receive recognition for their work. Most recently, Danielle Moloney ’24PHD became the sixth student to receive a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, Regina Aayala Chavez ’23PHD received a fellowship from the Climate Adaptation Science Center and Jessica Vandenberg ’21PHD was selected as a 2021 Computing Innovation Fellow.

The Computing Innovation Fellowship program sponsors two-year postdoctoral research opportunities in computing, while offering career development and cohort building activities in an effort “to provide a career-enhancing bridge experience for recent Ph.D. graduates.”

These students are among 260 doctoral students who were enrolled in the College of Education as of the Spring 2021 semester, many of whom are able to receive support from the college as they complete their studies. 

Lee said about 120 doctoral students are able to work for the college through graduate student assistantships, with over $2 million invested in supporting them.

“It has enabled us to do things that we were never able to do before. Our students are working in our departments alongside our faculty, participating in research, teaching classes, out in the field supervising internships and supporting us on innovative projects,” he said. “Everywhere you look in our college, we have doctoral students working. We’ve really invested in it and it’s made a huge difference.” 

Chelsea Smith ’22PHD said the vast amount of support and abundance of resources the College of Education dedicated to helping graduate students be successful was one of the reasons she chose to earn her doctoral degree at NC State. 

For the past three years, she has had the opportunity to work as a graduate assistant for the higher education program area of study, which she feels has helped to give her a more well-rounded experience.

“I get to work alongside current students, alumni, prospective students, campus partners and faculty. I get a glimpse of the day-to-day life of running a graduate program in an award-winning college, the experiences of faculty at all levels and program engagement,” said Smith, a student in the Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development’s higher education opportunity, equity, and justice program area of study. “I have been able to teach, plan events and work in my field at the national level through professional associations with this position. I cannot think of better career preparation.”  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the College of Education was also able to support doctoral students who faced unexpected obstacles in conducting their dissertation research due to remote learning and the inability to conduct face-to-face interviews through Dissertation Research Continuity Grants, funded by the College of Education’s Excellence Fund and the NC State Graduate School.

Rachmatullah was one of eight doctoral students to receive a grant and said that without this funding, which allowed him to collect the necessary data to complete his dissertation, and his overall experiences in the College of Education, he would not currently be working as a STEM and computer science education researcher at SRI International in California.

“I would not have been able to get this job if it was not for my education and experience at the NC State College of Education,” he said. “My experience with working as a graduate research assistant on STEM and computer science education research and my interaction and collaboration with faculty members and students during my Ph.D. studies are the most significant period that has prepared me for my dream job. I feel fortunate and grateful for that.”

Janelle B. Smith

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