As part of an effort to groom the education researchers of tomorrow, Johns Hopkins this fall welcomes its first group of Spencer postdoctoral fellows. A joint project of the university's Center for Social Organization of Schools and the Department of Sociology, the Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowships in Education Research Program seeks to produce highly qualified research scientists who will go on to leadership positions.
The program is funded by the Spencer Foundation, whose mission is to investigate ways in which education can be improved around the world. Concerned about the perceived shortage of "top-notch" education researchers, the foundation in late 1999 solicited proposals from universities and research organizations to support small groups of postdoctoral fellows.
"[The Spencer Foundation] saw a need to develop the next generation," says James McPartland, director of CSOS and a professor of sociology. "They are worried that this field might not be glamorous to social scientists and others. So they wanted to upgrade the number of top people participating in education studies."
A primary focus of CSOS's work is the federally funded Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, known as CRESPAR. The major research projects of the Sociology Department include studies of the life-course development of a large group of Baltimore youth; the consequences of welfare reform for children and families in three major U.S. cities; and the effects of state welfare-reform policies on adolescents and young adults.
Of the 10 institutions that submitted proposals, Johns Hopkins was the only one to receive a grant. Karl Alexander, John Dewey Professor of Sociology and co-director of the new fellowship program, says that what might have set the university apart, in addition to its reputation of research excellence, is his department's and CSOS's focus on the sociology of education.
"There are lots of ways to do education research, but I think what the Spencer Foundation was trying to encourage was a particular perspective on educational issues that will have a high degree of sensitivity to social context," Alexander says. "That is what we have to offer, as I see it, as well as good solid opportunities for training and involvement in hands-on research."
The fellowships are designed for individuals who have completed doctoral degrees within the previous five years and could benefit from an education research-rich environment. Each fellow will have a two-year appointment and will participate in ongoing CSOS and/or Department of Sociology research projects or continue self-initiated work.
Alexander says the fellows, whose work schedule will be unscripted, should benefit greatly from the concentration of talented researchers at Hopkins.
"The Department of Sociology generates fundamental knowledge about the working of schools. CSOS does that, too, but it takes it to the next step and does program development," Alexander says. "By putting the two together cooperatively, we cover a lot of bases."
The first three Spencer fellows, who were selected from a pool of 80 applicants, will begin their appointments in September. Three more will be added next fall, with a maximum of six fellows at any given time. Each fellow will receive a stipend at about the salary level of a beginning faculty member and full university benefits. The first group includes a sociologist, a psychologist and an education specialist.
McPartland says that in choosing the fellows, the selection committee looked for those who both showed potential for scholarship and had interests that overlapped with the broad range of activities that are ongoing at CSOS and the Department of Sociology.
While the Spencer Fellowship is not unique, McPartland says that postdoctoral programs in the social sciences are still very rare.
"You usually finish your graduate program and go on and be a faculty member somewhere," McPartland says. "This kind of additional research experience after degree completion is kind of unusual."
The program is funded for a two-year period, at which time it will be evaluated for renewal.
Alexander says he is confident the fellowship will produce the high-quality researchers whom the Spencer Foundation is looking for.
"We hope this program will be around for a long, long time. It has that kind of potential," Alexander says. "We want the fellows to be better positioned to be productive scholars and [more] professionally successful after they move on than they might have been in the absence of the experience here. We think we have a lot to offer. It is a remarkable environment for a young research scholar whose career is getting launched."