Maximizing Research Opportunities at a Teaching Institution

By: Briseida Elenes, University of San Diego

PhD programs at research intensive institutions typically provide plenty of research opportunities and socialization into the academy through research assistantships and cohort models. Yet if you are like me and attend a small teaching institution that is not cohort-based, you might not have the ready-made experience of being a part of a research team and may feel a little lost in accessing opportunities. What I’ve learned through trial and error (and lots of support and advice!) is that most of our departments and institutions also have amazing scholars with interesting projects looking for hungry learners just like us. Along my doctoral journey, I have found critical strategies to maximize my development as a researcher that many new doctoral students with professoriate aspirations may find helpful.  

  1. Let Everyone Know About Your Research Interests and Aspirations: Early on I let everyone know that I wanted to do research. I talked to my advisor, my department chair, the dean, and anyone else that I thought would be helpful, even at other institutions! As a result, I received a nomination to be a UCEA Jackson Scholar (which I received) that has opened the doors to the broader scholarly community. Letting people know about my aspirations and asking them about opportunities and connections within and outside the institution has been very beneficial for me. I have been connected with scholars at various stages of their careers who have similar research interests and who I can bounce ideas off of. 
  1. Reach Across The Hall: Sometimes there are research projects in other departments that are looking for graduate researchers but they’re not publicized, so ask around and don’t be shy. I have had professors in other departments happily take me under their wing and provide resources, one of them being the department associate dean who supported my idea to organize a Women of Color Research Meeting!  By reaching across the proverbial hall I have received invaluable support to join a research team on an NIH grant project that is aligned with my values, learning, and professional objectives. This is a critical experience for those of us with professoriate aspirations, especially if we are seeking multiple or nuanced lenses or wanting to explore our emerging research agendas. 
  1. Take Classes at Other Institutions: I took a class at a local research intensive university this past spring and made amazing connections with a renowned professor and scholar, as well as with doctoral students who have become wonderful colleagues. Because of this experience, a small group of us began talking about a cross-institution reading group to help us in our theoretical framing while building a sense of community at the same time. Another benefit is that the professor had a chance to see my work and invited me to collaborate—all of this because I emailed the professor directly and asked if I could join the class through concurrent enrollment! You never know unless you ask! 
  1. Mentorship: I have participated in ASHE’s CEP Mentor Protégé Program and as previously mentioned,  the UCEA Jackson Scholar Network.  Many more types of programs exist such as the AAHHE Fellowship, ask around and seek advice and sponsorship on applying! These programs have been critical in expanding my network and getting the support and socialization for the research process. More informally, I’ve also received mentorship by keeping in touch with former faculty, professors from other departments, and of course peers. More than a sounding board, these are people who are intentionally helping illuminate a very ambiguous terrain by providing concrete guidance, feedback and even sponsorship.  

While I did not initially realize it, I have learned that opportunities to collaborate, research, and grow are plentiful. The path has not been what I expected but a poem by Antonio Machado helps remind me that part of the process is developing and creating our own paths “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar” (Wayfarer, there is no way. Make your way by going farther). More than ever I’m reminded about the value of being proactive, a self-advocate, and making creative connections and community within and outside of the department and institution.   

Briseida Elenes is a PhD student in Higher Education Leadership at the University of San Diego where she serves as an adviser and lecturer for the Leadership Studies minor program. Briseida’s research agenda pertains to the critical examination of the educational pathways of Latinx students, administration, and faculty. Her approach aims to foreground Chicanx/Latinx perspectives in educational environments, contextualizing the sociopolitical, cultural, and gendered aspects of postsecondary education, administration, and policy. She recently conducted a case study on Latina community college administrative leadership utilizing a Chicana feminist approach, unveiling the nuanced leadership pathways of mujeres in the Southwest. 

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