What Predicts Research Productivity by PhD Candidates? Study Looks to Former Brown School Students for Answers

PhD; Research; Students

The Brown School’s PhD program aims to recruit highly qualified applicants and train them to lead the rigorous, top-level research the school is known for nationwide. To find out more about how to better predict the research productivity of its students while in the program, the associate dean for doctoral education turned the research spotlight inward.

The result: Published results that can inform the admissions process at the Brown School and other research-oriented institutions, along with the side benefit of confirming the success of the program.

“The study validates that our program produces students with a strong ability to do research and become leaders in the field,” said Renee Cunningham-Williams, an associate professor at the Brown School who has led the PhD program in Social Work for seven years. 

Cunningham-Williams conceived the study as a means to determine the productivity of the program’s students and whether it was related to admissions criteria and program practices. She formed a team of current and former PhD students as co-authors on the project, creating additional research productivity opportunities for each of them. Her team included current PhD (social work) students Ellie Wideman and LaShawnda Fields, and PhD alum (education) Brittni Jones.

“We are fortunate to attract a high-caliber group of PhD applicants to begin with,” she said, with high GRE scores and grades as the norm.  “We needed to look beyond traditional admission criteria like GRE scores and grades to see if there are any other factors that could be a predictor of research productivity accomplished while in the program.” Such information is needed to gauge whether PhD applicants are “ready” to attain the research productivity to secure a tenure track or research-intensive position, she said.

The research team looked at data for 56 PhD candidates in social work at the Brown School who entered the job market from fall 2007 to spring 2016. Research productivity was measured by being an author/co-author of peer-reviewed scientific publications and juried conference presentations, and serving as the principal investigator (PI) of externally funded grants.  The authors also calculated time-to-degree. Pre-admission criteria was analyzed for each applicant, as well as demographic information.

The data showed that past research was the most predictive indicator of productivity.  While race/ethnicity was not significantly related to overall research productivity or time-to-degree, there were differences with respect to conference presentations and PI grants. The authors concluded that African-American students may benefit from additional opportunities to work with faculty to present at conferences earlier in the program and throughout its course.  They also suggested the removal of financial barriers that may have disproportionately limited these students from conference travel.  International students lagged in PI grant awards, which she said might be due to the myriad of restrictions imposed on some funders. The average amount of time-to-degree of 5.2 years was significantly shorter than the University’s maximum of 7 years allowed for all PhD students. The PhD completion rate was nearly 100%.

Cunningham-Williams said the results support a holistic approach to admissions, giving greater weight to previous research experiences.

She ended her term as PhD program director at the beginning of the current academic year, passing the baton to Melissa Jonson-Reid, the Ralph and Muriel Pumphrey Professor of Social Work Research.

Cunningham-Williams hopes the study will inform the admissions process at the Brown School and others, and said it shines a light on the Brown School’s achievement of its high aims for the program.

“These positive student outcomes support the fact that we’re doing what we say we’re doing,” she said.

The study was published in the Journal of Social Work Education. It was also featured in a presentation at the recent conference of the Society for Social Work and Research.