Brown School Doctoral Students Ease the Path to PhDs for Underrepresented Minorities

Community Engagement; Diversity; PhD; Social Work

Three doctoral students at the Brown School took charge of a recent Institute for underrepresented minority professionals interested in returning to school for a PhD in social work or public health. Autumn Asher BlackDeer, María Gandarilla Ocampo, and Sara Beeler- Stinn developed, organized and led the workshop using their own experiences to help smooth the path to success for those aspiring to engage in top-level research in the field of child maltreatment prevention or intervention.

The three are research assistants at the Center for Innovation in Child Maltreatment Policy, Research and Training (CICM), which hosted the virtual Predoctoral Summer Institute as part of the center’s annual Leadership, Equity and Diversity in Higher Education (LEAD) initiative March 3-5. Participants interacted with expert panelists who discussed the latest trends and research gaps in child maltreatment, how to develop competitive application materials for a doctoral program, and what it is like to navigate academia as someone with a marginalized identity.

“It was a great experience,” said Gandarilla Ocampo, a third-year doctoral student whose research focuses on child maltreatment and the impact of mandatory reporting policies. “It’s really empowering to be able to design an institute like this one. As BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) scholars, being able to fill the gaps of others navigating this process was such a privilege. There’s a huge value in having someone of color who’s had experience in the field inform and conduct research. We hope this institute can contribute to increasing that representation.”

Finding more of those potential doctoral students and encouraging their success is a key goal of the Community Education Core of the CICM, said its director, Melissa Jonson-Reid, the Ralph and Muriel Pumphrey Professor of Social Work who also directs the Brown School’s PhD program in social work. “The field of child maltreatment has long recognized the need to build a pipeline for the next generation of scholars with an emphasis on the lack of BIPOC scientists,” said Jonson-Reid, who added that increasing their numbers in the field is seen as an important way to improve the effectiveness of child maltreatment prevention as well as child-welfare practices and policies, particularly for communities of color.

The CICM, a partnership with St. Louis University, is one of three centers around the country funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development to support research related to child maltreatment prevention and intervention in a variety of ways, of which LEAD is one. Unlike some postdoctoral institutes that try to retain recent PhD-degree recipients in the field, the LEAD initiative reaches out to master’s level professionals who are working in the child welfare system or related fields and considering returning to school for a doctoral degree in social work or public health.

“We aspired to develop a program that increases the flow into the front end of the pipeline and best meets the needs of these professionals, and our doctoral students have been key to doing that,” Jonson-Reid said. “We’re so proud to have such intelligent, compassionate and committed doctoral students. They showed a level of leadership and engagement that went above and beyond by taking on this project and making it their own.”

Gandarilla Ocampo, a Mexican American who was a first-generation college student, said working on LEAD “made me think of a lot of the challenges I had.” She came to the Brown School from Long Beach, CA and previously worked as an investigator in a child-protection agency where she recognized various challenges in how child protection is practiced and decided she wanted to go into research to address them. The university where she received her master’s degree in social work emphasized preparing students for practice, not for doctoral programs and research.

“I didn’t really understand the many intricacies to the application process,” she said. “Knowing some of those things can make the difference between being accepted or not. Our workshops allow students to have a better sense of what they’re getting into. I felt lucky we were able to provide that insight for participants.”

After receiving her PhD, she hopes to secure a position in which to conduct research that informs the development and implementation of equitable policies and interventions that prevent child maltreatment, bolster families, and promote child well-being. “The child welfare system impacts different communities differently,” she said “It’s important to have scholars from communities most affected by these systems and who have lived experience with these systems to bring in their lens to better identify solutions that strengthen families.”