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Finding a Place in Academia

First USF Research BootCamp© impacts Black women scholars on campus through coordinated effort.

By Barbara Melendez
     USF News

Tampa, Fla. (Oct. 28, 2015) – Two very important concerns fueled efforts to offer USF’s first week-long intensive Research BootCamp© for a select group of junior faculty, post-doctoral scholars and doctoral candidates: the all-too noticeable scarcity of women of color in academia and USF’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“Research is at the heart of graduate education and academic careers,” Chief Diversity Officer José Hernandez points out. “Successful research efforts can make or break one’s career.”

Sandra M. Harris, Ph.D., Sisters of the Academy; USF Assistant Dir. Faculty/Staff Diversity Initiatives Devona F. Pierre, Ph.D.; USF President's Chief of Staff Cynthia Visot, Ph.D.; Tamara Bertrand Jones, Ph.D. and Denise Davie-Maye, Ph.D., both Sisters of the Academy.

Hence the collaboration with the Sisters of the Academy Institute which assists doctoral students and junior faculty in the development of sound research agendas. The educational workshops are designed to pinpoint the ways doctoral students can conceptualize and design the components of their dissertations. That includes putting an emphasis on research questions, hypotheses, literature reviews, instrumentation, methodology and data analysis.

“The workshops are intense and at the same time inspiring,” said Assistant Director for Faculty/Staff Diversity Initiatives Devona F. Pierre, Ph.D., who lobbied for and organized the program. She is part of the leadership of the organization which began in 2001 with the mission to facilitate the success of Black women in the academy.

Pierre, who earned her doctorate in administration of higher education, is all-too familiar with the hurdles. Her background in campus climate research and institutional policy development has led her to being a presenter at international and national higher education conferences.

The Need for Mentoring

Women in general find similar hurdles. One of the boot camp’s senior scholars, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Communications Professor Elizabeth Bell attested to the need for such a network for faculty on the tenure track.

“Early on in my career right here at USF I was fortunate to have had a group of peer-mentors,” she said. “I was ripe for all the wisdom and work we could muster together. I could not wait to sit at the computer to write each day. Then, I couldn’t wait to share that writing with them. Publications became occasions for everyone to celebrate. We helped each other with research and teaching, taught each other the ropes of the academy, cheered each other’s successes, and provided the needed shoulders to cry on during the difficult times.”

While Bell “fell in with a terrific group of women graduate students – all feminists, all extremely well-read, and all extremely tuned-in to the academic world,” she recognizes the value of an organized approach.

“The boot camp is very helpful to women at the right stage in their academic careers, namely Ph.D. candidates writing proposals and dissertations need help setting writing goals. Junior faculty need help with ways to best strategize their research plans, teaching goals, and service opportunities – all important to achieving tenure and promotion,” she said. “I am delighted that the boot camp can provide women with this kind of support.”

What happened organically for Bell is rare.

“It is still very difficult for women and especially Black women to become a part of academic culture,” observes Associate Professor Cheryl Rodriguez, chair of the Department of Africana Studies. “We continue to be the subjects of research but not the researchers.Our thoughts, our creativity, our incredible talents remain invisible and unrecognized.The patriarchal narrative is that only certain people can be creators of knowledge.We know this is not true but the dominant narrative is pervasive and perpetuated in so many different ways.”

Bringing the Research BootCamp© to USF begins an end-run around that narrative.

A Welcoming Environment

USF President Judy Genshaft emphasized USF’s supportive community” and desire to “increase the visibility of USF as a place that respects and encourages scholarly inquiry and diversity” in her welcome to the participants. She noted, “The greatest strength of the University of South Florida System is our ability to shape the future through education, research and innovation.”

As noted, women of color are noticeably scarce in academia – especially when the few who are there look around. A few who did notice decided to do something about it and to address some of the hurdles they encountered in their quest for graduate degrees and teaching positions. And Sisters of the Academy Institute was born.

On the occasion of the Research BootCamp© at USF last May, following the Sisters of the Academy’s design, a variety of women senior scholars was on hand to assist the inaugural cohort of junior scholars.

After a late afternoon orientation Sunday evening, the entire week was devoted to boot-camp activities. Workshop topics included “Writing Your Research Results,” “Designing Research Agenda,” “Data Analysis,” “Strategic Planning for the Academic,” “Qualitative Research Methods,” “Quantitative Research Methods,” “Developing the Tenure Binder,” “Publishing Your Research,” “Finishing Your Dissertation/Developing a Work Plan,” and “Career Trajectories & Success in the Academy.”

The closing day focused on “Presentation of Research” and concluded with a debriefing session. Time was also available for writing at the end of each day.

“From day one of the boot camp I felt affirmed and supported in my research process,” said LaTosha Thomas, a USF employee who is originally from Odessa, Florida, now living in Northdale. She is completing her doctoral studies in counselor education to earn a doctorate in curriculum and instruction at USF where she has already earned a master’s degree. With the support and encouragement of her supervisor, Reba Garth, the director of Student Support Services, she was able to attend.

“It was a wonderful feeling to be surrounded by such accomplished scholars – particularly women of color – who have achieved what I am trying to do myself,” she said. “They all seemed so welcoming, friendly, and authentically interested in helping us succeed. Some of my most memorable moments of the week were simply impromptu conversations in which I was able to share my fears, worries and insecurities about being a woman of color in the academy.”

Thomas, who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology along with a certificate in neuroscience from Duke University, was focused on her dissertation.

“(Visiting scholar) Dr. Sandra Harris was particularly helpful in helping me develop my methodology section. USF Faculty Dr. Cheryl Rodriguez helped me think through conceptual issues related to my problem statement,” she said. “Overall, the boot camp allowed me the time and space to fully immerse myself in the research process and I accomplished quite a lot as a result of this experience. I received valuable advice about how to navigate the academy while maintaining my identity and integrity. Their encouragement pushed me to work hard that week because in addition to wanting to meet my own goals – I also did not want to disappoint them.”

The Research BootCamp© wasn’t only for students. Jasmine Cutler, who is a licensed and practicing pharmacist, and is a Women’s Health Fellow working with USF Health’s Interprofessional Wiomen’s Health Fellowship, also found it useful. The Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University (FAMU) graduate is conducting research on PTSD and breastfeeding.

“A portion of the fellowship I am doing requires some research and grant-writing and publications,” Cutler explained. “I was excited to know what pointers could be given to help expand my research.I was also interested in brainstorming and networking.”

An Impressive Gathering

The senior scholars were impressed with the boot camp’s junior scholars.

Rodriguez noted, “The doctoral students worked really hard on their proposals.They all were trying to balance personal lives with professional responsibilities but they remained connected to the workshop.It reminded me of my time as a graduate student.”

Finding the program “thorough without being overwhelming,” Bell was most impressed by, “the sheer talent in the room,” she said. “This was an amazing group of women – scholars, health professionals, scientists, engineers – all pursuing extremely important work and all navigating common barriers in the academy. The will to succeed, and to help others succeed, was palpable.”

She observed, about getting to know the women faculty who comprise Sisters of the Academy, “To a person, they are brilliant, energetic, thoughtful and committed to helping other women flourish in the academy. I am honored to know them and to have spent a week learning from their experiences.”

The USF Research BootCamp© had an impact.

“I was so motivated from the boot camp experience that I continued working intensely on the first three chapters of my dissertation – while working full time and teaching classes,” said Thomas.

She was happy to report that her dissertation committee signed off on her proposal request just two months after the boot camp, and she successfully defended her proposal.

“There is no way I could have achieved this much, at this pace without the initial push from the boot camp experience. I am so thankful and even more determined to graduate within the next few months.”

While not a magic bullet, the USF Research BootCamp© can improve the chances for success.

“Like any endeavor, you get from the boot camp what you put into it – if you fully engage in the process, then you will get a lot in return because they put in place a proven structure to help,” Thomas said.

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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