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Policy vs. research: pros and cons?


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Hi everyone!

I'm pretty new to the boards, but am hoping to get feedback as I think about which direction to go in for doctoral studies (assuming, of course, I can get myself in somewhere or other). This is really long, so thank you in advance to anyone who makes his/her way through it and has energy left to respond!

So here's my deal: I'm interested in lots of different kinds of aspects of education, and I'm not sure yet whether academia, pure research, or an applied position (e.g., in government at the state or federal level) is where I'll end up. Some of the particular things I'm interested in are:

  • the school reform movement/charter schools (specifically, accountability/choice-based reform vs. standards-based reform)
  • education funding
  • teacher preparation, recruitment, retention, promotion
  • merit pay
  • high-stakes testing
  • intersection of public health and public education
  • private schools
  • etc.

I think that this range of interests makes a policy or urban education program the right fit, since I'll get to use multiple disciplines to think about problems. But I worry that these programs might be superficial -- that maybe it's better to try to become expert in one discipline (say, sociology) and use that lens to look at the problems that interest me.

This is a particular concern for me because I come from an education background but not a research background: I have worked in schools for 8 years, as a teacher, admissions officer, and college counselor, and I have an bachelor's degree in English and a master's in school counseling. (I've worked in private day and boarding, suburban public, and inner-city charter schools.) I'm hoping to spend 2012-2013 in an ed research master's program, learning to do some of the analysis and evaluation I know will be needed down the line -- should hear back about admissions by the end of this month.

My hope is that my school-based experience and the research master's will position me for doctoral admission in fall 2013, though I know it's uber-competitive and that I may end up working in the field for a while again after my second master's. But I'd love feedback on policy vs. research vs. urban ed programs, as well as thoughts people might have about what my admission chances might be like for any of these programs at the doctoral level.

I'll close by offering stats, which I imagine may be helpful:

Undergrad: B.A. in English, GPA 3.6, from an Ivy in 2003

Master's: M.S.Ed. in School and Mental Health Counseling, GPA 3.95, from Penn in 2010

[Potential second master's, M.S. in research/assessment/evaluation, also from Penn, in 2013]

GRE: V 170, Q 161, don't yet have AW score

If you've made it this far -- thank you! I look forward to hearing people's thoughts!


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I would say that your stats position you well for almost anything, so the key will be if you can tie your experience to your doctoral goals and if your recommendations are good.

Unfortunately, most of us who are enrolled only have experience with one of the "tracks" you mentioned, so we won't have as much perspective as you would probably like.

I will say that research is an important part of any doctoral program, and being able to intelligently process (if not conduct your own) research is something that all doctoral graduates are expected to do, regardless of subject area. So the "research" aspect will apply no matter what area you study.

A number of schools (Columbia, Stanford, and Michigan, at least) offer programs through their GSEs that do require discipline-specific training, so you might want to look into those. At Harvard, the only program that requires "pure" disciplinary coursework is QPAE, although you can choose which discipline to pursue (people have chosen Economics, Sociology, Psychology, and I think even Linguistics in the past). The other programs are very flexible, though, so you can do disciplinary (i.e., GSAS) coursework in those, as well.

However, Harvard will be replacing their EdDs with three PhD programs (roughly focused on Psych, Sociology, or Economics) in Fall 2014, which will definitely require pure disciplinary work for everyone.

Based on my interactions with GSAS students studying "pure" disciplines, their departments have students with a very wide range of substantive interest areas. On the one hand, that means you can almost certainly study education within one of those departments. On the other hand, you likely won't meet a lot of other people in the department who are also studying education. To me, that seems like a bad thing; I've learned a lot from my cohort-mates so far, and I think it's tremendously valuable to be able to exchange ideas with peers.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Peabody's domestic ed policy program hits everything you mentioned. Even as an international ed policy major, I still had to cover all of those domestic issues, either in research statistics, or in my K-12 policy class. One year ago, I wouldn't have known any of those issues you listed, but now, I could debate on all of those issues in depth. In fact, I'm currently procrastinating on a term paper on teacher recruiting systems in OECD nations, and linking that to PISA scores and ultimately economic development. Today in stats class, there was a long debate over TVAAS value-added metrics, not just the statistical formulas and standard deviations (and how to interpret the implications), but whether value-added is a good policy move or not in the first place, especially considering how much that factored into Tennessee winning Race To The Top funding. Needless to say, it got pretty fiery!

I wrote a midterm on private schools and school choice (both domestic and internationally), and we've done a lot of discussions this term about high-stakes testing. My advisor has written a few papers on the implications of high-stakes testing; he doesn't think very highly of it. I'm possible interning at Vanderbilt's Institute of Global Health, and getting a Certificate in Global Health Education is an option for both domestic and international ed policy students here. And the professor who has done the first randomized controlled study on merit pay teaches one of the statistics sections - I avoided that because A: I'm not a fan of his paper (Springer 2010) and B: his class is a lot harder than the other section :P Education finance is an elective for the second year; haven't decided if I'll take it or not yet.

The PhD folks here get a couple years to shop around before really zeroing in on their burning question; Vanderbilt might be a good fit for you, but it's gotten very selective ever since US News started ranking us #1 (league tables are crap; I did a stats project with the 2010 US News dataset to show how little you can change a Z score weighting and get big shifts in rankings).

You have the numbers, but what really matters is if you know what you're talking about, which you do. Make sure your application reflects that. And if you're looking at a second master's, you might consider doing it here; it's two years, but very in depth - I've only got one year in the M.Ed program but I've had to write research papers or exams on pretty much everything you listed!

Edited by kismetcapitan
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  • 9 months later...

I realize that this is an older forum topic and thus, no one may be responding to it anymore, but the goals of people who have commented are very in line with my own.  I am only entering school at the Master's level at this time and have far less experience than all of you, but edgirl, your interests (and therefore confusions) are completely in line with my own.  I want to start on a path that will eventually lead me to doctoral studies and research on the issues of high-stakes testing and school choice, among many other issues in education.  


I have been a teacher for 5 years and have worked in a charter school, a large suburban public school, and private school, and a rural school during that time.  (Rural was actually my student teaching).  I have a broad range of experience that has pointed out several of the problems with the current government obsession with accountability and data, but am yet to find a solution.  I hope to work toward this in my research. 


As of now, I plan to attend Peabody's MPP program and hopefully develop a solid foundation for my research.  I will find out if I get accepted into HSGE's program in a few weeks, and if I do, that will complicate my decision because both programs are excellent, but Harvard is Harvard (that's the argument I keep going back to).  The truth is, I want to know the best program to lead me to solid eventual doctoral studies while being able to pay off whatever debt I incur during my Masters program.  (I have a good chance at getting a Graduate Assistantship with Peabody, and almost 0 chance at Harvard, so that will be something I have to consider).  


In any case, it has been enjoyable reading your advice and questions on here and it is always good to connect with people who share the same passions and interests as myself.  

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