Summer Funding Program Aids Both Students, Researchers
A summer funding program at the USC School of Social Work is proving valuable to both students who need real-world research experience and faculty members who benefit from additional assistance on research projects.
During the past five years, the Hamovitch Center for Science in the Human Services has provided nearly $250,000 worth of funding to support student research assistants during the summer months, including $70,000 in funding this year.
“It’s increasingly important for our doctoral students to be involved in research and receive credit for their efforts through co-authorships,” said Suzanne Wenzel, a professor at the USC School of Social Work. “Those kinds of opportunities make them much more competitive in the job market, and it gives them valuable experience for their future careers as independent researchers.”
School administrators said the funding program reflects a larger effort to integrate doctoral students, as well as a segment of master’s-level students, into the research culture of the school. Participants who receive summer funding are encouraged to participate in all levels of the research process, from conducting literature reviews and interviewing subjects to analyzing data and drafting manuscripts.
Haluk Soydan, director of the Hamovitch Center, credited Dean Marilyn Flynn’s efforts to support student research as a driving force behind the integration effort, which includes recruiting doctoral students to become involved in the school’s recently established research clusters on topics such as behavioral health, serious mental illness and homelessness.
“It is learning by doing,” he said. “They are being introduced into an established research environment with junior and senior faculty beyond their own mentors, as well as postdoctoral students. You have a group of people, a critical mass if you will, of different ranks who contribute to the scholarship.”
Many of the funding proposals include explicit goals such as publishing research results in a peer-reviewed journal. Last summer, Wenzel worked with doctoral student Hsun-Ta Hsu to develop a paper that addresses racial differences in social networks among homeless youth. The manuscript received favorable reviews, and Wenzel expects it to be published soon. Hsu said the experience should give him an edge when he leaves USC and enters the job market.
“As a doctoral student, it is critical to have publications and research experience before graduation,” he said. “Furthermore, since I had just finished my first year when I received the funding, having an opportunity to work on a paper and to participate in a research project allowed me to put the knowledge I learned into practice, and also gain more understanding of what researchers’ lives are like.”
He will work with Wenzel again this summer, alongside fellow student Ahyoung Song, on several projects, including final revisions on the aforementioned paper, as well as a study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse on ways to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted infection among homeless women.
Hsu and Song both received $5,000 awards for the summer, enabling them to dedicate approximately 15 hours per week to their work with Wenzel.
“Without this funding, I may need to find funding wherever available to support my family during the summer,” Hsu said, “which means I may not work with professors who share the same research interests as me.”
In addition to providing students with critical experience in the research field, the summer funding program has a clear benefit for faculty members. Janet Schneiderman, a research associate professor who studies child welfare and health, received funds to support two student research assistants this summer.
She is currently exploring the use of pediatric health care services in the child welfare field by examining medical records and conducting a survey among caregivers. The additional help from students enabled her to widen the goals of the study.
“This allows us to expand the project—to not just look at information in the medical record and the survey—but to actually call the caregivers and get information from them,” she said. “It allows me to stretch my federal funding to do more, to collect more data on projects that were previously planned but had limited funding.”
This is the second year that Caitlin Smith, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, has received summer funding to work with Schneiderman. Although the award amount is relatively small, she said it has allowed the research team to collect data on a variable that wasn’t part of the original study plan.
“We had this ongoing project, but there was a gap between our ambition and what we had to work with,” she said. “This funding helped us take a good idea a step further.”
The summer funds also allowed the team to adopt a more realistic timeline, she said, rather than rushing to complete the project in fewer hours.
As a fourth-year PhD student, Smith plans to ultimately pursue a research career focused on children supervised by the court system. Working with Schneiderman has allowed her to interact with child welfare officials, medical doctors and county administrators, which she described as an effective way to learn about how to interact with people in different fields.
She has also helped write and submit three articles since last summer, and the research team—which includes Lana Smith, a doctoral student in social work—plans to publish their results from the current study as well. Schneiderman said the two students offered suggestions on items to add to the study that reflect their interests in the field.
“I think it’s vital for them to have that hands-on experience and to be able to identify questions they have and get data to answer those questions,” she said.
Smith lauded the summer funding program, noting that it is often difficult to obtain smaller awards for research, given that most funding organizations are focused on ambitious projects that require hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“When there are these small grants of a few thousand dollars, it can really close the gap and take the research to the next level,” she said.
- Master of Social Work