Graduate Student Corner: Building a Graduate Student Community

By Megan Welsh posted 12-20-2019 09:19


Erin_Winters.jpgErin Winters, University of California, Davis

Hello everyone!  Congratulations on navigating the fall term!  I’ve always found fall quarter to be an interesting term where everyone is super jazzed to be back, but working out all the kinks they developed over summer. More importantly, I love fall quarter because it’s when I get to re-connect with all of the people that were busy over the summer. My friends and colleagues all went to different corners of the world (and campus!) over the summer experiencing new things, and fall is when we come together and share what we’ve learned and done. This brings me to what I really wanted to talk about today: building a varied community in measurement.

I’ve often heard from faculty to “read all you can in grad school, it’s the best time you’ll have to do it” and I totally agree with that!  Looking back on my first two years, I took “read all you can” to mean “be an expert in all you read” and that’s really not the case. One of the beautiful things about graduate school is that it’s okay to have your specialty (within your specialty) and to be less than an expert in everything else because there are others out there that specialize in the other things. Really understanding that I don’t have to be an expert in everything was such a huge relief, and it still serves as a source of stress relief when I worry about not knowing “all the things” just within an quantitative approach to measurement.

When I first started grad school (oh so long ago now) and learned about measurement, I was sucked into the world of IRT, like many of us are, and didn’t really understand that there was more to measurement than reliability coefficients and DIF. As I progressed through my MEd. and into my PhD, my map of what measurement is really expanded and became so much more nuanced. While my interests focus on exploring different models for building validity arguments, a dear friend of mine uses mixed methods for investigating DIF as it relates to Queer identity, and yet another focuses on teacher-developed formative assessments and teacher experiences within measurement.  We all use different approaches (qualitative and quantitative) and have different expertise.

The beauty of building these varied networks comes when we start connecting our friends and colleges to each other’s expertise.  I was able to connect my friend who looks at Queer identity in testing with another friend who investigates linguistic complexity to talk about and share information on building item review rubrics. While their substantive interests differ significantly, their methodological approaches are quite similar. I’ve been connected to colleagues that use completely different approaches to investigating instructional sensitivity through casual conversation and “oh I have a friend” comments that have really helped me expand my view of instructional sensitivity. This type of networking and community building isn’t all that dissimilar to what happens at conferences and university brown bags, but always seems to be a little more organic and lasting as so often it’s between students, as opposed to trying to connect with established researchers in the field.  Student attendance at conference presentations always seem more siloed, but those graduate student mixers are where we really mix up the methodological exposure.

I think building connections amongst graduate students is so terribly important—as we continue in our careers, the people who are students with us are going to be the people that are faculty, researchers, and industry professionals with us. I’m never to going to be an expert in qualitative approaches to measurement—but if in the future I need to do some qualitative item review, I know who to call to guide me in the right direction, instead of starting from scratch with a lit review. Most importantly, I think (and I could have done a whole corner on this) building these connections among grad students means that you have a group of friends and colleagues that understand exactly what you’re going through right now. Grad school is really really really hard, my non-grad school friends don’t get it, even my husband doesn’t get it, but Gabs, Susan, and Danielle get it (wave!!). When I talk to these friends about the roadblocks I’m facing, they not only help me emotionally get through them, but their varied expertise in measurement will often spark a “have you ever thought about looking into the XYZ literature?” that helps me along my way. 

To the faculty members that may be reading this: I really implore you to help your graduate students build these networks and present opportunities for your students at a variety of levels to come together and share their knowledge. Both during my master’s degree and the first years of my PhD I had really great (1 unit!) courses that existed in part to build these connections. But after speaking to students at other universities and in other programs, these opportunities aren’t always available, and I can honestly say that these experiences really influenced my graduate school trajectory most positively. Regardless, thank you for everything you do to help your students make connections and build community—it’s greatly appreciated.

I hope you’re enjoyed some of my musings from the last year—I’ve enjoyed writing them.  They also served as a great reminder of how much I’ve grown and changed during graduate school (which is always welcome). But now that my time is coming to a close, I am really looking forward to reading the next grad student corner!