3 Questions: Noah Nathan and Ariel White on Global Diversity Lab summer internships

In June and July, the Global Diversity Lab (GDL) in the Department of Political Science hosted its first GDL Summer Research Program. Pathways@GDL is aimed at broadening the pipeline into U.S. political science PhD programs. Four current undergraduates from U.S. universities and two current master’s students at African universities mixed research assistant work and their own independent research projects, professionalizing their presentation of research and exchanging information with each other and Department of Political Science faculty. We spoke with associate professors Noah Nathan and Ariel White, who coordinate the program.

Q: What motivated you to create the Global Diversity Lab Summer Research Program?

Ariel White: We’ve both read a lot of application files as members of the graduate admissions committee in recent years, which means we’ve also spent a lot of time talking with our colleagues about the “pipeline problem” in academia. Basically, the set of people who make it into PhD programs at elite universities does not reflect the full range of talent and potential in the world: There are many people who would make great political scientists who either don’t know that graduate school is an option, or don’t know how or where to apply, or don’t get good advice about how to make their application stand out from all the others in the pool. And these experiences are distributed unequally along lines of class and race and geography, among other things. 

Noah Nathan: In conversations with a group of current graduate students at GDL, we brainstormed ideas about how to create a program that would let promising students who might not otherwise consider graduate study, or who might consider it but would benefit from research experience and application advice before applying, get that chance. It was important to us that this program be open both to students at U.S. universities and also to international students, who are often not eligible for other summer research experience programs. Our cohort this summer includes six students, four from U.S. universities who are sponsored by the campus-wide MSRP program, and two visiting students from universities in Ghana and South Africa. We need to acknowledge the generous financial support of the Center for International Studies and the Global Diversity Lab under Evan Lieberman’s leadership, without which this kind of program would have been impossible. 

Q: What does the summer look like for students in the Pathways@GDL program?

Nathan: Students take on a mix of activities for the eight weeks of the program. They split most of their time between research assistantships and independent research projects they are conducting based on their interests. Each student has been matched with a faculty member or PhD student from the lab to work as a research assistant on an existing project, which lets them build relationships with people who share their interests and gives them a glimpse into how research projects work day-to-day. They are also matched with a faculty advisor, who meets with them regularly about the independent research projects they are pursuing during the summer. These could eventually form the basis of a senior thesis or master’s thesis. 

White: We also hold group activities, both serious and fun. We have a weekly lunch seminar that rotates between trainings (introduction to R, the PhD application process), and research presentations from faculty and students around the department on their current work. And we’ve held a number of drop-in social events open to the whole department, where the students get to know current PhD students and get more comfortable in informal academic settings. 

Q: What did you learn this summer from your interns, and what did they learn from the experience?

White: This summer has been a reminder for me of how opaque the academic world can be when you’re new to it. All the students working with us this summer are extraordinarily bright and have many striking talents, and so it’s easy to be surprised when they ask what seems like a very basic question about how grad school works or how academic jobs are structured. A student can be really well-prepared for some parts of the process but have almost no information about some other part of it, and it’s important for us to keep that in mind and invite the whole range of questions that students might have. 

On that note, I think our students learned a lot of things this summer — specific technical skills like R programming, details about what to expect in the first year of a PhD program, advice about how to find and develop a research question — but the main thing I really hope they learned is how many resources are available to them as they make their way into academic life. The PhD students, faculty, and staff of the political science department have been extraordinarily welcoming and generous with their time this summer, and I know that all of the students are leaving with strong connections to people who can continue to give them advice as they apply to graduate programs or work on their dissertations. Learning to ask questions when you’re confused, or to ask for advice when you’re not sure how to proceed, is a crucial skill in this field, and I’ve been glad to see the students practicing it this summer and being so amply rewarded in their interactions with members of the department.