Sociology Graduate Students Build Winning Fellowship Record

Author: Kate Cohorst

Sara Skiles

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick investigates contemporary slavery and human trafficking in India. Daniel Escher moved to Appalachian coal country to research the social effects of mining on surrounding communities. Sara Skiles designed and conducted a survey to determine how aesthetic taste helps affect the formation of social networks. Christopher Morrissey interviewed key religious and secular leaders to analyze the role of religion in the debate leading up to the Iraq War.

These four National Science Foundation honorees are just the latest examples of the innovative research proposals sociology graduate students are developing at the University of Notre Dame, says Associate Professor William Carbonaro, director of graduate studies for the Department of Sociology.

“This success shows the ambition and creativity of our students,” Carbonaro says.  “They are coming up with lots of ideas for projects that go beyond the standard ways of doing research as graduate students.

“And these are all competitive awards that they are winning,” he adds. “To be able to take that next step, you have to have quality in terms of the idea, the motivation for the project, and rigor in terms of the design. The fact that these students have been recognized by the NSF is also a sign of the professional training and encouragement students receive here.”

Broad Backing for Fieldwork

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick investigates contemporary slavery and human trafficking in India

Early support and input from members of the faculty, staff, and administration has been a key to Choi-Fitzpatrick’s success. “Like most graduate students,” he says, “I came in full of enthusiasm and hubris, so this guidance was especially critical when it came to crystallizing my dissertation question.”

Choi-Fitzpatrick has made several trips to India to interview former slaveholders, formerly enslaved individuals, and other community members to explore how social movements impact perpetrators of human-rights violations. “There is a lot of desk research on slavery and trafficking,” he says, “but these complicated systems of exploitation are best explored on the ground and through face-to-face conversations with people about their lives.”

The co-editor of the 2012 book From Human Trafficking to Human Rights: Rethinking Contemporary Slavery, Choi-Fitzpatrick says his motivation to pursue this particular line of research comes from his decade of international human-rights work. And although his international fieldwork is “expensive, unorthodox, and time-consuming,” it has also been supported “every step of the way, and from many quarters,” he says.

In addition to an NSF dissertation improvement grant, Choi-Fitzpatrick has received funding from the University’s Graduate School, Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and Center for Social Concerns, as well as the College of Arts and Letters’ Center for the Study of Social Movements, Higgins Labor Studies Program, and the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA).

This long list of centers and institutes, he says, is “a reflection of the extent to which the University is willing to invest in the lives and careers of its graduate students.”

A Network of Support

Associate Professor William Carbonaro, director of graduate studies for the Department of Sociology at Notre Dame

Along with helping students access the wide array of University funding sources that are available, the Department of Sociology, the Graduate School, and ISLA have begun offering more workshops and other logistical support to help students pursue external funding, Carbonaro says. “They don’t have to do this all on their own.”

He points to a number of recent programmatic changes within his own department, which are designed to help graduate students develop winning research proposals. These include a stronger commitment to one-on-one mentoring, requiring students to defend their master’s thesis proposals before the same committee of three faculty who must later approve the paper, and assigning a research proposal as the final project in a number of classes.

“These advanced methodological courses are really pushing students to propose research and think about designing research, which is very helpful in getting a competitive proposal together,” Carbonaro says.

Another key part in the development of graduate students, Skiles says, is the fact that the sociology faculty lead by example. “Professors in the department are applying for and winning research grants themselves, which helps grad students not only by providing stipends and research opportunities but also by normalizing grant writing as part of the work scholars in the field do.”

This approach has also helped the department’s graduate students build an impressive publication record, Carbonaro notes. Over the past two years, more than 18 students have published a combined total of 26 articles, three books, and two book reviews. Nearly half of the publications have appeared in top-ranked journals.

“The opportunity to publish is not unique,” Choi-Fitzpatrick says, “but at Notre Dame the norm seems to be equitable authorship with supportive faculty. I feel especially fortunate for the mentorship and camaraderie provided by this process.”

Beyond the Traditional Model

The typical sociology research project, Carbonaro says, involves analyzing publicly available data using various statistical methods. “Most students are either tied to their local area or they are tied to their computer and the public data because they don’t have the resources to either collect their own data or to go elsewhere and collect data at a different field research site.”

But Notre Dame has made it a priority to support other types of research, he says, including remote site fieldwork like that of Choi-Fitzpatrick, Escher, Morrissey, and others, as well as data collection projects like Skiles’, which are somewhat usual at the graduate student level.

Her dissertation, Skiles says, looks at variation in how aesthetic taste influences social connections, specifically around social class. “To study this, I constructed an experimental survey disseminated online to 2,275 American adults—my NSF grant covered the cost of data collection—that asks respondents for their tastes in various art and musical styles. The design of the project allows me to investigate how homogeneity with others across a variety of factors (class, race, gender, etc.) influences respondents’ expressions of their own tastes as well as their likelihood of associating with others who do or do not share their aesthetic tastes.”

Grant money for sociology research is relatively limited, compared to the money available to researchers in science, technology, engineering, and math fields—and the awards that are available are highly competitive, Skiles says. “Professors in our department are taking their roles as mentors very seriously, making sure that their students are well prepared to compete for these grants against students from the very top sociology programs in the country.”

Says Carbonaro, “We don’t want our grad students to be tied to their computers if they don’t want to be. Some people work great that way—that’s what I do—but we want to have lots of different models of excellence and recognize as a department that we need to support different ways of doing sociological research.

“We don’t want to have a one-size-fits-all program where everyone is expected to do the same kind of thing.”

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Originally published by Kate Cohorst at on April 18, 2012.