• Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Teaching & Learning
  • Graduate and professional students
Features & Articles

This summer research program is smoothing the rocky transition to graduate school

A student in a beige hoodie writes on a dry erase board

After graduating from the political science program at the University of Puerto Rico and beginning graduate school, Fernando Tormos-Aponte noticed a gap in his academic preparation: He didn’t have the research skills he needed. He also realized he wouldn’t be the only student having a hard time with the transition.

“I recognized that many students were going to essentially struggle in the same way I did, and how that’s just not a good place to be in and makes grad school a never-ending survival act,” said Tormos-Aponte, an assistant professor of sociology in Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

This realization led him to ponder: “How can we empower students to not just survive graduate school, but thrive and excel in their academic journeys?” His answer to this question is Pitt’s creation of the Mobilization and Political Economy Summer Research Program (MPE).

Tormos-Aponte set out to create a program that transforms the graduate school experience for underrepresented students by providing them with holistic and intensive training. He’s joined in that mission by co-directors Mariely López-Santana, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University; Mayra Vélez Serrano, a professor of international and comparative politics at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras; Kimberly Turner, an assistant professor in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs; and Jude Hays, Pitt professor of political science in the Dietrich School.

Together, they created a curriculum designed to bridge the gap in research methods skills faced by underrepresented minority undergraduates in academia.

The MPE program is an intensive eight-week summer program that places undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds into graduate social science programs with the skills to excel there.

The program revolves around two central components: a methods training camp and professional development workshops. These components were designed to provide this summer’s seven student participants with intensive training in both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, giving them the chance to learn essential research skills, Tormos-Aponte said.

Hussein Fayad, a student participant from Siena College in New York, said the MPE program equipped him with the skills he needed for graduate school.

“I did not get that really intensive and important experience at my institution. Having those experiences will give you the edge in your application to a PhD or master’s without a doubt, hands down,” Fayad said.

Each student is paired with a faculty mentor to guide them through their interdisciplinary research project. These mentors work with students to design research projects aligned with the students’ interests and curiosities.

In addition to academic support, they provide advice on research methodologies, navigating the transition from undergraduate to graduate school and other aspects of the academic journey.

Academia needs to be diversified, Tormos-Aponte said, but building a diverse student pipeline isn’t always a straightforward task. This is because the disparities in the completion rates of PhD programs are stark and disproportionately affect underrepresented minority groups. The lack of undergraduate research opportunities is a significant hurdle on this journey.

The skills learned in these programs are important to help students address societal inequities, he said, hence the program’s focus on student projects that cover topics in social movements and political economy.

“The struggle for social justice requires an ability to analyze the circumstances and the context in which we operate, as well as the effectiveness of different courses of action. We thought this is an area our students are passionate about,” Tormos-Aponte said.

The program was funded by an initial grant for $10,000 from the American Political Science Association and $505,000 from the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

The program’s first year was a success, Tormos-Aponte said. And soon, he and his team envision building regional and national networks, fostering collaboration among institutions to support underrepresented students’ academic journeys. They have already initiated regional networks in the DC, Maryland and Virginia region, with plans to expand nationally.

“Our goal is to build a network that would serve this particular stage of students’ careers, which is the transition from undergraduate to graduate studies,” he said.


— Donovan Harrell, photography courtesy of Fernando Tormos-Aponte