James Madison University

Apprenticeship Experience

In order to involve graduate students in research activities early in their training and to aid the graduate students in choosing their Master’s Thesis topic, two semesters of research apprenticeship are required of all first year students. Students are accepted into the program to work with a specific advisor and will complete the research apprenticeship experience by working within the advisor’s established research program. The research apprenticeship is a non credit-bearing requirement that involves a commitment of approximately 5-8 hours per week where students assist a faculty member in ongoing research activities, and beginning to develop research questions of their own. Thus, students should begin to explore possible thesis ideas with their advisors early in their graduate training. Although not required, students are strongly encouraged to consider projects that are linked closely to their advisors’ ongoing research.

The research apprenticeship experience is, by design, a flexible arrangement in which students and faculty can work together closely and develop a mentoring relationship. Each faculty member is involved in different projects and these projects may be in very different stages of development when a student first joins them, making each apprenticeship experience unique. However, all apprenticeship experiences will include:

  • regular meetings with the faculty advisor that include discussions of the apprenticeship project as well as the student’s interests and potential thesis topics;
  • reading the literature relevant to the apprenticeship project and potential thesis ideas;
  • opportunities for the student to develop a conceptual understanding of the various aspects of the research process; and
  • performing activities that contribute meaningfully to the research process.

Students should be sure to check with their advisors soon after beginning the program to discuss the specific expectations and requirements of their individual advisors.

Advisory Committee: Once the student and advisor agree on a thesis idea, the student will form an Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee will serve as both the student’s Thesis Committee* and Comprehensive Examination Committee*, and help develop a Plan of Study.

  • The student’s advisor will serve as the chair of the advisory committee and will help the student select other members. Advisory Committee members should have the background and interest necessary to counsel, direct, and evaluate the specific student research project undertaken. Participation as an Advisory Committee member is voluntary on the part of the faculty member.

Plan of Study: Advisory Committee and student jointly develop a plan of study that describes the coursework that the student intends to complete. This coursework should insure that the student acquires the knowledge and skills needed for successful completion of the intended thesis project. Although the end of the first semester is the target date for completing the Plan of Study, each student must complete a plan of study no later than the middle of the second semester.

Apprenticeship Assessment: At the end of the first year, all students and their advisors are required to complete the Research Skills Checklists. Each student submits his or her checklist to the Program Director and his or her advisor along with copies of any products that resulted from the experience and his or her annual Student Activity Summary. The advisor will review the student’s materials, complete the Research Skills Checklist for Advisors and Advisor’s Evaluation section of the Student Activity Summary, review the checklists and evaluation with the student to provide feedback, and submit the completed Checklists and Student Activity Summary the Program Director for placement in the student’s file.

Example of quantitative psychology apprenticeship and reflection

On April 7th, 2017, three first-year Psychological Sciences students with a Quantitative Psychology concentration presented research in front of a diverse audience consisting of faculty, administrators, and other students. These research presentations were the culmination of a year-long research apprenticeship. Two semesters of research apprenticeship are required of all first year students in the Psychological Sciences master’s program, with the purpose of involving graduate students in research activities early in their training and to aid the graduate students in choosing their Master’s Thesis topic. Read more about this experience here: http://www.psyc.jmu.edu/psycsciences/apprenticeship.html

For prospective students wondering about this part of the program, several Quantitative Psychology concentration students have provided a reflection on their experiences, below.

Nikole Gregg, and advisor Dr. John Hathcoat, conducted a first-year research project entitled Multi-State Collaborative: Rubrics and Rasch. They performed a systematic review of the validity evidence of three VALUE rubrics, quantitative literacy, written communication, and critical thinking. The Multi-State Collaborative, along with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) and the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), use these three rubrics to assess student learning across those three domains (critical thinking, written communication, and quantitative literacy) across thirteen participating states. There are over 73 institutions participating in the MSC initiative. Here, she describes the process in her own words:

“As a first-year student, using data from such a large initiative made me feel like I was participating in research that was bigger than myself.”

Despite the excitement of being a part of the Multi-State Collaborative research project, there were some frustrating moments and setbacks. Nikole says that learning a new statistical software program, including making interpretations from the output, was difficult and the learning curve felt steep. She continues:

“I felt unqualified as a new first-year student in graduate school to do the work. Additionally, I eventually had to learn a new software to run appropriate statistical analyses, figure out how to write specifications in that new software/program format, and I had to learn an entirely new statistical method, Rasch modeling (or essentially 1 Parameter Item-Response Theory). After I became more comfortable with the interpretations, next I struggled with how to pick and choose what information to present. Factors such as the audience, their familiarity with the Multi-State Collaborative, and how much time each presenter was allotted had to be considered to include the most appropriate information with the appropriate level of detail.”

Nikole felt the most important part of the process was that she grew as a researcher in her ability to plan, execute, and stay consistent with research goals. She says:

“My advisor allowed me, and gave me enough freedom, to manage the project on my own, with guidance when it was needed. This provided me with a lot of confidence in my ability as a researcher and a presenter. I learned that any progress, no matter how small and with however many frustrations come with it, is still progress. Another benefit was that this project allowed me the opportunity to develop an advisor-advisee working relationship. This mentorship looks different from an undergraduate mentor, and every advisor is different in terms of their mentorship style. However, we found a balance that allowed me to feel autonomous, but also supported in the research process.”

Nicely done, Nikole and John! Read more about some of Nikole’s experiences in the program here: http://www.psyc.jmu.edu/psycsciences/features/sacsoc.html.

Shane Kerr, with guidance from Dr. Keston Fulcher, pursued Merging Learning Outcomes and Engagement Research. This research focused on student engagement, which has predominately relied upon correlational evidence and indirect measures of learning outcomes for validation. Shane and Dr. Fulcher felt that research on engagement could be bolstered by incorporating direct measures of learning into this validation process. Specifically, Shane was seeking to predict student change on a measure of global learning experience from the National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE) scores. The NSSE collects information from hundreds of four-year colleges and universities regarding student (first and second year) participation in programs and activities related to their learning and personal development. Shane had a constructive apprenticeship, and shares his experiences below:

“During my first-year research apprenticeship I learned several valuable lessons and gained experience which will be indispensable as I take advantage of other research opportunities and write my thesis. Through the apprentice project I was given the opportunity to collaborate with others on research, something I had not had before. Regular meetings with my advisor and occasional meetings with a research team taught me the value of a collaborative research environment.

Echoing the sentiments from other students, Shane discusses the importance of good time management:

“My first-year research apprenticeship was also a valuable lesson in the necessity of good planning, organization, and time management.  Upon determining my research topic with my advisor, I began by familiarizing myself with the relevant literature. This, and discussions with others, led to the questions which I decided to address in my project. This turned into concrete project plans. However, because of other required and optional learning opportunities, it was often difficult to give the project the attention it needed. From this, I learned how essential it is to have a specific plan and personal project goals which you follow religiously.

The project also supported, and provided additional practice for, the skills that I had learned in classes in the first year: data management, analyses, interpretation of analyses, and other aspects of the research process. 

There were, of course, some frustrations:

“The topic of my project was very broad and confusing at times. This made getting a grasp of the literature difficult, which was the most frustrating part for me.  However, wading through the research helped me to improve my ability to critically evaluate research, searching for the valuable takeaways while recognizing limitations and ways the research could be improved. Finally, the project provided me a foundation on which I am building my thesis. Overall, despite some challenges, the first year project emphasized some of my strengths and many of my weaknesses which I can now address and improve upon.”

Kudos, Shane and Keston! To read more student experiences, including those of Shane, follow this link to the Psych Sciences features page: http://www.psyc.jmu.edu/psycsciences/features/nera2016.html.

Chi-Hang Au, working with Dr. Allison Ames, conducted research during the first year on a project titled Empirical Validation of the Critical Thinking Assessment Test: A Bayesian CFA Approach. Read Chi’s account of the process below. He first describes the new set of skills he gained during the process:

“I learned how to become a better writer by seeking feedback and constructive comments on my literature review, how to formulate clear research questions, and ways to identify necessary resources to answer those research questions. This project required time-management, as I was juggling assessment responsibilities and coursework. In the end, I came out a better researcher than I was before.”

The research had some technical aspects, requiring learning new software and analytic methods, forcing Chi to think outside the box.

“I was exposed to several statistical software packages. Initially, it was challenging to read through the manuals and receiving error messages was often disheartening. Through working online examples and tutorials, I was able to become proficient in several of the programs. My advisor was also learning some of the packages and we were able to trouble-shoot together. Additional help came from online user forums, which proved a valuable resource. This experience made me appreciate the importance of being multilingual in different software packages!”
Chi finishes by describing another skill developed along the way: presenting. 

“Finally, I learned that when presenting technical information, it is important to add a touch of humor. Not only did it lighten up the mood, it also engaged the audience to the material. Lastly, the first year research project led to ideas for my thesis, and I can see several other research questions to pursue. I am amazed at how much I have grown this year!”

Great work, Chi!