In 2016, the SSRC selected Cornell as one of five host universities, with the goal of transferring its Dissertation Proposal Development (DPD) program to local campuses with support for a three-year period. Cornell’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies (Einaudi Center) led the program with financial support from the Graduate School and several colleges. In 2020, the Einaudi-SSRC program became fully funded by Cornell under a new name: the Einaudi Dissertation Proposal Development Program.
This article summarizes experiences and reflections in my role as coordinator of the Dissertation Proposal Development program during these first 5 years.1These are personal views and in no way reflect the official position of Cornell University nor the Einaudi Center. It is fair to say that these years were rather “special” and characterized by a series of unforeseeable events such as leadership changes and the coronavirus pandemic. These developments, which were outside our control, had a significant impact on the overall program’s performance. However, I will focus on four key factors that determined the success of our program. Finally, I will address some of the challenges and opportunities to continue implementing this training as an efficient, effective, and sustainable program at the Einaudi Center from a coordinator’s perspective.
The influence of the program on students was remarkable. Students were very satisfied and enthusiastic. Listening to their takeaways at the end of the Fall workshops and reading their statements seemed to fully justify the resources poured into this program in terms of finances and time invested by faculty and staff. This was also reflected in the program’s increasing popularity. Within three years of offering the program on the Cornell campus, not only had the number of student applications doubled, but the number of academic fields and departments students represented almost doubled as well. Our preliminary evaluations of students and advisers about the impact of the program confirm that the program had a profound and overwhelmingly positive impact on our student’s research projects, funding proposals, and professional skills. The following student and faculty advisor comments received anonymously from surveys attest to this.
“The DPD program was such a dynamic and impactful experience that it is hard to adequately encapsulate all of the benefits of the program for my own personal development and that of my research. The workshops were incredibly rigorous and really pushed me to develop my dissertation proposal in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve on my own. SO grateful for this opportunity.” — 2019 DPD Fellow
“It was an excellent academic space that really impressed on me the value of cross-disciplinary conversations. It helped me to think through my research project and refine my proposal. I can say without a doubt that it was instrumental to my success in applying for research fellowships in the past year. I managed to put together a full academic year of research funding through a number of grants. I don’t think that this would have been possible without the skills I learned and feedback I received in the DPD program.” — 2019 DPD Fellow
“I think that the Einaudi-SSRC training provides an excellent experience for students in terms of enhancing their understanding of a wide variety of research methodologies and gaining a better understanding of the range of different disciplinary theories and approaches to research. It helps them become stronger intellectuals with a broader understanding of academic scholarship. It enhances the rigor of their research methods.” — Faculty advisor of 2017 DPD Fellow
“This training greatly sharpened [the student’s] ability to communicate core questions and methods clearly to a multi-disciplinary audience. I am convinced that her successful receipt of two prestigious national fellowships for field research owed much to this training.” — Faculty advisor of 2017 DPD Fellow
Faculty facilitators felt that they learned a great deal about how to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations and support students as they refined their projects. Each also felt that they were, after the workshops, better able to support their own graduate students. What some faculty called the “SSRC method”—breaking down the components of the research proposal into a workbook, constructive critiques, and peer learning—was uniformly lauded.
Last but not least, the program had a positive impact on the Einaudi Center, Cornell’s crossroads for research, teaching, and learning about the world. For the first time, it offered a coherent interdisciplinary mentoring of graduate students in the social sciences and humanities, broadly defined, at the crucial phase of proposal development for dissertation research.
Factors of success
A combination of institutional and individual factors contributed to the success of the program at Cornell.
Response to a need
Globalization has created an economically, politically, and intellectually interconnected world in which visions and values arising from historical, cultural, religious, linguistic, and ideological differences collide and compete. At the same time, many of today’s challenges—from climate change to inequality, immigration, refugees, public health, disaster preparedness, and cybersecurity—have highly technical dimensions. Finding effective solutions to these socio-technical problems demands substantive cross-disciplinary collaboration.
There was a clearly identified need for offering a systematic interdisciplinary graduate proposal development program in international studies. For leaders and scholars of tomorrow to be effective and relevant, students need to be equipped with a broad range of skills, knowledge, and attitudes to work across borders and divisions of all kinds. Most graduate training is still organized in highly specialized disciplines and faculty will guide their students to conduct research within their discipline. This program helps graduate students from many different disciplines formulate dissertation research and funding proposals in international studies through exposure to the theories, literatures, methods, and intellectual traditions of disciplines outside their own.
According to history professor Durba Ghosh, one of the program’s co-leaders, “the DPD program is interdisciplinary and brings together students and faculty from across the university. It integrates the campus in a way that no other program does.”
Faculty leaders played a key role in developing and implementing the DPD program. Both of the original co-lead administrators were full-time faculty members. One was the director of the Einaudi Center and, after he left Cornell, the other became acting director of the Einaudi Center and vice provost for international affairs. Another full-time faculty member was recruited to take on the role of co-lead administrator. Both of these faculty leaders have a deep appreciation for the program and had been actively engaged with SSRC graduate training and particularly the DPD program for a long time. Their commitment was exceptional.
The Einaudi Center was a logical home for offering the training and institutionalizing the program proposed. Our area studies and thematic programs are places where students, scholars, and practitioners come together to explore, exchange, debate, and expand their understanding of global and international issues. Our working groups and other initiatives bring people together from across the university and around the globe, empowering and inspiring them not just to create new knowledge, but also to make positive change.
The Einaudi Center also has a long-term track record, expertise, and capacity in supporting graduate students. Every year, the center awards over 240 Cornell graduate students with grants and fellowships to support their international and foreign language studies. Additionally, the Center administers the Fulbright and Fulbright-Hays programs. Graduate students are actively engaged in the myriad events organized by the center every year, including hundreds of weekly seminars, workshops, conferences, public lectures, panels, and debates, which expose them to the cutting-edge work of colleagues within and outside the university.
“The Einaudi Center and its Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies have been foundational to my academic career… My research and the insights gained through it would not have been possible without the Center’s support. The great strength is how they bring together scholars working on related issues, but from a variety of perspectives. In 2018, I participated in the DPD program. The feedback I received from my peers broadened my horizons considerably and helped me incorporate different perspectives into my dissertation.” — Naomi Engel, PhD student
The Einaudi Center coordinated the program with the Graduate School, several colleges, and key campus-wide units and used a collaborative financial model. These partnerships were essential to launch and implement the program. The Center received contributions to student stipends from the Graduate School and several Cornell colleges. With support from SSRC and a significant commitment by the Einaudi Center itself, this model was financially viable for the short-term and medium-term (up to 5 years).
Challenges and opportunities
The performance of the DPD program and its impact particularly on students depends on a number of factors. One can distinguish three kinds of challenges and opportunities that influence performance, those that relate to 1) the effectiveness of the program, which refers to the ability to meet defined objectives; 2) its efficiency, which refers to how well resources and knowledge were used in generating the training outputs; and 3) its sustainability, which refers to the ability to maintain performance over time, to continue to be relevant, and to acquire the needed financial and other resources.
- Clearly define the goals of the program and also its limits. For example, is the goal of the program to help students prepare stronger funding proposals or is it to design better dissertation research projects? How to address potentially competing goals and what are the priorities? Students will receive a range of feedback in an interdisciplinary setting that is different from the feedback they receive from their advisers and dissertation committees, and the aim is not to tell students what they should do.
- Recruit the “right” faculty facilitators at the “right” time. Faculty play a crucial role in implementing the training; they need to have extended experiences and expertise in teaching, mentoring, and interdisciplinary research. It has been successful to identify faculty who were familiar with the program. For example, a faculty member with a student who participated in the DPD program during previous years is a strong candidate. Due to other faculty commitments, it is also recommended to approach faculty at least two years before the actual training.
- While faculty facilitators bring their own expertise and experiences to the training, the design and methodology of the DPD Program proved to be most effective in helping students prepare dissertation research proposals. Getting familiar with the DPD program components as well as the exchange of experiences between generations of faculty facilitators has been particularly important to create a consistent tradition and culture of interdisciplinary training and pedagogy for international studies. It might be useful to recruit facilitators for two consecutive years, which will allow for an overlap of one facilitator at all times.
- There are a series of challenges in assessing the impact of the DPD Program on the development of their dissertation research projects and the likelihood that the research proposals are successful. What we do not have at this point is data to provide evidence that the short and medium outcomes have the expected positive long-term impacts on student performance. Therefore, we need to continue monitoring the development of different student cohorts over the coming years and compare data with an appropriate control group.
- It was not only important to regularly measure the program’s educational impact on students, but also to assess which factors constrained the performance and which provided particular opportunities for improvements.
- Determining the efficiency of the program is difficult. In its last year, the costs equaled about $10,000 per student for a 12-cohort program. The costs of the program for administrative support, stipends for faculty leaders and facilitators, and workshop expenses equaled the amount for student stipends. These costs can be justified if the training leads to increased external student fellowships and grants. So far, we do have indicators (i.e., improved proposal writing skills, applications for competitive fellowship funding, receipt of competitive fellowships) but no statistically significant proof that shows students are more successful than others in gaining additional external funding because of their participation in the program.
- Keeping the program costs low without compromising its effectiveness. There seem to be only limited savings per student expected by a) scaling up the number of students per program or by b) adding a second program for 12 students. Significant savings are only expected if major components of the program are changed—for example, if students receive smaller stipends for their summer research and/or the program offers only a one-day workshop on campus. It must be questioned if such changes to core values and components of the training program can be justified without losing its impact.
- Keeping key stakeholder groups engaged. This program, even more so as it operated outside the “regular” graduate training program, was defined by a significant number of stakeholder groups. These included university partners (i.e., the graduate school, colleges, academic fields), students, their advisers, faculty facilitators, and faculty leaders, as well staff involved in the administration of the program. It was very important not only to clearly articulate the roles and responsibilities to each of them and regularly communicate, but also to keep them actively engaged.
- Balancing the costs and benefits for institutional partners. As pointed out above, the program was based on a collaborative financial model with major investments by the Einaudi Center. However, the Center needs to secure at least the funding for the student stipends as well as other key expenses related to the program to make it financially viable in the long term. In addition, the rather long-term planning process and regular leadership changes make it necessary to come to long-term formalized financial arrangements with key benefiters, such as the Graduate School and selected colleges.
- Embed the DPD Program more firmly within the Einaudi Center. The Center’s faculty-led area studies and thematic programs could be more actively engaged in recruiting students as well as faculty facilitators. Another option is to have students applying for other Einaudi Center fellowships or awards to participate in the program. So far, only 12 students per year could be supported by the program.
- Expand the number of annual DPD programs offered. The number of students participating in the program is very small and purposefully represents a very diverse student group. The high number of applications indicates that there is a significant higher demand for this kind of training that has not been met. If additional funding is available, for example through an endowment, the Center could offer two parallel DPD programs, training 24 students on a regular basis. Additional funding could also be mobilized by developing an inter-university collaborative model for interdisciplinary graduate training in international studies that will increase student and faculty participation from other universities.
Since it launched five years ago, Cornell’s DPD Program has enhanced and expanded the Einaudi Center’s role in offering a systematic and successful interdisciplinary graduate training program in international and area studies. We are at a crossroads to make the program sustainable so it can become a permanent cornerstone and part of the Einaudi Center’s identity. To achieve this, the program will need to show continued success—particularly related to student outcomes—and be of continued relevance to all of its key university partners. It will also depend on how the Einaudi Center will be able to continue to adapt to changing circumstances.