My Pursuit of a CSD Academic-Research Career

When I began my PhD, I was unfamiliar with academic research and had no research experience whatsoever. My previous education was in international studies and education. As a classroom teacher, I’d often questioned the differences in my students’ communicative skills and how to best support their language development. After several years of teaching, I decided to apply to doctoral programs in education and human development. I’d never heard of the University of Kansas (KU) or the field of CSD, but a friend suggested I look into KU’s Child Language Doctoral Program (CLDP). I was intrigued, so I applied . . . and was accepted!

At KU, I matriculated into the CLDP program which prepares students to comprehensively consider language from genotype to phenotype. Although my primary focus was on language, I loved learning about how environmental factors, like maternal nutrition and stress levels, are important in later child development at very fine-grained levels. At the same time, I began research training with Dr. Mabel Rice (my advisor) and Dr. Steven Warren, as well as professional development training in academic research careers.

As I made progress in the program and in my training, I started to feel like pursuing an academic-research career might be a great option for me. Dr. Rice’s inclusive approach to advising helped me envision myself as a future professor at a university and director of a lab focusing on understanding language acquisition across the lifespan in autistic individuals through participatory approaches (i.e., partnering with communities to develop and disseminate research in ways that are meaningful to them, versus simply studying them from the ivory tower).

My Reservations with Pursuing Academic Research

Nevertheless, I still had misgivings about building a career in academic research beyond KU. I didn’t know any of the “big names” and felt a bit lost. Attending my first-ever ASHA Convention in 2014 where I knew no one except my adviser and lab-mate, fueled these doubts. It also didn’t help that I felt overwhelmed as a visibly BIPOC student at an extremely white Convention. I wondered how I could enter a scholarly community where I didn’t know any scholars and where it also seemed as if they already knew one another. How was I supposed to engage in scholarly dialogue or be in conversation with others in this “in” crowd? Especially when it felt like they didn’t show an interest in wanting to talk to a newcomer?

Gaining Confidence Through ASHA’s S.T.E.P. and MSLP Programs

Building relationships with others helped me overcome my qualms. Early in my doctoral studies, I enrolled in ASHA’s Students to Empowered Professionals Program (S.T.E.P.), where Dr. Carolyn Higdon served as my mentor. Over the course of a year, I gained confidence in developing a professional network and skills beyond KU. Monthly calls with Dr. Higdon provided me with opportunities to not only practice engaging in scholarly conversation but also network with a faculty member beyond my institution. For any CSD student who might be having the same doubts as I did, I highly suggest signing up for S.T.E.P. It made a world of difference for me.

I also successfully applied to ASHA’s Minority Student Leadership Program (MSLP), where I learned about ASHA governance while also honing my own leadership skills in spaces that were clearly designed for minority students. MSLP experiences that resonated with me were meeting senior members of ASHA leadership who, like us in MSLP, were also minorities, as well as the Multicultural Concerns Collective (MC2). This type of community-building coupled with professional development was exactly the experience I hoped for during my first Convention experience. Most important of all, I gained invaluable relationships with my cohort. To this day, I still talk to and work with many of them, which has resulted in:

My First Funded Research Scholarship

Both the S.T.E.P. and MSLP programs helped inform my identity as a future academic researcher. S.T.E.P. showed me that I had a place in the scholarly CSD community as a language scientist, even if I didn’t know most people—either on paper or in person—just yet. MSLP showed me the many ASHA resources and support available to me to become a full-fledged academic researcher and leader in CSD. My newfound confidence helped me apply for the ASHFoundation’s New Century Scholars Doctoral Scholarship. Receiving the scholarship felt like true validation that my research interests, career goals, and sense of academic identity were on an upward trajectory. It also helped me fund an independent research study in my chosen research area, Assessment of Language Abilities in Minority Adolescents and Young Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Extensive Special Education Needs: A Pilot Study, which was published in ASHA’s AJSLP publication.

Mentorship: An Important Component to Academic Research

Feeling bolstered, I applied to ASHA’s Mentoring Academic Research Careers (MARC) program and gained Dr. Sara Kover as my mentor. I learned more about autism research; received an ASHA Research Mentoring-Pair Travel Award; and gained hands-on learning experience on how to navigate conferences, conduct peer review, and approach early-career award mechanisms. Although my time with Dr. Kover through MARC is officially over, we still stay in contact. The knowledge I gleaned through her mentorship helped me to prioritize my early career activities more clearly, all of which are geared toward building an academic research career as an independent investigator. My hope is to become a tenure-track faculty member focusing on the language abilities of autistic individuals across the lifespan, with the long-term goal of developing supports to meet their self-identified needs through community-based participatory research.

I gained so much the first time, I joined MARC for a subsequent cycle—this time with Dr. Nan Bernstein Ratner as my mentor. As I prepared to transition to a postdoctoral training grant, mentorship from Dr. Ratner was invaluable in helping me identify next steps of what I needed to do for postdoctoral success. As a senior doctoral candidate completing a dissertation and a postdoctoral T32 traineeship in hand, I had a clear vision of where I was headed. However, what Dr. Ratner provided was guidance on how to successfully navigate the postdoctoral to tenure-track journey, as well as how to position myself as a potential tenure-track (and eventually pre-tenure) faculty member. Altogether, Dr. Ratner’s mentorship and the postdoctoral training grant eliminated much of the uncertainty that can accompany career planning. 

Seek Out Support

All of these ASHA programs provided me with connections to people and resources that have been integral to my success as an early career academic researcher.

I also regularly utilize other ASHA resources—community boards, Research Roundtables at the ASHA Convention, and the Academic & Research Mentoring Network (ARM)—which help me map out professional development activities that will further propel me toward achieving my career goals as a doctoral student. In fact, I use the ARM Network website to triangulate ASHA, National Institute of Health (NIH), and KU programming to map out a visual timeline of professional development activities and opportunities for the future.

While I received stellar advising at KU, learning about broader perspectives has helped me understand how to actively participate in a scholarly community. Developing the ability to do so independently is critical to being successful as an academic researcher, departmental faculty member, and hopefully independent investigator.

Altogether, these programs and resources make much of the “hidden curriculum” in academia (which may disproportionately impact BIPOC students like myself) more transparent. I can wholeheartedly say that ASHA programming has made achieving my career goals more attainable. I’m grateful for this explicit infrastructure that supports the next generation of academic researchers.

If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a faculty-researcher, I hope you now know that it’s well within your grasp!

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