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IGERT innovations in field research training


Professor Kathryn Edin, a faculty member with the NSF-funded Harvard Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy, has introduced an innovative faculty-led intensive fieldwork training opportunity this year in Baltimore, MD., for incoming and returning IGERT doctoral students.

Participants Jackelyn Hwang, Carly Knight, Eva Rosen, Tracey Shollenberger, Holly Wood, and Queenie Zhu—all first, second, or third-year Harvard Ph.D. students—will spend much of the summer (May-August) engaged in hands-on research in one of two funded research projects: (1) A study of how low-income Baltimore-area residents make residential choices; or (2) a 12-year qualitative follow-up of older adolescents and young adults whose families participated in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity experiment, a voluntary mobility program that enrolled residents of highly distressed public housing in Baltimore and four other cities and provided experimental group members with a voucher to move to low-poverty neighborhoods.

Both projects reflect an interest among economists, sociologists, and policymakers in identifying the potential effects of neighborhood characteristics on a range of family children’s outcomes, including physical and mental health, educational achievement, and labor market outcomes. Yet while much of this research has followed families over time through traditional surveys, Edin sees opportunities for new insights through more mixed-methods approaches—that is, combining survey research with more in-depth qualitative techniques, such as visiting households, interviewing them to learn more about their daily lives and experiences, and accompanying them in their typical routines.

Each student began the program with a three-day initial training session and was then assigned interview cases. Students were required to begin by observing a faculty member’s field interview. Faculty then observed one or more student-led interviews. Students also transcribed their first interview, annotating the text with their own sense of what they did well and how they could improve. After these steps were completed, students were encouraged to pair up and offer constructive feedback to one another.

Evaluation, feedback, and team discussion of the fieldwork process are central and recurring elements throughout the training program. Later in the field period, faculty observe each student in a student-led interview again to assess progress and offer further feedback. Students attend weekly meetings with faculty and other interviewers to discuss field work strategies and identify emerging analytical themes. Students who participate are given access to data and the opportunity to develop papers from them. They are also invited to collaborate with faculty on written projects from the study.

The Baltimore fieldwork training initiative is the second time that Edin has organized the faculty-led intensive fieldwork training. In the summer of 2007, Harvard Inequality & Social Policy students Sarah Halpern-Meekin (now Assistant Professor of Sociology, Bowling Green State), Sara Sternberg Greene, Eva Rosen, Jennifer Sykes, and Laura Tach (now a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at University of Pennsylvania) participated in the Investing in Enduring Resources with the EITC project, an in-depth interview study of the economic coping strategies of low-to-moderate wage workers who earned the Earned Income Tax Credit, now the largest anti-poverty program in the United States. Collectively and individually, these students and faculty have produced more than a dozen papers from the project to date. Three of these IGERT alumni/students (Halpern-Meekin, Sykes, and Tach), along with faculty member Kathryn Edin, are midway through a book project tentatively titled, The Economic Lives of the working Poor and Near Poor. This book details the income-generating strategies and financial challenges of the 200 working poor and near poor families with dependent children.

Address Goals

The faculty-led fieldwork training experiences provide IGERT students with an intensive hands-on learning experience that cannot be replicated in a traditional classroom setting. Trainees have the opportunity to develop and refine their field research skills while participating in a major research project that bridges two or more of the IGERT disciplinary fields. The fieldwork program’s emphasis on developing in-depth qualitative research skills, in particular, has the potential to generate important new insights into neighborhood effects that will advance the frontiers of knowledge and inform policies designed to improve the lives of low-income residents.