ISSR Consultants Strengthen Methods Support on Campus

Jackie Stein and Christopher Burns
Friday, April 12, 2013

The Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), based in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS), is changing the way social science faculty and graduate students pursue research on campus. Officially launched in fall 2012, ISSR has spent the year expanding methods and training opportunities for social science faculty. A major component of this expansion has been the institutionalization of methodology consulting within the Institute.

ISSR boasts five advanced graduate student consultants, under the supervision of ISSR Methodologist Henry Renski, assistant professor of landscape architecture and regional planning. Both the resident methodologist and graduate consultants are available either by appointment or during regularly scheduled “walk-in” hours office hours for faculty and graduate students in the social sciences. Chosen for these positions to reflect the breadth of social science research on campus, the consultants’ backgrounds range from sociology to public health to economics and resource economics. They are trained in a range of quantitative and qualitative methodologies and a variety of specialized analytical software.

Graduate students and faculty have found the assistance to be a welcome new resource. One consulting evaluation noted, “I can say with no exaggeration that it has improved my UMass experience more than any other resource at the University, hands down.” Said another, “Having a centralized place for faculty to get help with statistical and programming issues is very, very valuable to me [and] really useful to graduate students.” Other evaluations describe the center as “integral to my research” and “an amazing collective resource.”

Indeed, joining the ISSR methodology team has offered a way for many of the consultants to connect with and build a community among social science researchers. “I joined ISSR because I wanted to see how researchers in disciplines outside of economics use statistical models to study a problem,” says consultant Christopher Burns, a PhD candidate in resource economics.

“I was excited to be part of an interdisciplinary initiative,” adds consultant Jackie Stein, PhD candidate in sociology. “I value synergy in ideas and people, and I was eager to be a part of something that would bring together a bunch of people with lots of good ideas.” Burns agrees, “Sometimes we're able to solve an issue or problem right away, but sometimes we are just a good place to discuss ideas and think about the problem more deeply,” he says.

These consulting positions also offer the graduate student consultants opportunities to develop short courses and workshops based on their methodology expertise. Jessica Looze, a PhD student in sociology, for instance, was able to develop a workshop on Stata 12 soon after joining the ISSR team. She has been able to support researchers looking to analyze longitudinal data and perform fixed effects regression and event history modeling.

Beyond providing opportunities to strengthen their teaching skills, these courses provide unique opportunities for graduate students to improve their own research and consider research questions from a variety of angles at the same time that they are helping others to do the same. Burns reports that his time at ISSR has made him more inclined to work in interdisciplinary research settings, for instance, and Stein has been introduced to the type of methodology support that will be available to her for her own research projects. “The panels and workshops that ISSR puts on have helped me think about my own research, everything from getting IRB approval to grant writing,” she says. “Knowing that ISSR is around helps me feel more confident in moving forward with my own research. I know there will be a place to turn to when I get stuck.”

In addition to the diverse backgrounds of the consultants themselves, the diversity of the actual projects and researchers using ISSR’s services is a point of pride for ISSR. “Our variety reflects ISSR’s goal of reaching across traditional disciplinary and institutional boundaries,” says Jen Lundquist, Associate Professor of Sociology and Acting Director of ISSR. “One of my favorite things about the lab is that it is becoming a methods discussion gathering spot. People have begun to drop by in the afternoons to do their work here on our computers and the consultant is there for any questions that arise, but there is also a growing community of others hanging out in the lab who are also a great resource.”

Lundquist is pleased that the consulting and short courses appear to be a catalyst for building a larger, grass-roots methods community on campus. This year alone, the consultants have worked with researchers from a range of disciplines including clinical psychology, education, labor studies, sociology, anthropology, nutrition, kinesiology, and economics, among others. The lab is currently building a methods book reference library. It is also organizing a research seminar symposium where researchers who have used the lab services will have the opportunity to present their research projects for group feedback.

Faculty and graduate students interested in utilizing ISSR’s consulting services can learn more at the ISSR website.