Building a Career in Educational Research

By Laura Hoxworth

Experience working with Curry School projects helps early-career researchers clarify their research goals and land promising job opportunities.

Tutrang Nguyen (left) and Krystal Thomas (right)

At any given moment, researchers at the Curry School are working on dozens of projects that impact lives through the advancement of education and human development. But these projects make another valuable impact – providing experience for early-career researchers.

For graduate students and post-doctoral researchers alike, working closely with faculty mentors on emerging research can open up numerous career pathways, both within and outside of traditional academia.

Two such researchers, Tutrang Nguyen and Krystal Thomas, recently came to the Curry School as part of the Virginia Education Science Training (VEST) postdoctoral fellowship program, which is funded by a training grant from the Institute of Education Sciences. Now, they’re both preparing to begin the next chapter of their careers at prominent research organizations.

“It’s a joy to have these VEST post-docs as part of our teams,” said Curry School Professor Sara Rimm-Kaufman. “Typically, they bring a new and different perspective to the work. Often, they have deep knowledge of an area and the post-doc gives them an opportunity to apply that knowledge in a novel way. I appreciate that they ask questions that help us question our assumptions.”

Nguyen, who completed her Ph.D. in 2018 at the University of California, Irvine, conducts research identifying and measuring the essential features of early childhood educational settings that support child development – particularly those that could work at a larger scale.

Her experience working with the Curry School’s Fairfax Prek to Third Grade Project (FP3) opened a new dimension in her research interests.

“My graduate work focused mostly on curricula, and since coming to UVA as a post-doc, I’ve learned a lot more about interactional quality,” she said. “In blending these two areas of research, much of my current work centers on the role of curricula, teacher-child interactions, and the combination of the two in promoting the positive development of children facing early risk and disadvantage.”

At UVA, Nguyen conducted data analysis, wrote papers, and worked with data collectors – all relevant experience for the job she recently accepted at global policy research organization Mathematica. In her new role, among other things, Nguyen will work on analysis and reporting of large-scale data collection projects.

Ultimately, Nguyen hopes to build a career producing and disseminating high quality, rigorous, and objective evidence to improve programs and policies in support of children and families.

“My post-doc gave me more time to focus solely on advancing my research that I didn’t get when I was in graduate school,” she said. “I realized I enjoyed my time focused solely on research through this post-doc, and I will get do that at Mathematica as well.”

Thomas, after completing her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University, arrived at the Curry School to work with professors Rimm-Kaufman and Jason Downer on a study examining the impact of RULER, a widely used social-emotional learning intervention.

For Thomas, the post-doc position was an opportunity to return to the Curry School. As an undergraduate, she participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), where she coded interviews for a My Teaching Partner study.

“I applied to this post-doc position because I knew that the training I had received prior as a SURP student shaped my career trajectory, and I felt that as a post-doc I would have the training and support I needed post-grad school to realize my career goals,” she said.

Thomas’s research interests primarily focus on the ways that racial and ethnic identity relate to student engagement and learning. Specifically, her research experience has helped her explore the particular teaching practices, teacher beliefs and curricula that can affect students’ sense of self.

Now, Thomas is preparing to start a new position as an Education Researcher at the scientific research institute SRI International, where she will conduct research and evaluations to help organizations like small non-profits and foundations make important decisions about K-16 education.

“Research careers can take many different paths,” said Rimm-Kaufman. “I’m excited about the positions that Tutrang and Krystal have at Mathematica and SRI, and I’m especially pleased that their training here at Curry gave them the option to choose between academic versus research organization positions.”

Thomas said that the Curry School gave her opportunities to broaden her statistical skill set through coursework, attend lecture series events, and work closely with faculty mentors – experiences that set her up for a promising career path.

“I think these experiences helped to bolster my confidence in myself and understand how my skillset and content knowledge would be useful to the new role I will begin soon,” she said. “I really appreciate the post-docs, staff, and faculty that were so welcoming and made my time in CASTL a memorable and worthwhile experience.”