It's a common scenario: You think you want to go for the PhD but just aren't sure you want to commit. If only you had the chance to sample the experience first. ASHA's Students Preparing for Academic and Research Careers (SPARC) program does just that for students in communication sciences and disorders who are considering research or academia trajectories.
Now in its eighth year, the program has awarded up to $1,000 to 93 students to use for conference travel, research, and teaching activities. The program also provides mentoring and guidance.
The stories of two SPARC recipients demonstrate how receiving the award and participating in the program helped shape their careers.
Meghan Darling, MS, CCC-SLP
Doctoral Student, Purdue University
As an undergraduate at Purdue University from 2003 to 2006, I was a research assistant in Jessica Huber's Speech Physiology Laboratory. This experience fostered my love of research. However, I was uncertain about committing to a doctoral program—I wasn't confident that a PhD, and possibly an academic research career, was for me. It also was daunting to have to figure out which ideas and questions are the most important and feasible research.
Dr. Huber approached me about applying for the SPARC award, which is designed to foster students' interest in pursuing a PhD and careers in academia. That's exactly what it did for me. The SPARC award broadened my awareness of what life as a PhD student and academic would entail.
Using my SPARC award, I attended the ASHA convention for the first time. Even though I was totally overwhelmed by the number of people and the number of excellent presentations, I was excited about the possibilities that a research career offered. Dr. Huber introduced me to other researchers in the field who shared their doctoral student experiences with me—most said that although a PhD requires a considerable amount of work, it also can be one of the best times of your career because it's time completely devoted to research.
Through the award, I completed a research project on lip and jaw kinematics in individuals with Parkinson's disease. I also gave two lectures to undergraduate courses and attended lectures about teaching techniques, which gave me insight into strong and effective teaching.
Because of these experiences, I decided to pursue entry into the MS/PhD program at Purdue University. The project I started as an undergraduate in Dr. Huber's lab became my master's thesis and has been published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. I completed my clinical master's degree and then obtained certification of clinical competence part-time while I pursued my PhD. My primary expertise is motor speech disorders.
Prior to the experiences that the SPARC award provided, I did not believe that I could be a successful researcher. Today I am a fourth-year PhD student and have received a pre-doctoral research grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct my dissertation about the effects of respiratory training on speech naturalness in individuals with Parkinson's disease. Next year, I will be applying for tenure-track faculty positions or perhaps a post-doctoral fellowship. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in such a wonderful program. It really made a difference in my career!
Rick Arenas, MA
Doctoral Candidate, University of Iowa
In the spring of 2004 I began the second semester of the University of Iowa master's program in speech-language pathology. Having had a semester of clinical experience, I began contemplating whether I really wanted to pursue a clinical career or a research career. As a means of testing the waters with research, I began thinking about my master's thesis project. I was very interested (and still am) in investigating the biological mechanisms involved in the contextual variability of stuttering.
The project I wanted to pursue required equipment not available in our lab, funding for research subjects, and technical knowledge that I did not yet possess. Because of these obstacles, I was very close to scrapping the whole idea of a thesis.
Fortunately, I learned that ASHA had just begun a new initiative to foster students' interest in the pursuit of PhD education and careers in academia. Part of this initiative was the SPARC award, which provides a structured format for students to receive hands-on academic and research experience with direct mentorship from faculty members.
To be honest, what initially drove me to apply for the SPARC award was the monetary component, because it would allow me to cover the expenses of my thesis project. The application process was a worthwhile lesson for a student who had little experience with developing a formal proposal for an academic or research plan. Engulfed in my daily grind, I quickly forgot about the SPARC award after submitting the application.
A few months later I received word that I was an award recipient. I quickly learned that although the money from the award was important to starting my project, even more critical to the success of the project and my academic development was the structured mentorship of the SPARC program.
The structured mentorship entails a written agreement between the student and mentoring faculty to meet regularly and thoroughly discuss and participate in academic and research roles common to PhD students and faculty members. The consistent and intense interaction with faculty mentors helped me successfully complete my thesis, but more important, it provided a glimpse into the daily life and roles of PhD students and faculty members—I created lesson plans, taught classes, and was involved in academic discussions. First-hand experience of what an academic career entails is the best way to decide whether that career choice makes sense for you.
My very positive SPARC experience was an important factor in my decision to pursue an
academic/research career in communication sciences and disorders. I am collecting data for my dissertation and am anxious to move on to the next step in my career. I highly encourage students who have any interest in an academic/research career to consider applying for the SPARC award—testing the waters is the best way to decide on your career path.