Watson’s Director’s fellowship program engages MPA students in timely research projects

Ten Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs master's of public affairs students were selected to work on the Director’s Fellowship Program for the 2022-2023 academic year.

The Director’s Fellowship Program is a dynamic opportunity that engages selected MPA students in research opportunities with faculty across Watson’s regional and topic-based Centers and Initiatives. After a successful pilot last year, 10 MPA students were selected to work with faculty on cutting-edge research projects that focus on some of the world’s most pressing policy questions, including climate, economic growth, development, foreign policy, responses to anti-black racism, security, social policy, and voting rights.

All faculty from Watson’s Centers and Initiatives were invited to propose a research project for the Director’s Fellowship Projects. “We wanted to ensure that the projects offered students an opportunity to develop or burnish their research skills – for example, in quantitative analysis, coding, or writing and presentation,” says Matthew J. Lyddon, Director, Program Operations & Director of Graduate Study.

“The Director’s Fellows program is one of many ways in which our MPA program provides students with applied opportunities to develop their expertise and make an impact, including through policy analysis,” says Director of Academic Programs and Associate Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs Susan Moffitt

Jason Barajas MPA ’23 is the Fellow selected to work with The Voting Rights and the 2022 Midterm Elections project, a Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy research initiative. In that capacity, Barajas also will supervise some undergraduates helping on the project.

“I had some background [on this issue] in my previous work with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles,” says Barajas, who believes his quantitative data skills will be a valuable asset to the project, which will mine data from voting records from four states. “The exploratory data analysis [should provide] insights to answer a lot of the main research questions.” 

“This project will examine newly adopted laws in four states – likely Arizona, Georgia, Rhode Island, and Texas – to see whether they [led to] increased or decreased voting,” says Wendy Schiller, Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence in Political Science and Director of the Taubman Center.  The team will evaluate those states’ voting trends for the 2018, 2020, and 2022 elections. The Fellowship Program, says Schiller, offers the Fellows a direct research experience with faculty at Brown University in subject matter areas that have a significant impact on social and public policies.  

The diverse and broad array of project sponsors confirms Moffitt’s belief that “the Director’s Fellowship Program allows participating students to learn from a broader array of experts at Watson than they have access to solely through their course curriculum. These projects connect the Fellows with hands-on research opportunities, and provide students with a clear research project in their professional portfolios when they go on the job market.” 

The research projects, which got underway early in the fall semester, may run through January. In a spring semester workshop, each Fellow – with their faculty supervisor – will make a presentation on their research project and highlight one or two key learnings to the MPA community. Each Fellow receives a $3,000 stipend that Watson is funding.  

“The Director’s Fellowship Program combines an experiential learning component with a research component,” says Lyddon, who lauds Watson for its “investment in providing a competitive experiential learning opportunity in the research space for our Master’s students.” 

Another signature benefit is that the innovative program equips the students to address pressing domestic and global challenges; it’s not an ‘either-or’ situation,” says Moffitt. “At Watson, we weave problems and policies together.” 

Watson’s global focus, in part, drew Barajas to Brown’s MPA program, as did the data-driven track. “I wanted to cultivate that and hone my existing skills and learn new skills,” says Barajas. Those factors, plus the Ivy League brand that comes with Watson’s MPA program and the accelerated track, which allows him to return to the workforce quickly, drove Barajas to choose Watson’s MPA program. “The MPA program includes people with very dynamic backgrounds, and that contributes to an enriching experience.”  

Choosing a cohort of students with diverse personal and professional backgrounds is a deliberate strategy for Watson. “The Fellows bring their prior work experience and lived experiences to the Centers, Initiatives, and Programs’ research projects on which they’re working,” says Moffitt. “Watson’s MPA program trains students well in research methods and communication skills, which gives faculty from the Centers, Initiatives, and Programs a pool of expertise on which they can draw.”