Next Generation: Graduate Students, New Professionals, and Preparation Programs


Developing the “Scholar” in Scholar-Practitioner: How Peer-led Communities of Research Promote Agency and Growth for Student Affairs Master’s Degree Students

Genia M.  Bettencourt
Victoria K.  Malaney Brown
Caitlin J.  Kidder
Dr.  Chrystal A.  George Mwangi
University of Massachusetts Amherst


I feel very comfortable conducting research now.  This was a hard class and it had a lot of work involved, but it was such a good way for me to understand how research works.  I appreciated the hands-on experience.  –Master’s student

Higher education and student affairs programs have numerous strategies to prepare master’s degree students to take on professional roles (Janosik, Cooper, Saunders, & Hirt, 2015; Wawrzynski & Jessup-Anger, 2014).  Through experiences such as assistantships, internships, and practicum, master’s degree students acquire tangible skills to support students and navigate institutional systems.

In contrast, the development of research skills may be relegated to a single academic course within a master’s program.  Without a strong research foundation, administrators may make decisions based on limited information that perpetuate social inequalities for marginalized students on campus (Bensimon, 2007).  The integration of scholarship and practice situates programmatic decisions and institutional measures within data and best practices, leading to a higher caliber of work by student affairs professionals (Jablonski, Mena, Manning, Carpenter & Siko, 2011; Kupo, 2014).  For this reason, ACPA–College Student Educators International (ACPA) and NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education have articulated the development of assessment, evaluation, and research skills as a core priority for student affairs professionals since its first joint task force in 2010 (ACPA & NASPA, 2015).

Foundational experiences, such as those offered in master’s programs, may be particularly important to prepare professionals to engage with research, assessment, and evaluation throughout their careers (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008).  Graduate study offers a unique window of time when students are socialized into roles as active agents of their own learning alongside the expectations of their fields (Gardner, 2007; Weidman, Twale, & Stein, 2001).  If a research foundation does not develop during a master’s degree program, the discrepancy is likely to be compounded during professional practice in the field, as individuals face barriers regarding time, access, and the perceived value of such activities (Sriram & Oster, 2012).  As master’s programs prepare student affairs professionals for their careers by developing skill sets and establishing trajectories for future learning, preparing the next generation of scholar-practitioners requires continual examination into learning environments and strategies for success.

In this article, the authors explore the ways in which peer-led team-based projects can support the development of core research skills for master’s degree students.  Through our examination of a research course that included an applied empirical study component, we examine how to expose master’s degree students to experiential learning opportunities and applied research in order to encourage them to develop scholar-practitioner identities within graduate study and their future careers.

We define peer-led research communities as groups of graduate students in which master’s and doctoral students work together to design and implement a collective study with internal co-leadership and high degrees of autonomy.  These projects allow master’s degree students to partner with doctoral students to gain support and resources in the research process, to exercise their own leadership, and to develop new skills and approaches.  While our data analysis found salient themes for learning regarding both doctoral and master’s degree students, this article focuses on the latter as master’s degree students are predominant within higher education/student affairs graduate programs and are less likely to have exposure to research skills.  For master’s degree students to carry these skills into their professional roles, we recommend that faculty and supervisors (in this paper, used to refer to those overseeing master’s degree students in opportunities such as assistantships, practicum, and internships) work together to provide access to research opportunities and to build communities of peer support.


Overview of Course

I didn’t have much background in research, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect [about the class].  At the beginning, on the first day when I got the syllabus, I was like “wow, this is a ton of work.  How am I or anybody in this class going to be able to do all of this?” – Ryan

This article stems from our experiences within a semester-long research methods course that serves as part of a higher education graduate program in New England.  All first-year doctoral and master’s degree students in the program were required to take the course, which focused on how the field of higher education applies research designs and methods to generate new knowledge.  Our case study included four first-year doctoral (Ph.D.) students and 14 first-year master’s degree students during the spring semester of 2016.  Students in this course engaged in activities to understand the process of systematically researching a problem in the field of higher education and how to evaluate, interpret, and implement higher education scholarship.  Specifically, students participated in one of four research teams comprised of one doctoral student and three or four master’s degree students.  Each student on the team held a specific role within the project across a primary investigator (PI; the four doctoral students), literature specialist, data analyst, and dissemination coordinator (see Table 1).  Within these research teams, students developed an empirical pilot study relating to an issue in higher education and implemented the study from its conceptualization through dissemination of findings.  Research projects included investigating the role of on-campus employment on college student success; Black students’ experiences with racism, campus racial climate, and race-based activism; organizational silos in residential life departments; and the use of contemplative pedagogy in college classrooms.


Table 1

Research Team Responsibilities

Position Graduate Role Overview of Responsibilities
Primary Investigator Doctoral Led the research team and oversaw the project, team meetings, and final projects


Literature Specialist Master’s Created a process to gather, review, and manage relevant references


Data Analyst Master’s Developed and implemented research methodology and data collection


Dissemination Coordinator Master’s Copy edited and coordinated all submissions, including completing the final article and presentation



To examine students’ experiences with the research methods course, we conducted a single descriptive case study and gathered in-depth data for the case (Merriam, 1998).  The case study used a convergent mixed methods design (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011) that integrated both quantitative and qualitative data.  Our full data contained information from both master’s and doctoral students, including research team blogs that students wrote during the semester to document and reflect on their experiences; interviews with twelve students after the class was completed; and Likert scale and open responses on mid-semester and end-of-semester evaluations regarding participants’ experiences in the course and on a research team.

For the purpose of this article, we focused on the data specifically from master’s degree students.  We relay quotes from the interviews and open-ended survey responses that describe key learning moments from master’s degree students directly.  Pseudonyms are used to protect participant identity.  The four authors of this study have previous experience participating across different roles of peer-led research communities, providing us with an insider perspective to contextualize these collaborations.  This insider perspective was useful as it allowed us to have a strong understanding of the context of the research course and participants’ experiences, which is essential in case study scholarship (Merriam, 1998).



“I’d like to think that we supported each other through this particular course and, in some ways, through this transition.” – Dan

Throughout this study, we identified three key ways in which use of peer-led research communities supported master’s degree students in developing as scholars: 1) facilitating opportunities to gain support and resources in the research process; 2) exercising individual leadership; and 3) developing new skills and approaches.

Over the thirteen-week course, the primary forms of support for the master’s degree students came through the research teams themselves.  Most notable, the PIs were responsible for facilitating and leading the research communities and process.  The PI maintained communication between members, assisted with the writing process, implemented deadlines, and provided advice to their team around structuring the study.  Across teams, the PI was the first point of contact for any questions or concerns and served as liaison between the master’s degree students and any additional resources needed (e.g., the instructors, research consultation services, gatekeepers).  One student reflected on the experience, noting that “this class definitely provided me with research experience I wouldn’t get anywhere else.  It’s helpful having a doc student as a PI.  [Additionally], this course has helped bring me closer with my cohort.”

The second key support came from fellow master’s degree students within the teams, in which individuals helped the projects to move forward by sharing ideas, offering assistance, and validating progress.  As one student said,

While our PI was instrumental in organizing the structure of our logistical approach, we actually divided up the work fairly democratically throughout the semester.  While we met a handful of times in person at the beginning of the semester, by the end of our semester our group was primarily using online tools (Google Apps) to stay organized and remain in contact.

The initial leadership demonstrated by the doctoral student helped to provide master’s degree students with the structure they needed to continue to work toward completion of their research studies.

For many of the students, the course was their first involvement in a research study.  Working collaboratively and balancing the workload amongst each team member helped to reinforce group dynamics so that each master’s student benefitted from the opportunity to lead through their assigned roles over the course of the semester.  Maria shared an example of different leadership styles amongst her team: “the dissemination coordinator was a much more introverted person.  She was the most consistent student that we always had doing all these small things behind the scenes.  That was the way that she did her leadership.” Learning to adapt their working styles based on their group members’ roles and personality types were important moments of growth within the peer-led communities.  One master’s student shared a specific example of the challenge of trying to create this shared output in an assignment leading to the literature review of the project:

Last week was challenging for our group as we tried to prepare the literature map and accompanying documents to turn in.  It’s very difficult to write a group paper of any sort because we all write in different voices, and it’s difficult for someone to write one part without knowing what was discovered in the other.

The challenges of developing group expectations and processes were amplified by the steep learning curve required to engage with and apply new skills over the course of one semester.  Master’s degree students were required to proactively communicate concerns to develop a collective process for the project.  At other times, participants were required to let go of structure in ways that were initially uncomfortable, learning to trust the research process and rely on team members to follow through.  Finally, participants learned to embrace their own leadership style as a means to negotiate the process of creating a shared output.  Abigail noted that her group leadership supported her self-efficacy as a scholar, sharing that:

I pushed through my own impostor syndrome feelings in order to support and comfort other people in my group who were going through tough times either in this project or just in the class or in general in the grad program.  Seeing them struggling through those things made me feel like oh, I have experienced this, I have felt similarly frustrated or stuck.  Even if it wasn’t direct support, it definitely made me feel like less of an impostor.

The course helped students not only externally develop as leaders, but internally with their own self-reflection and comfort levels.

As a result of participating in the peer-led research communities, students gained many transferable skills in conducting literature reviews, developing data collection instruments, and implementing different forms of analysis.  One participant shared,

I really am proud of my accomplishments from this class.  I have learned a lot about the research process and I can actually participate in conversations about research with confidence.  Today, I attended [an event] and I was impressed with myself in understanding the researcher.  He was using jargon and language that prior to the research class I would not have understood.

However, one of the most salient lessons for master’s degree students was when to step up as leaders and when to step back.  Master’s degree students reflected upon and understood that their peers have different leadership and learning styles, which helped individuals to trust in the research process.  Abigail shared, “I tried to engage with my group, stepping back, making sure that the PI was the one actually leading everything, but we ended up being really democratic and having [a] really horizontal leadership structure.  Everyone contributed.” Although the research process was at times difficult, master’s degree students were guided and supported throughout the course by both the PI and the instructors.  The research course offered insight into not only how to conduct a full study, but how to approach working with future teams in shared research environments.

Master’s degree students also found that the leadership and support they received from their peers helped them to not only engage with the research process but changed their perspectives to better understand and value the importance of becoming scholar-practitioners.  Accordingly, Ryan concluded,

If I were to get a job in an [athletics] marketing department and for me to be able to say I spent a whole semester doing two research projects…it’s just another tool in the tool box for somebody, so it’s definitely beneficial to learn about it beforehand.

This course provided the opportunity for master’s degree students to understand the research process and how they could market their research experience in their forthcoming job search and directly apply their newly gained research skills to their future higher education careers.  Such a skill set ensures that professionals continue to integrate both theory and practice to shape their work with students and institutions (Reason & Kimball, 2012).  Moreover, graduate curriculum may not prepare professionals for all aspects of their careers (Kimball, Vaccaro, & Vargas, 2016).  As a result, the ability to continually seek out data and scholarship to inform decision making holds an important role in long-term success through peer-led communities, master’s degree students develop as scholar-practitioners in a supportive climate that cultivates their research skills and provides understanding of the nexus between higher education scholarship and practice.


Recommendations for Student Affairs

In the end you’re challenged to have something that has all those components in a much more intense way, where you’re not just trying to satisfy your group members, but having more critical perspectives about what you should be researching and why…I was forced to engage with the research process in a much more—frustratingly, at times—back and forth way, where you’re revising and things like that even when you think you’re way further along, but realizing that that’s sending you on a different path…it’s just like a mess that I think is a much more realistic depiction of the research process, and I think that it has primed me to engage in a much more realistic way.  – Maria

For peer-led research communities to help master’s degree students develop a scholar-practitioner identity, we recommend that engagement with scholarship be embedded in the entire student affairs graduate program experience.  First, students must be prepared to engage with research.  While we might assume that master’s degree students arrive in graduate programs with these skills, our participants identified challenges in learning to read research articles with a critical eye and reflect upon study design (e.g., asking such questions as “Why did the researchers approach their research questions this way? How might their methods have influenced their findings? How could this study be built upon?”).  Learning how to critically consume research prepares students to not only determine how to use research to inform their own practice, but to develop new scholarship.

Outside of the classroom, assistantships, practicum, and internships allow graduate students to learn from supervisors and colleagues how empirical research influences daily practice and long-term decision-making in a specific functional area.  By practicing developmental supervision, professionals in the field serve as role models in how to integrate as a scholar-practitioner.  Graduate students can form informal communities through professional relationships to share resources and knowledge about best practices across offices, units, or functional areas.  By encouraging students to engage with research in these applied contexts, whether that means reading foundational texts that influence practice or conducting research with available data, supervisors can provide space for the practical application of academic skills learned in courses and help master’s degree students develop the lifelong habit of incorporating research and practice.  These approaches challenge the idea that students must choose between scholar or practitioner roles to provide a standard within the field of integration.

Across the classroom and practice, professionals who work with graduate students can also help facilitate opportunities for reflection and action planning to support continued growth and development.  As students leave master’s programs, they should be equipped with skills to further their own learning.  Helping students to determine how they can gain key skills and facilitate this self-driven development is a crucial competency for master’s programs.  Strategies for such proactive engagement may include inviting master’s degree students to join existing projects or research teams led by faculty and doctoral students; encouraging practicum, internship, or assistantship supervisors to share foundational and contemporary research on relevant topics; or including graduate students in ongoing research within a unit, office, or functional area.



This course has helped me better understand the overall trajectory of what research is, how to conceptualize it, and how to design and implement a study.  I think that it will prove valuable as I continue my studies at my university and beyond.  – Master’s student

Student affairs master’s degree programs highlight the development and application of research skills as core competencies.  However, these skills are often siloed within a sole course that may not be enough time or exposure for students to feel comfortable carrying these skills into their eventual professional roles.  By developing peer-led research communities in pre-professional experiences, future generations of student affairs professionals may be better positioned to become research-literate scholar-practitioners (ACPA & NASPA, 2015).  Such a goal not only benefits individuals within their own practice but can lead to higher standards of rigor and collaboration within our field.


Discussion Questions

  1. How can we prepare master’s degree students to proactively shape their own professional development within graduate education?
  2. In what ways can graduate programs foster peer-led research communities to support collaborative learning?
  3. How can faculty and supervisors serve as architects of key environments to prepare students to pursue ongoing development?



ACPA, & NASPA. (2015).  Professional competency areas for student affairs educators. Retrieved from: 

Bensimon, E. M. (2007). The underestimated significance of practitioner knowledge in the scholarship on student success. The Review of Higher Education, 30(4), 441-469. doi: 10.1353/rhe.2007.0032

Creswell, J. W., & Plano Clark, V. L. (2011). Designing and conducting mixed methods research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gardner, S. (2007). “I heard it through the grapevine:” Doctoral student socialization in chemistry and history. Higher Education, 54(5), 723-740. doi: 10.1007/s10734-006-9029-x

Jablonski, M. A., Mena, S. B., Manning, K., Carpenter, S., & Siko, K. L. (2006). Scholarship in student affairs revisited: The summit on scholarship, March 2006.  NASPA Journal, 43, 182-200.

Janosik, S., Cooper, D. L., Saunders, S. A., & Hirt, J. B.  (2015). Learning through supervised practice in student affairs (2nd ed.).  New York, NY: Routledge.

Kimball, E., Vaccaro, A., & Vargas, N. (2016). Student affairs professionals supporting students with disabilities: A grounded theory model.  Journal of Student Affairs Research & Practice, 53(2), 175-189.

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Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Reason, R. D., & Kimball, E. W. (2012). A new theory-to-practice model for student affairs: Integrating scholarship, context, and reflection.  Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 49(4), 359-376.

Renn, K. A., & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing new professionals: Lessons for graduate preparation programs from the national study of new professionals in student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 319-335.  doi: 10.133/csd.0.022

Sriram, R., & Oster, M. (2012). Reclaiming the “scholar” in scholar-practitioner. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 49(4), 377-396. doi: 10.11515/jsarp-2012-6432

Wawrzynski, K. S., & Jessup-Anger, J. E. (2014). Building bridges: Using the office consultation project to connect students to theory and practice. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51(1), 85-97.

Weidman, J. C., Twale, D., & Stein, E. L. (2001). Socialization of graduate and professional students in higher education: A perilous passage? ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Research Report, 28(3). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


About the Authors

Genia M.  Bettencourt is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education concentration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where her research interests focus on college access and persistence for marginalized student populations.

Victoria K.  Malaney Brown is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education concentration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where her research interests focus on multiracial college students, intergroup dialogue, and critical race theory.

Caitlin J.  Kidder is a graduate of the dual M.Ed./MPPA Higher Education & Public Policy program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Her research interests include how state and federal higher education policy impact the experiences of marginalized and first-generation college students.

Dr.  Chrystal A. George Mwangi is an Assistant Professor in the Higher Education program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Please e-mail inquiries to Genia Bettencourt.



The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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