Where are they now? Alumni features

Since the inception of the graduate program in gifted education at William & Mary, many individuals have had the opportunity to work at the Center for Gifted Education (CFGE) in assistantships as they pursued master’s and doctoral degrees. Other students have served the CFGE as conference presenters, teachers in the Saturday/Summer Enrichment Program, or curriculum writers.

Master’s Degree Program Graduate: Brandy Buckingham

Brandy Buckingham graduated in 2005 with a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction in Gifted Education.

Describe your career path.

Brandy BuckinhamI’m getting a PhD in Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. My dissertation is on how engaging in authentic scientific practices in the classroom impacts students’ epistemological beliefs about science and how those, in turn, affect their interpretation of scientific debates in the media.

Did you have an assistantship at the CFGE? If so, describe your assignments there and how you have used the skills acquired in your subsequent positions.

Yes. I worked on Project Clarion, which gave me exposure to the curriculum development process. I also helped write literature reviews for some manuscripts; practice at academic writing and finding relevant literature is always useful. My experiences helped me figure out where my research interests lay and shaped what I was looking for in a PhD program. Althought not exactly part of my assistantship, getting to design and teach classes for SEP was also extremely educational for me as well as fun!

What was most memorable to you about your experiences in the master’s program?

The great people at the CFGE! I went through cancer treatments while I was a student, and everyone was very supportive. Everyone wants to make sure that students (master’s and PhD) are given the opportunity to work on projects that interest them and use their strengths.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering pursuing a master’s degree related to gifted education?

I was not a traditional student—most people in the program are teachers and go back to teaching after the program. I have never been a K–12 teacher and was always planning to pursue a PhD and a research career after this program. So, I don’t really know what most students are looking for in this kind of program. But for anyone considering a master’s, I would say to know why you are getting it and what role you want it to play in your career. In my overall experience, that has been the difference between people who are happy with their degrees and those who wind up unsatisfied and with a lot of debt that they don’t feel bought them anything useful. Even with the assistantship, I had to take out loans to cover living expenses while I was at W&M, but I think that it was money well spent.

Doctoral Program Graduate: Catherine Little, PhD

Describe your career path since completing your doctorate.

I started on the first steps of my post-doctorate career before I was completely finished with my degree because I took on a full-time position at the CFGE as Curriculum and Catherine LittleProgram Development Coordinator after I finished my comps but before completing my dissertation. That was a new position at the time and involved work on the various curriculum projects as well as organizing the professional development workshops and conferences at the CFGE. In other words, a very busy job, but one that certainly gave me good experience with a variety of activities that are useful in any similar context.

After four years in that role (within which time I did finish my degree!), I had the opportunity to take on a full-time visiting faculty position at William & Mary with primary emphasis in gifted education and a secondary emphasis in educational foundations. This experience was also really useful for me. Although I had taught a couple of courses previously, the experience was different, being a full-time member of the faculty with a heavier course load and more involvement in the School of Education overall. I also continued to work with the CFGE—that was right in the middle of Project Athena—so I continued to do some work with that project and a few other initiatives. It was only a few months into that job that the position announcement came out for a tenure-track position in gifted and talented education at the University of Connecticut, so I applied for and eventually took on that position.

I have been on the UConn faculty since 2004, and this summer my time associated with UConn’s gifted education center caught up with my time associated with the W&M CFGE—eight years in each center. In my job here, I have continued a focus on curriculum and instruction in my teaching and research, though perhaps leaning more on the instructional end in this role than when I worked on curriculum at W&M; for example, I am doing some research now focused on teacher questioning behaviors. I have also been involved in a couple of direct service programs for kids, including an after school reading program I ran for a while and a summer residential program for teenagers. In addition, I do a lot of work with UConn’s Honors Program for undergraduates. 

Did you have an assistantship at the CFGE?  If so, describe your assignments there and how you have used the skills acquired in your subsequent positions.

I had an assistantship for three years at the CFGE, followed by a full-time position for four years. My first task was to do some reference checking and updating for Joyce’s Excellence in Educating the Gifted and Talented text—that was a bit of a learning curve for me because I was new to the field and to that type of work—but I believe that working with sources and reference lists is one of the most valuable experiences a graduate student can have. It is tedious in some respects, perhaps, but valuable to learn search strategies, APA style details, and the patterns of publication in the field.

My next big assignment of note during my assistantship was helping to coordinate revisions of the language arts units for publication with Kendall/Hunt. I had been involved already with some workshops on the curriculum and had implemented pieces of the units, but the revision project helped me to develop a passion for curriculum work that continues to this day, although I don’t have as many curriculum development opportunities as I might like anymore! I also worked with the social studies project from the beginning, first as part of my assistantship and then as part of my full-time position as curriculum coordinator.

In addition to these jobs, I also had my fingers into many of the other programs and activities of the CFGE as a graduate assistant (GA). I helped with the Talent Search that we did for a couple of years for young writers and speakers as well as with the first couple of years of the Focusing on the Future conference. I handled the orders for curriculum materials. I spent a lot of time doing mailings and a lot of time scoring pre- and posttests from research projects on the language arts units. I did a lot of proofreading. I don’t necessarily use all of these same skills all the time anymore (except the proofreading—one can always be proofreading!), but I took away several valuable lessons from the wide range of activities in which I was involved.  First, you can learn something from every single task—you might develop a deeper understanding of a particular program by helping out with a mailing or by proofreading the program’s materials, especially if you take the time to invite people to tell you about the work that they are doing. Second, people come to rely on you if you are helpful and willing to work; they will rely on you for the basic stuff at first; but later on, they will rely on you for more substantive tasks. Third, my time as a GA reinforced the need to be task oriented rather than time oriented. You have to keep your various responsibilities in balance; but as a doctoral student, you are preparing for positions that are about productivity and not about a time clock. So, it’s good to get in the habit of working on something, until it’s done instead of until a particular time. At the same time, you also have to learn when something is “finished enough” or “good enough”—otherwise you’ll work on refining papers forever. My GA experience helped me with all of these things, although I am still working on figuring out that last “good enough” lesson…

What was most memorable to you about your experiences in the doctoral program?

Tough question, because so many aspects were so memorable! I deeply value the memories of the people with whom I shared my time in the program; and of course, I value the relationships that have lasted far beyond that time. There’s a special bond that forms among those who share such an experience—I found that among my own cohort and have seen it among my students as well. The projects that really sparked an interest and motivation to learn—those are memorable as well, whether they were class assignments or part of my graduate assistantship. And, the most pervasive force in my memory of my doctoral experience is Joyce VanTassel-Baska. From her impressive teaching style to her unflagging energy and passion for her work, she was overwhelming to me at the beginning and has continued to be uniquely influential in my life. Most memorable, though, are less the “public” moments of Joyce’s impressive work and more the one-on-one conversations in which she demonstrated her generosity, caring, and true interest in supporting the development of her students—I owe her tremendously for that and can only hope someday to provide that kind of support to my own students.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering pursuing a doctorate related to gifted education?

It’s both an exciting field and a somewhat depressing field to pursue. There are many opportunities for growth, for learning, and for research, but also many obstacles to maintaining our place in the broader field and in any school of education. So, I suppose my advice would be to be sure you care deeply enough about it to suffer the uncertainty. As a couple of practical suggestions, I would also advise developing expertise in another specific area that may help you get a job and get involved in our professional organizations as soon as possible. Take as many research courses as you can. The analytical capabilities of today’s technology are leaving a lot of us scrambling to keep up with all of the data analysis possibilities, and that’s a real challenge. So, I think the best approach is just to try to maintain enough knowledge to read the research and to find the methodologists who can be the best partners for your work. (And there’s another piece of advice—be nice to methodologists!) A related point, though, is that, even as you scramble to keep up with the technical aspects of the work, never lose sight of the big questions that drive the research in the first place; it all begins and ends with worthwhile questions and answers that matter in the lives of kids and those who work with them.

I would also say to immerse yourself in the learning experience of pursuing a doctorate—don’t just check all the courses and tasks off the list, but truly wallow in the learning. I didn’t do enough of that, and in some ways I regret it now, especially when I see students who demonstrate a real passion for learning and take advantage of the opportunity of being a student.  And part of that learning experience is also to help out with whatever work you can because you never know when something small will lead you to career-changing opportunities. Find a program and an advisor that will be a good match for you; the advisor-advisee relationship can be an incredibly important part of your life and career and can be influential in both directions. Seek out also those formal and informal mentors who can also provide guidance and support along the way. And finally, be sure to keep thinking about your doctoral program as a stepping stone, not an end game; there are so many opportunities to learn and grow beyond your formal student days.

 For more alumni interviews, read the spring 2013 or the spring 2012 newsletters.