If you asked him back in the day, Brian Burt would have told you he would be completing his undergraduate education from Indiana University with a degree in music education, specializing in classical piano, well on his way to being a world-renowned musical conductor of a symphony. Then came a summer spent in the Big Ten Academic Alliance's Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP) researching the elements of persistence as related to success in higher education.
The road from music education major to Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Iowa State University started with the awareness that the SROP program offered research opportunities beyond just the STEM fields. With a goal of increasing the number of underrepresented students in academia, SROP offers opportunities to study with many of the best researchers and students from across the Big Ten Academic Alliance's member universities.
"My SROP experience planted very important seeds. From the first day, all participants had nametags with 'Dr.' preceding our names," said the now-official Dr. Burt. "Additionally, it was encouraged that all student participants (and the program staff) refer to us as doctors. While it was just a turn-of-phrase, that small programmatic initiative was the first time I thought of myself as being a 'doctor'; because the program staff established the culture of us calling ourselves 'doctors,' I identified with what I believed doctors did. I valued my research more. I took my presentations more seriously. Everything felt more real. It then is not ironic that several of my fellow participants now hold doctorates."
Engaging in independent, original research was new for Burt. "Before SROP, I do not recall ever doing 'research' beyond book reports. Once accepted to the program, I remember being nervous that I would not be able to fulfill the requirements of the program. It seemed unrealistic that I would be able to identify a topic, collect data, analyze and describe my findings, and present my work. Fortunately, I had two very supportive research mentors, Dr. George Kuh and Dr. Shaun Harper (a doctoral student at the time). They encouraged me to accept the offer to participate in SROP, and guided and mentored me through every step of the research process. I did not know back then that I was working with one of the most well respected scholars in my field of higher education, and an emerging leader in the field. I also never imagined how much I would lean on them after my SROP experience. I stay in touch with both Dr. Kuh and Dr. Harper today; we have presented at national higher education conferences, they guided me through my master’s and doctoral application processes, and they remain valuable mentors as I continue to navigate the field."
Engaging in research with students from across all fields and from different institutions was a great asset to Burt, "All of us gathered together to engage in this mysterious thing called 'research.' It was affirming not to feel like the token smart kid; all of us were smart, ambitious, interested in pursuing graduate education, and most of us were students of color."
In addition to meeting peers and leading scholars, SROP also helped Burt prepare for applying to graduate school. "Without participating in SROP, I would not have been as prepared for the graduate application process. As participants, we engaged in a rigorous GRE-prep course, received extensive information on strengthening our application materials, and the program set us up with graduate students to serve as our mentors throughout the graduate application process. The strategies that I learned from both the GRE and application preparation were so beneficial that after my master’s degree and full-time work, I again implemented those strategies when I applied to doctoral programs."
Dr. Burt's SROP project, "The Road Less Traveled: An Examination of Persistence Factors for African American Undergraduate Men at a Predominantly White Institution," reflected a growing interest in the study of higher education and student experiences. After graduating from Indiana University with a Bachelor's degree in Secondary English Education, Burt went on to another (now) Big Ten Academic Alliance university, the University of Maryland, and earned a Master's degree in Educational Policy and Leadership. After time spent coordinating scholarships and special programs at Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, Burt began his doctorate in Higher Education at the University of Michigan (another Big Ten Academic Alliance university). With echoes of that long-ago SROP project, Dr. Burt's dissertation on "The Influence of Doctoral Research Experiences on the Pursuit of the Engineering Professoriate," in part reflected his own experiences. His work examined how students' research experiences shaped understandings of and interests in faculty careers.
Now an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Iowa State University, Dr. Burt was asked to share any words of wisdom for those just starting to explore the world of research:
"As I reflect back on my SROP experience, there are a few things I’d share with potential and current SROP participants. First, my experience was more than just about doing research, it was about building relationships with mentors, building a community with like-minded student peers, and setting the foundation for a dream later realized (the Ph.D.). As such, the experience is about planting seeds, not to make you an expert by the end. Second, I wish I embraced the experience more, instead of being so nervous about what I could not accomplish in the program’s time frame. Just remember, you will be more of an expert at the end than you were at the beginning, but there is always more to learn. Finally, research is unpredictable. But there are things to learn from each experience. Embrace the unknown and failed experiments, celebrate the revelations, and allow yourself to go through the roller-coaster journey of doing research; Persevere. Whether you realize it or not, you are “learning” from each of those experiences. Ultimately, your research experiences (including the good and bad) will make you a better and stronger scholar now, and will be great preparation for research at the graduate level."
Photo of Brian A. Burt, Ph.D. courtesy of Terry Johnston, Grand Rapids Community Foundation.