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Published on Friday, May 6, 2022

Where Are They Now? An Interview with NAEP Internship Alumna Melanie Gonzalez

Where Are They Now? An Interview with NAEP Internship Alumna Melanie Gonzalez

It has been almost three years since Melanie Gonzalez completed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Doctoral Students Internship Program. As we get closer to welcoming our next cohort of doctoral-level interns for the summer, NAEP R&D has decided to catch up with one of the program’s alumni to see what she’s been up to and how her life has changed during and after the internship. 

Melanie joined the internship in the summer of 2019 as a doctoral student from the University of Texas at Austin’s developmental psychology program, and she completed the NAEP doctoral internship program under the policy-relevant research topic area. Working alongside American Institutes for Research (AIR) staff Jasmine Park and Elaine Li, her research that summer asked the question, “does the relationship between Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) experience and TEL achievement differ by TEL learning source?” As part of the internship, Melanie prepared a successful conference paper as the first author for AERA 2020, though the conference was ultimately cancelled in response to the pandemic. In Fall 2020, her colleague, Jasmine Park was able to present their research at an Association of Middle Level Education Symposium. Additionally, Melanie led the drafting of a manuscript for publication.

After completing the NAEP Doctoral Students Internship Program, Melanie began seeking jobs where she could continue conducting actionable education research at a non-profit research organization. She applied for a position as a researcher at AIR and, later, an assistant director position at another non-profit before ultimately choosing the Strategic Data Project (SDP) Fellowship, a program run by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research. The fellowship matches data leaders with education organizations with the goal of improving student outcomes through transformative data use; it also provides its fellows with well-structured professional development and networking opportunities. As part of her fellowship, Melanie was matched with the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) and began working there as a research specialist in July 2021, the same month that she defended her dissertation and completed her Ph.D. Melanie has found her experience in the fellowship to be rewarding, saying “I’m grateful to be able to leverage my love for data analysis to help shape how education gets done [in Rhode Island] with very tangible impact.”

When asked what she thinks helped her to stand out while applying to the fellowship and her job at RIDE, Melanie mentioned a few things for which she credits the NAEP Doctoral Internship:

1) Having experience doing education research at a research organization. Having gone directly from a bachelor’s program into a Ph.D. program, Melanie was grateful to be able to cite her time at AIR as a strong example of experience conducting education research in a professional setting. 

2) Demonstrating proficiency in analyzing large datasets. NAEP data trainings from the NAEP Doctoral Internship program and Melanie’s experience working with the NAEP TEL data helped to illustrate her ability to conduct rigorous analyses in a large survey sample of students (~15,000) from across the nation with complicated sample design. Now, at RIDE, Melanie works with data on 140,000 students across the state.

3) Being able to produce work on very tight timelines. While research completed during doctoral training can move somewhat slowly, Melanie’s time in the NAEP internship helped to show that she is able to complete high-quality work on a very short timeline: “In just 12 weeks, I learned a completely new dataset, a new R package [EdSurvey], a new analysis technique, I wrote an entire paper, and gave a professional presentation [to NCES]!”

4) Having experience presenting to government officials. AIR staff worked with all NAEP interns to provide them training and guidance on presentation skills. At the end of the internship program, Melanie had an opportunity to present her research findings to then Associate Commissioner, now Commissioner of NCES, Peggy Carr. Melanie credits this experience with helping to demonstrate her capacity for effective communication of research findings to those in leadership. In her current position, Melanie is only a few degrees removed from the Commissioner of RIDE, and Melanie’s research is on the commissioner’s radar.

Reflecting further, Melanie acknowledges that completing the NAEP doctoral internship had substantial impact on how she sees herself as a researcher today. “The internship solidified much of what I already knew about myself coming into it, which is that I love using data to improve students’ lives. But also, during the internship, I had to learn to shift my mindset from that of a student to that of a professional and a leader. The staff at AIR treated me like one of their colleagues from day one, and they put a lot of trust in me to determine the direction and development of the project, which was nerve-wracking but also very empowering. I matured a lot as a researcher that summer.”

It was also during the internship that Melanie realized how much she loves working on research teams, a marked departure from her mostly solo doctoral work. In her current role, she is leading a small team of RIDE staff in a mixed-methods investigation of school-level policies, programs, and practices that help to support multilingual learners’ (MLLs: RI’s term for ELLs) growth on state math assessments. She remarked, “I’m the data lead, and we also have one assessment specialist, one MLL specialist, and one MLL program coordinator. We’ve been brought together by a common interest in helping our MLLs to shine. What I love about this type of work is that no one person has to know everything. We each contribute our own expertise to the work and, often, our combined insights are more valuable than what any one of us would have come up with on our own.”

To be sure, Melanie has found that the experiences she had during the NAEP doctoral internship helped to lay the groundwork for a successful start to her career in education research.

Melanie’s words of wisdom for the next cohort of interns:

  • Believe in yourself and what you bring to the table.
  • Work hard.
  • Make the most of the time you have with the data. “The NAEP RUD [Restricted-Use Datasets] data is a goldmine.”
  • Make the most of the access you have to your cohort-mates. “They have different levels of expertise that you can learn from. I was the only one in the policy-relevant topic area, but learning about the work of my cohort-mates in the psychometrics and process data areas gave me a much deeper appreciation of how we can use and learn from data.”
  • Utilize your access to the staff at AIR and NCES. “The end of the internship doesn’t have to mean the end of your contact. Build your network.”
  • Expect great things. “You are going to learn a lot and grow a lot. Prepare for this internship to change your life!”

Learn more about our NAEP Internship Alumni and the rest of the program here.

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