Learning by Doing: Project-Based Research
Gaining Hands-On Experience
Classroom exercises alone do not create a superb policy analyst. Also essential is hands-on experience at dealing with real-world problems of direct concern to decision makers. The Pardee RAND Graduate School provides a unique way for students to obtain this kind of practical experience: project-based research (internally known as On-the-Job Training, or OJT). In concert with their academic requirements, Pardee RAND students work on policy-related projects throughout their course of study.
OJT serves two functions. First, it helps students to enter a community of practice where they may obtain professional skills and tacit knowledge that courses alone cannot convey. Second, it pays for school: the Pardee RAND fellowship is earned by work on these research projects.
Developing Skills as a Policy Analyst
Most opportunities for OJT arise through ongoing RAND research. Pardee RAND students have the opportunity to join teams of RAND researchers, initially as apprentices and later, as their skills develop, in roles of increasing responsibility and independence. At any time at RAND, more than 500 research projects are underway, which students may apply to join. With the exception of those projects that require security clearances or have similar special requirements, nearly all of these offer the potential to match Pardee RAND students' interests and skills with exciting policy research.
Most students work on a variety of projects during their time at RAND, giving them exposure to a range of policy areas, research methods, colleagues, and clients. By the time they graduate, most students have accumulated the equivalent of at least two years of job experience in policy analysis and policy consulting—in addition, of course, to their Ph.D. degrees. Often, project-based work also provides an important part of the foundation for the dissertation required of all graduating students.
RAND research projects provide most opportunities for students. In some cases, students may pursue project-based research outside RAND, in the public, private, or non-profit sectors or at other graduate schools.Project Examples Q&A: Current Students' Research Experiences
Paying for School
In addition to offering a unique educational value, OJT also has an economic benefit: All admitted students are awarded a fellowship that is earned by working on RAND projects. The pre-tax value of the fellowship for 2015 entrants is $22,225. All eligible entering students also receive a full tuition scholarship for their first year. In subsequent years, students work to earn their fellowship to cover both tuition and living expenses. Regardless of the end-use, the entire fellowship amount is treated as earned income and is therefore subject to state and federal income tax. To earn their full fellowship, students must perform a minimum number of days of project-based research each year (including the summers).
Year 1: 65 days, or the equivalent of 520 hours
Year 2: 135 days, or the equivalent of 1,080 hours
Years 3-5: 135-155 days, or the equivalent of 1,080-1,240 hours
If you work fewer than the minimum number of days of project-based research, your stipend can be reduced accordingly.
If you perform more than the minimum number of days of project-based research in year 1, that number of days is subtracted from the minimum number of days in year 2. Then, in year 3, performing more than the minimum number of days could earn you a larger fellowship.
Although the fellowship is earned on the basis of the number of days of project-based research completed, it is paid out biweekly in regular amounts to the student beginning at the start of enrollment. Tuition is usually deducted from each paycheck on a pro rata basis.Funding Your Ph.D.
Finding Project Opportunities
Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation
At most graduate schools, students are traditionally assigned to teaching or research assistantships. By contrast, at Pardee RAND, students seek out positions on research projects in the same way as other RAND researchers. RAND has a kind of market economy for project work, through which students' interests, skills, and enthusiasm can lead them to rewarding and diverse opportunities. For Pardee RAND students, like their RAND colleagues, success depends on many of the same skills involved in conducting a job search: proactivity and initiative are especially important.
Students search for potential projects in a variety of ways, from face-to-face meetings to email exchanges. The goal for each student, however, is the same: to develop his or her own network of researchers who work on policy problems or employ specific approaches of interest to the student. Pardee RAND also sponsors a student organization whose aim is to market Pardee RAND students within the various RAND business units and help students navigate the internal market more successfully.
These OJT Brokers work with RAND's research divisions to facilitate positive project experiences for students and researchers. They cover justice, infrastructure, and environment, health, defense and international work, education and labor and population.
Activities of recent brokers have included:
- deploying the annual project-based research survey to determine the nature and quality of work students are given
- encouraging students to maintain their online profiles, which helps maximize opportunities for project work
- disseminating postings for project work
- conducting a panel event on options for dissertation funding
- hosting an event about RAND Europe
- organizing pre-term policy seminars with RAND researchers.