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PhD Alum Credits Her Success to Sanford Mentorship

September 10, 2014

Great mentorship can make the difference between success and failure in graduate school.

“At Sanford, there are well established researchers who have lots of contacts to help you,” explained Dania Francis PhD’14, Assistant Professor of Economics and Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “But there are also junior professors who can put themselves in your shoes because they just came from grad programs themselves.”

Personal relationships with faculty and the community support are significant benefits of the PhD program at Sanford, according to Francis. The relatively small size of the program facilitates close bonding between faculty and other students, including those in Sanford’s MPP and MIDP programs.

Originally from Los Angeles, Francis met one of her future Sanford mentors more than 10 years ago when she was an undergraduate at Smith College. Professor William “Sandy” Darity was a mentor at the American Economic Association Summer Training Program, where Darity was a fellow honing analytical skills and research methods.

Darity and Francis began collaborating that summer, which resulted in a co-authored paper titled “The Economics of Reparations.” Their work was published in May 2003 in The American Economic Review, one of the top journals in the field of economics. The paper examined the U.S. government’s evasive posture toward reparation claims by African-Americans despite its support of reparation payments for other groups subjected to recent or historic grievous wrongs.

Uncertain about her career goals, Francis left research behind for the corporate world, but after a number of years she reconsidered. While working as a community relations manager for a large multinational company, Francis reached out to Darity.

“Sandy is a very thoughtful and giving person,” said Francis, “When researching with him, he treated me like another serious scholar. There is mutual respect. He encouraged me to apply to Sanford’s newly created PhD program.”  

Francis took Darity’s advice and chose to come to Sanford’s PhD program in its second year of existence. Darity became one of her faculty advisors, and the two published another paper on reparations.

“Dania is of my favorite people to work with. She has the qualities - such as openness - that make it easy to work together,” Darity said. “For example, it’s important for graduate students to overcome feeling intimidated so they can tell you when you made a bad argument, but they also need to be receptive to you saying that their arguments weren’t that good. Dania and I can do that.”

Darity is invested in helping graduate students flourish, and knows his mentorship of them should largely be anchored around research collaboration. 

“You want to treat graduate students as full coauthors,” he explained. “The research collaboration is mutually beneficial. It helps the senor scholar pursue a research interest and gets the junior scholar acclimated toward publishing.”

A Network of Support

Darity and other faculty members also shared with Francis their experience of navigating the profession.

“The junior faculty members at Sanford offered me very relevant and timely advice.” said Francis, who reached out to faculty members to build relationships. “Shyness gets you nowhere. It’s important to be vocal and not be afraid to talk about your interests and those of others.” 

In her first summer as a PhD student, Francis conducted research for junior faculty members Liz Ananat, Anna Gassman-Pines, and Christina Gibson-Davis. 

“I had a wonderful working and mentoring relationship with them,” Francis explained. “Their guidance and support helped me secure outside funding for my last two years at Sanford and succeed on the job market. ”

Francis’ dissertation centered on the economics of education, focusing on the causes and consequences of the racial and socioeconomic academic achievement gap.

She credits the strong support at Sanford as a significant reason that she’s in a job she enjoys, continuing her work on educational inequities. Using her own experience of mentorship as a guide, Francis helps young scholars at UMass Amherst discover and achieve their career aspirations. 

“My three main goals in mentoring are to be a sounding board for ideas, to offer career and professional guidance, and to connect my mentees with people who can help them,” said Francis. “These are the characteristics that I found most useful in my own mentors at Sanford, so I hope to do the same for my students here.”