Urban Doctoral Fellows Program

By Katherine Sinyavin

Every year, Urban Doctoral Fellows program provides ten University of Chicago doctoral students whose research focuses on urban issues with financial support and opportunities to share and develop their work within a collaborative and interdisciplinary environment. The 2020-2021 class of ten includes seven from the Division of the Social Sciences.

Sponsored by the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, a leading hub for urban science at the University of Chicago, this program “brings together students who are already strong in their own disciplines, who can explain to others outside their discipline how they approach problems and issues in the urban setting, and who are also open to learning from others,” says Stephen Baker, the Urban Doctoral Fellows Coordinator. Baker recruits students, reviews applications, and facilitates meetings in which fellows present and discuss their work.

When reviewing applications to form the next cohort, Baker says, “We always want any one individual fellow to [be able to] have a productive and meaningful conversation with at least one other fellow. That can be that they’re aligned in methods or aligned in topics. We’re looking for a group that can contribute to each other's thinking and growth.”

Anne Dodge, the Mansueto Institute’s Executive Director, adds that the students applying to the program are a “self-selecting group of people who value interdisciplinary conversation and a cohort experience, and who want to push a little deeper into this question of what it means to be an urban scholar, so it is hard to choose only ten.” The Urban Doctoral Fellows program presents an excellent opportunity for a sponsor or donor who wants to support the University of Chicago's unique interdisciplinary approach to studying urban life.

The fellows have a very wide set of interests. This year, that includes how Renaissance writers conceptualized space, how activism affects the spatial distribution of mental health services in Chicago, and what the private and public consequences are of mixed-caste housing policies in Mumbai.

“We are looking for variation across disciplines, but we want to make sure we have cross-disciplinary conversations as much as possible. So it’s about balancing the ‘different-ness’ of doctoral students with these core interests in something urban,” adds Baker.

Fellows can be any year in their doctoral program. In the new cohort, fellows come from seven different disciplines, including Romance Languages and Literatures, Economics, and Comparative Human Development.

Over the course of the academic year, Fellows meet about fifteen times. During fall quarter, fellows give an initial presentation of their work and receive feedback from others. The feedback ranges from the theoretical to the practical, such as advice on how best to present their argument. During winter quarter, fellows can either present a revised version of their paper or a different paper.

During spring quarter, Fellows have the opportunity to do a presentation called “Inside the Mind of a…,” in which they discuss key historical texts and debates about urban research within their field and how their own work extends that field. These presentations are a “structure for trying to meet both the Fellowship goal of learning across disciplines, though with a focus on urban settings, and sharpening Fellows’ individual understanding of how their work relates to the history of their discipline,” Baker explains.

Overall, these meetings are intended to foster “ongoing interactions where everyone is genuinely supportive of each other,” Baker explains. Grace Cheung, the Mansueto Institute’s Assistant Director of Communications, adds that another benefit of the program is the “network that Fellows create with each other.”

When the program switched to Zoom for the Spring Quarter, the process was largely unchanged. “This is because the discussion format has a lot of structure to it. Every author reminds the other Fellows what they are hoping to get out of the discussion, and each Fellow identifies his or her top thoughts about the paper,” Baker says. He anticipates that the program will continue to foster the same interactive environment as it had in previous years.