Pairing Students and Faculty for Success

When Hunter Hustus earned his Doctor of Law and Policy (DLP) degree from Northeastern this year, it was a proud moment for the career Air Force officer. The technical advisor to the deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, Hustus not only successfully completed his graduate degree program, but also received the Dean’s Medal for Outstanding Doctoral Work, the highest award presented to the college’s doctoral candidates.

Neenah Estrella-Luna

Hustus' accomplishments are also a vivid example of one of the more unique aspects of the DLP program — the pairing of Northeastern faculty and DLP doctoral candidates to ensure success in the two-year accelerated degree program.

"It is different from a traditional PhD process," explained Neenah Estrella-Luna, PhD, the associate teaching professor who facilitates the thesis process for all students in the DLP program. "It is a fast process. There's generally an end date in mind." To provide additional knowledge, counsel, and guidance, the DLP program often pairs degree candidates with faculty members willing to act as supervisors to students.

The pairing process begins early in the program.

"Because we're an accelerated program, we don't have a lot of time for the student to explore and find themselves," noted Estrella-Luna. "And so it's really important to have the conversation about what their professional goals are."

In the case of Hustus, his professional goal was to establish himself as the go-to resource for Air Force officials seeking to understand the implications of potential decisions about balancing the nuclear triad of missiles, submarines, and bombers. In his job at the Pentagon, Hustus had developed a simulation that generated different outcomes depending on the data fed into it. He was contemplating turning the simulation into a doctoral research project.

Estrella-Luna saw in Hustus' simulation the basis for a more robust research project that would take advantage of emerging ideas about gamification.

"Experimentation in social sciences is really difficult, but game design approaches actually get you as close to experiments as is possible," said Estrella-Luna.

Enter Casper Harteveld, assistant professor from the game design program in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

"I'm part of a faculty inquiry group that meets twice a month to talk about the pedagogy," recalled Estrella-Luna. "Casper Harteveld happened to come in and do a presentation on game design as a pedagogical tool and as a research approach. I had simultaneously been seeing the gamification of research design in the literature in the policy world."

Estrella-Luna approached Harteveld about acting as Hunter Hustus' supervisor, and he agreed.

"My principle, when I seek out people to supervise our students, is to find the person who is most appropriate for the student's topic and the student's personality," she noted. Estrella-Luna also works to ensure that faculty supervisors get something out of the experience. In Harteveld's case, there was an opportunity to structure the research project so that he and Hustus could co-author and publish their findings.

"Another part of my job is supporting the supervisors of our students," said Estrella-Luna. "Because we're an accelerated program, it's important for them to understand that, whatever your experience has been on the PhD side, just throw that out the window. It doesn't apply here."

Estrella-Luna keeps close tabs on the students' progress and mentors faculty supervisors in managing the student relationship.

"I'm in very close contact with the students because I supervise them the entire second year of the program," she pointed out. "In the online conversations, I'm watching them talk to each other, so I know when stuff is happening in their lives.”

"We have had a number of either professors or research associates from outside of CPS who have supervised our students over the years, and it's always been good for the students and good for the faculty member," said Estrella-Luna.