Erikson’s Ph.D. program set her on a path to change child- and family-focused systems

Working as a prekindergarten teacher in her native Turkey, Bilge Cerezci, Ph.D., got a firsthand look at an early education system that she felt was keeping children from realizing their full potential. But she didn’t just want to see systemic change—she wanted to influence it.

She moved to the United States to enroll at Erikson Institute with the idea that a master’s degree in child development would help her acquire the understanding she needed to help improve systems of education and care for young children. After earning her master’s—with a specialization in infancy—she wanted to continue honing her knowledge. She enrolled in Erikson’s Ph.D. program, a partnership with Loyola University Chicago, and completed it in six years, earning her doctoral degree in 2016.

“Erikson’s program is not a typical Ph.D. experience,” Dr. Cerezci says. “It can be intense, but you will be part of a tight knit group of peers and professors who are there to support you along the way.”

Developing a critical eye

Dr. Cerezci was immediately struck by how differently doctoral courses were structured compared to those she was familiar with in the master’s program. Although there were no tests or quizzes, she still needed to actively think about issues from her readings, as well as her own experiences, to contribute to everyday discussions. Assignments in her master’s classes were planned around reporting on others’ work and research, but in her doctoral courses, she learned to examine existing studies with a more critical eye.

“In the Ph.D. program, you end up questioning everything you read and study,” she says. “That was a big challenge for me, but it prepares you. It makes you a more critical thinker in everything you’re reading afterward. You’re not just skipping methodology and going straight to the results. You’re questioning whether the instruments used are even reliable.”

Dr. Cerezci was initially attracted to the Ph.D. program because of its focus on applied research, which she says helped her think about the practical ways studies are applied to everyday situations and settings in which children learn. Of particular interest to her was how young children learn math. She says she was fortunate to be a student at Erikson because she was able to work alongside faculty and staff who do pioneering work on the subject through the Early Math Collaborative, a program that helps educators become more confident in teaching foundational math concepts.

Putting her experience to work

For her dissertation, “Quality of Math Instruction Matters: Examining Validity and Reliability of High Impact Strategies in Early Mathematics (HIS-EM),” Dr. Cerezci collected and analyzed data on children’s math achievement in Chicago Public Schools classrooms to measure the impact of a professional development tool for teachers.

“I love that with applied research, your work doesn’t just stay on paper — it’s applicable in real life,” she says. “It’s organic data you can use to think about the underlying reasons for problems and how they can be addressed.”

Since defending her dissertation and earning her Ph.D., she has continued with her study of math education, working as a research analyst with the Early Math Collaborative. She is also helping prepare the next generation of early childhood professionals by teaching courses at the City Colleges of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago.

“Erikson gets it right when it comes to understanding early childhood,” Dr. Cerezci says. “Everything that Erikson professors teach about child development being shaped by family, culture, and other factors is absolutely true. I’m a true believer in that approach, and I hope to take the skills and knowledge I’ve acquired and use them to help change the systems that serve young children and families.”

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