An Interdisciplinary Exploration of Patterns of Connection in the Practice of Faith

Dustin Benac

Dustin Benac, a Doctor of Theology candidate at the Divinity School, wanted to enhance his training in theology and organizational theory by integrating qualitative data collection and interpretation into his research. A summer course at UNC’s Odum Institute for Research in Social Science proved timely, and he went on to apply this new knowledge to a study examining patterns of connection among five church-related educational institutions in the Pacific Northwest.

Benac was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. His faculty mentor is Craig Dykstra. He shared an update:

Dustin BenacThe GSTEG award provided funding to undertake supplemental training in qualitative research methods through a partnership between ICPSR and The Odum Institute at the University of North Carolina. The opportunity to take a short-course during the summer following my coursework offered a timely complement to my training in theology and organizational theory by providing an orientation to qualitative research methods and using qualitative data analysis software.

The impact of the GSTEG funding extends well beyond this single course. During the fall 2017 semester, I secured funding to complete the first phase of fieldwork at five religious educational institutions in the Pacific Northwest, which explored the patterns of connection across educational institutions and the practice of religious leadership. As a 2017-18 Lab Fellow in Duke’s Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge, I have since worked with colleagues from across the university to consider approaches to visually depict the preliminary findings from my qualitative research. I will present a paper based on research in May at the Pacific Northwest American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting and also have a book review of Theology as Interdisciplinary Inquiry coming out in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies.

The opportunity to receive supplemental training has deepened my knowledge, vastly expanded my network, and equipped me to engage and support a wider range of research from across the university. While the specific methods training and research experiences will certainly inform the scope and content of my dissertation, I anticipate the range of relationships and experiences that have followed will have the most significant impact on my development as a scholar.


This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages doctoral and master’s students to step away from their core research and training to acquire skills, knowledge, or co-curricular experiences that will give them new perspectives on their research agendas. Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants are intended to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories.

Photo: Dustin Benac giving a presentation based on his research