Faculty Profiles: Sociology
Dr. Robert Hummer - Demography, Health, and Race and Ethnic Relations
DR. ROBERT HUMMER
Area of Specialization: Demography, Health, and Race and Ethnic Relations
What made you decide to go to graduate school?
While I earned reasonably good grades as an undergraduate, I was not a good student and did not at all take adavantage of the undergraduate opportunities offered to me. After working for several years after undergraduate school in "dead-end" jobs, I grew up a lot and thought through what I most wanted to do career-wise...which was to teach at a university. I realized that I very much enjoyed being on a college campus and had a strong desire to better understand the social world. I also realized that I had few other talents in life other than being good in academia, so earning an advanced degree seemed like a very logical thing for me to do. It's been a great choice.
What makes a good grad student?
My sense is that characteristics like curiosity, desire, and excellent organizational and time management skills are what makes the best graduate students. Students need to be relatively smart, but there are a lot of smart people out there. I'm convinced that the graduate students who perform the best and then go on to great careers have an intellectual curiosity and a "fire" that helps them succeed. And, as mentioned above, organizational and time management skills are critical; great students cannot succeed if they don't "get things done"; on the contrary, I've seen a lot of very smart graduate students (and faculty members) not do as well as they should because they simply do not get things done...or done on time.
What are your top three tips for students interested in applying to your program?
- Start early. Take the GRE early, and then take it again if necessary. Write a thoughtful statement of purpose and ask a faculty member or two for feedback.
- Email a couple of faculty members that you might be interested in working with and ask to meet with them. When you do, be prepared--know what the faculty member does so that you can ask intelligent questions about the program and the possibility of working with her/him. Such personal contacts and expressions of interest can be very important.
- Take advantage of undergraduate opportunities. Very few undergraduate students work on research or write honor's theses...but those are the kinds of experiences that are especially useful in preparing for graduate school.
Did you participate in a research project as an undergraduate? If so, what was it? Would you recommend undergrads to participate in research?
I did not participate in a research project as an undergraduate student; I was too busy doing social things at the time. I thought if I simply got decent grades and got a degree, I'd have it made... As I mentioned above, it took awhile for me to realize that I largely wasted a great opportunity during my undergraduate career.
I absolutely would recommend that undergraduate students become involved in research. Learning the research process and conducting research transforms a person from being a consumer of information to a producer of information. This is a very powerful transformation. Moreover, the skills one learns in conducting research are fantastic for future graduate school and employment opportunities. For example, learning how to conduct a survey, analyze census data, or use statistical programming skills are tools that many, many employers and graduate schools are looking for.
What is your current research focus?
I study health and mortality (death rate) patterns among the U.S. population. At first glance, this may seem really dry and boring. But what I have come to realize--and what I teach my students--is that understanding how health and how mortality varies across groups--by age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, etc...--can tell us a GREAT DEAL about social advantages and disadvantages among groups of people. Moreover, working in this area allows me to have some impact on U.S. health policy, which I find to be very fascinating.
What is the latest national or international research project/topic in your area which you are currently following?
I am currently leading a large study that is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) that is documenting differences in U.S. mortality rates by educational attainment. While we have known for a long time that more highly educated people live longer than less educated people, work on this project is showing that this gap may even be increasing in recent years. That is, the most highly educated individuals in the United States are living longer and healthier lives than ever before, while the lowest educated individuals in our society are living much shorter and less healthier lives on average. There are huge social and health policy implications of such research. This work is in collaboration with several of my colleagues here on the UT faculty as well as eight graduate students who are participating in various aspects of this project.
What are the top five programs in this area in the US?
I'm going to be biased here and say that UT-Austin is the best program in my specific area of population studies in the country. We know we're close...and have added a number of great faculty in recent years. Other extremely strong programs in population studies include the University of Michigan, Princeton University, Pennsylvania State University, UNC Chapel-Hill, University of Pennsylvania, and UCLA.
More generally in Sociology, there are many great programs around the country, including UT-Austin, University of Chicago, UNC Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, Princeton, Harvard, UC-Berkeley, UCLA, Columbia, University of Indiana, University of Washington, University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Johns Hopkins University, and more. Choosing one of these programs for graduate study is largely based upon the fit between student research interests and the strength of the faculty in that student's particular area of study.
Could you please provide a snapshot description of the UT sociology graduate program?
The Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin is one of the largest and most highly ranked sociology departments in the country. Our group of 45 tenured or tenure-track faculty members allows us to offer an excellent range of opportunities--both inside and outside the classroom--for graduate students. Our faculty members are extremely research-active, placing great value in not only disseminating social scientific knowledge but also on producing such knowledge--often working alongside our own students. Our faculty members regularly publish articles in the leading general and specialty journals of our discipline, and books in leading scholarly presses; many of our faculty also have their work funded by grants from the federal government and private foundations. Our faculty and graduate students also regularly present research at conferences throughout the country and in international settings, and are actively sought out by policymakers for advice and by the press for the public's better understanding of social trends and issues. The UT Department of Sociology currently serves as the academic home for about 110 graduate students. We place tremendous value on our core training in sociological theory, research methods, and statistics at the graduate level. We build on that core with a myriad of course offerings in areas such as criminology and deviance, demography, development, education, family, gender, health, political sociology, race and ethnicity, religion, and social stratification.
What is one thing this department does particularly well that makes it better than other similar programs?
Our faculty members pride themselves on working very closely with graduate students in the research arena. As a result, our faculty members and graduate students produce many co-authored publications and presentations resulting from these faculty/student collaborations. Our graduate students are considered to be junior colleagues in this sense: they work alongside the faculty on projects! This is a win-win situation for everyone: both graduate students and faculty members learn a great deal by working together.
What careers do alumni generally pursue after graduation from the program?
Our M.A. graduates almost always continue on to pursue the Ph.D. degree. In fact, we do not recruit students into our program unless they express a strong interest in pursuing the Ph.D. There are many other programs around the country that have terminal M.A. programs that I would recommend if a student wanted to earn an M.A. in Sociology and stop at that point.
Our Ph.D. graduates most often desire to work in academic positions as professors, and many of them accomplish that goal. In recent years, for example, Ph.D. graduates from our program have won postdoctoral fellowships at Brown University, the University of Chicago, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, Rice University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, Harvard University, Princeton University, and more. Our PhD graduates also now serve on the faculty at many prestigious universities around the country, including Princeton University, Duke University, UCLA, Penn State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ohio State University, Florida State University, University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of Illinois, University of Colorado, Rice University, Bucknell University, Michigan State University, University of California at Davis, North Carolina State University, University of Kansas, Kansas State University, and many more. Many others hold important research positions in federal government, state government, and private settings,such as the United Nations, the US Bureau of the Census, the Urban Institute, and the Alan Guttmacher Institute.