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Robert Vega, Director FAC 18 / 2304 Whitis Ave. Stop G6200 78712-1508 • 512-471-7900

Graduate Student Profiles - Geography

Lindsey Carte – Political and Feminist Geography
Matthew C. LaFevor - Human-Environment Relations, Conservation, and Agricultural Earthworks in Latin America
Robert Lemon - Contemporary Human Geography in Urban Environments


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Geography and the Environment, The University of Texas at Austin; Dissertation Topic: Conservation Engineering and Cross-slope Earthworks in Mexico

Other Degrees: M.A., Universidad de las Américas – Puebla, Mexico; B.A., International Studies/Latin American Studies, Rhodes College – Memphis, TN

What is grad school life like?
Life as a graduate student in our department requires maturity and focus. You simply cannot follow every shiny object of interest that flashes before you – you must pick and choose and make strategic decisions. Well-developed time management skills are essential in this regard. For me, the rewards of being a graduate student far outweigh the time and effort spent with the less-enjoyable organizational tasks and occasional lack of free time. Being a graduate student here has been the most intellectually satisfying experience of my life.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
I am in the third year of my doctoral degree so for me a typical day involves fieldwork. I rent a small apartment in Tlaxcala, Mexico, near my field sites in the mountains. Most days I visit these fields and talk with farmers about their techniques. Sometimes I stop to take soil samples and then return to my apartment to do analysis. I also have a cabin in a national park that I rent and use when conducting fieldwork there. I grew up traveling in Mexico with my dad and his graduate advisor, so I often take short trips to visit with those old friends or to explore some other area of interest.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
For me, the coolest thing about our program is the freedom to conduct independent, international fieldwork. Inevitably, I am surprised by much of what I find while exploring cultural or biophysical characteristics of landscapes. Some of these findings are only fleeting interests, but other topics provide avenues for additional investigation. Independent fieldwork allows me to follow these interests as they pertain to a general research trajectory. This is very cool, but it requires discipline and preparation, understanding of field techniques and a clear methodology.

Can you tell us a bit more about your dissertation?
My dissertation is entitled, Conservation Engineering and Cross-slope Earthworks in Mexico. I examine the biophysical and cultural characteristics of certain forms of terrace building. Since Pre-Hispanic times, farmers have used earthen terraces to conserve soil and water on mountain slopes. Recently, Mexican government agencies have employed the descendants of these farmers to build similar terrace forms in national parks to combat environmental degradation or transformation from both human and natural causes (e.g., deforestation or climate change). My research examines the adaptation of these ancient agricultural terracing techniques into modern conservation practices. I incorporate theory from cultural and political ecology studies and take a mixed methods approach. These range from semi-structured interviews and statistical analysis to mapping, use of geographic information systems (GIS), and soil sampling. I spend about equal time in front of the computer and crawling around in the dirt.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
When I was an undergrad I often read the assigned materials so that I could score well on a test or be prepared for a class discussion. As a doctoral student, however, most of what I read is important for my career. In other words, graduate school requires that I read with a different focus. This means that I must not only understand the readings, but also must analyze them, critique them, and even memorize certain elements. Since I enjoy what I study, this is less difficult that it may sound.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
Having had more guidance as an undergrad would have made some things easier. However, the process of searching for and discovering my own interests was an invaluable experience. This is the best preparation for graduate school – learning how to think and work independently, and in the process, discovering your own research interests.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Go to a program where the faculty members conduct research generally aligned with your own interests. However, do not shoehorn your research objectives to fit with their own.
  2. Place matters. Go to a university located in a city with at atmosphere conducive to both work and play. Prioritize the former.
  3. Do your homework on being a graduate student (i.e., study the course offerings, contact current graduate students, prepare for the GRE, contact a few faculty members, work on your application materials until they are perfect, and save your money while you can).

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
I worked on many research projects as an undergrad. Most of them, however, were not related to school in a formal sense. For example, I was very involved with Civil War archaeology in the mid-South. Another project looked at the cultural adaptation of nineteenth-century Italian immigrants to Mexico. I recommend undergrads work on research projects, but again, follow your own interests. Focus less on resume “fluff” and more on substantive work that segues well with your graduate work. Demonstrate that you can develop your own initiative. This is imperative for graduate research on any level since graduate studies require that you think independently.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
I was also interested in Louisiana State University.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I will be a tenured professor, conducting fieldwork in Latin America and writing books and articles. My wife will be exploring the world with me during the summertime and our daughter will be working hard in her international school and will be a good big sister to her little brother.

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in geography to check out?
I recommend taking a look at The American Geographical Society site. This page gives a good summary of the geography I enjoy and a couple of my favorite publications.

Do you have a last story or bit of advice you would like to share?
It is OK if you have had other career paths mapped out before you in the past. For me, sampling life’s variety before academia was necessary. But make sure you do everything as well as possible. I never really “took a year off.” Before doctoral studies I worked in Latin American embassies in DC; played with symphony orchestras for a living; played college basketball and tennis; played in a traveling band for a few years; cleaned fish on boats in Alaska for a couple of years. While this sounds like a lot of “playing,” I did it as well as I could. Meanwhile, I was reading about geographical topics and saving money for graduate school. In the long run there is no substitute for hard work. Study what genuinely interests you and work hard at it. Here, you will have your best chance for “success.”

Download Matthew's Profile


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Geography, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Interest: Contested Landscapes in Hispanic Communities

Other Degrees: M.L.A., Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning – University of California at Berkley; M.C.R.P., City and Regional Planning, The Ohio State University – Columbus, OH; B.A., History and Geography, The University of Texas at Austin

What is life like for a geography graduate student?
Typically as a graduate student you are balancing a life of teacher, researcher, and student. You have to not only stay on top of your own course work but the course material you’re teaching. As a graduate student you also have to push yourself beyond typical undergrad passive life of studying for tests and writing papers to a forward active school life of writing for funding, working on papers to publish, reading as much as you can outside of class, working closely with professors, preparing to teach classes, etc. Thus your responsibilities have increased to that of a full time job, but still as a student or anyone in academia, your work becomes part of your life.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
I am relatively new to the Geography Department and graduate school at The University of Texas. I love geography and the issues that geographers tackle. What I have enjoyed in graduate school is the smaller class sizes, the opportunity to teach, and the ability to narrow your course work to the things you’re interested in. I returned to UT because of the diversity of faculty in this department and the range of topics they work on.

Can you tell us a bit more about your research interest?
I am currently considering contested landscapes in Hispanic communities. I am looking at the manifestation of the mobilized taco truck and how it is becoming a marginalized entity within the urban fabric.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
As an undergraduate one tends to think that the professor’s primary job is to lecture and often forget about their multifaceted life of research, lecturing, and publishing. As an undergraduate student interested in graduate school, I would try to take the time to get to know professors and their research beyond what may be presented in class. Thus learn as much as you can about people and exactly what it is they do if you are interested in their type of work. One should try and work with a professor as an undergrad if they can. This not only gives an undergrad insight to more advanced academic work in the field, but also sets them up for a letter of recommendation and a line on their CV. Also, apply for as many scholarships as you can. There are lots of financial resources available for undergrads, in addition, taking the time to write and get funding demonstrates your ability to do so in graduate school as well as proves your dedication; plus extra cash doesn’t hurt.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Be familiar with the department’s interests, what the faculty is interested in should jive with what you want to do.
  2. Make sure you are in contact with people in the department and they know who you are. If you can, visit the department so they can put a face to the application.
  3. Be persistent and have a well thought out research topic in mind.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
I did an undergraduate thesis in geography with Professor Terry G. Jordan titled “The Identities of the Iberian Peninsula.” The thesis was a very broad descriptive work that looked at food preparation and agricultural regions in Spain and Portugal. The work was hardly grad school quality, but it allowed me to work closely with a well-respected professor, travel abroad, and improve my writing skills. More importantly it pushed my thinking in the field to how I could advance my academic abilities to the next tier.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
If I didn’t come to UT, my second choice was to do my PhD in Landscape Architecture at UC Berkeley. Other geography departments I closely considered were the University of California Los Angeles, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of British Columbia. It is important to also pick a program in a place you can tolerate living. There are many solid departments across the US, just make sure you are happy living in that place for several years. I was familiar with Austin and was happy to return.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I will either be a professor in a geography or landscape architecture department or a landscape architect doing urban/environmental design and research for my own firm. Possibly both if I could pull it off.

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in geography to check out?
These web pages I suggest are more associated with pop culture geography and are by no means critical geography. I sometimes like watching what different people are buying in the world or are talking about. TrendsMaps is a real-time mapping of Twitter trends across the world and Zappos provides a real time map of online purchases. In addition, the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota has a good webpage that breaks down Geography into research clusters to help people better understand what geographers study. (Scroll to bottom of home page). Also make sure to check out UT's Geography webpage.

Do you have a story, news or achievement you would like to share?
Recently I was feature on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, which has spun off of a few blogs following a project that I started at Berkeley. You can see more about the project online at Read more at the San Francisco Chronicle, City Homestead blog and SF.Streets blog sites.

Download Robert's Profile


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Geography and the Environment, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Topic: International Migration

Other Degrees: M.A., Latin American Studies (LLILAS), The University of Texas at Austin; B.A., Latin American and Caribbean Studies, McGill University – Montreal, Canada

What is grad school life like?
What’s better than having a job that allows you to pursue your passions, commit yourself to being involved in local (and even international!) communities, interact with equally enthusiastic colleagues, and share what you learn as a teacher? During my eighty-hour workweeks, this is my mantra.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
Being successful as a graduate student takes quite a bit of self-motivation and commitment. You are in charge of your program, which is the greatest advantage but at the same time, is overwhelming for those starting out.

As a graduate student, your typical “day” tends to change from year to year as you advance in your program. As a grad, your life is a mixture of coursework, writing, research, teaching, and more and more trying to publish your work, and network with people outside your discipline. Right now, as I prepare to advance to candidacy (after candidacy I am done with course work, and will be able to start my official research project), my work schedule is more intense than previous years.

carte2Each Sunday I lay out the week’s main goals, my appointments, assignments, etc. This is necessary to stay on track, even if you don’t complete everything on your list. I start my day as early as possible so I can take advantage of the focus I have in the morning. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of writing, so I like to get this out of the way first. After I meet my writing goals, I move to preparing for my weekly seminars. An average seminar usually takes 7 to 12 hours a week to prepare for in reading, writing and note taking. I take care of any of my TA/RA (20 hours a week) responsibilities as they come up. An average day might also involve meeting with professors and other students about your work. Though work is tough right now, I can look forward to fieldwork in Mexico next year.

Despite all of the work, I do try to have a life! I do yoga, go dancing with friends, cook and garden in a community garden for fun.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
I love walking into our building every morning and knowing that within our department people are researching topics as diverse as fluvial geomorphology, geopolitics, and cinema. This is incredibly inspiring to me. I feel that this keeps me fresh and involved. It often leads me to consider my own work from a different perspective. In the end, all of our work is connected by basic geographical concepts like the importance of place.

Can you tell us a bit more about your dissertation research?
My research focuses on international migration. In short, I study the socio-spatial impacts of migration in the global south, and especially Latin America. My dissertation research deals with Central American immigration to Mexico’s southern border state of Chiapas. I’m particularly interested in social justice and human rights, and use methods that make sure my research includes, and has a positive impact on the local community.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
As an undergrad, I took courses that interested me, grew up, and prepared for an abstract future career. I had a lot of free time to discover and pursue many interests. Grad school feels more like my actual “career.” Like all grad students, I balance courses, research, and teaching. I am focused on a project I’ll spend years on, and feel more like an apprentice for the career that I will have when I’m done with my Ph.D. This is what makes grad school equally challenging and rewarding.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
As I mentioned above, I had a vague understanding of how academia worked as an undergrad. I think this prevented me from pursuing interesting undergraduate research opportunities and forming closer relationships with faculty members. Though I wrote two undergraduate theses, I never sought out more hands-on research projects. Furthermore, I did not seek out faculty members as mentors. At UT, undergrads have many opportunities to do international and local fieldwork. From what I’ve observed in the last several years as a grad student, undergraduate research experience and relationships with professors are very helpful in preparing students for and getting them into grad school. This doesn’t mean you should jump on every project that comes by, but do focus on something that will be enriching to you, personally.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Choose an area(s) that energizes you and pursue all opportunities related to that area as an undergrad. Do meaningful projects about your interests.
  2. Find a department that has faculty working on topics that align with your interests. Write to professors you might want to work with before and after you apply.
  3. Remember that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination; stay positive, curious, and true to yourself.

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in geography to check out?
A great friend of mine co-founded a non-profit called Open Sound New Orleans. Open Sound gives training and distributes recording equipment to adults and youth to record sounds throughout the city. The sounds are then mapped and placed on an interactive website. The product is a collaborative sound map of the city. To me, this is geography at its best!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years I see myself in a tenure-track position, continuing to do engaged research, and teaching. I’ll be committed to being a supportive mentor, and a positive example for other women in my discipline, since there are relatively few of us.

Download Lindsey's Profile

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