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

Graduate Student Profiles - Sociology

Molly Dondero - Demography
Megan Reid - Social Inequalities and Social Policies
Michelle Robinson - Sociology of Education
Mieke Beth Thomeer - Health & Aging, and Family


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Sociology and Rural Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Research Topic: Sociology of Education, Race & Ethnicity and Social Stratification

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., Sociology, Minor in Government with BDP Certification in Population and Public Policy, The University of Texas at Austin

What is the coolest thing about the sociology graduate program at UW-Madison?
I would say how well established, respected and connected it is. Because of this every semester we receive many visits from some of the most renowned and respected academics in the world. Not only do we get to sit in talks or discussions that they may give, but we get to meet with them one on one, have lunch with them, or dinner and even get feedback on work that we may be doing that they have an expertise in.

What is your current research topic at UW-Madison?
The project I am working on currently is my master’s thesis. I am unpacking the tracking/ability group debate by looking at how instructional choices have differential impacts on populations. I am using a large-scale, nationally representative dataset, called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort to explore one instance of this, particularly whole language and phonics instruction in K through 1st grade. I examine these instructional strategies within the context of ability grouped and non-ability grouped classrooms to explore whether children’s reading achievement varies given these conditions.

What can you tell me about life as a graduate student?
It can be very isolating mostly due to the amount of work that is required of you. This also varies by program, some being more demanding than others. Most of your learning occurs outside of the classroom and is self motivated and much of the knowledge isn’t explicit or readily available. You may not know you need to know something until you need to know it. You also have to make more of a deliberate effort to be involved in non-school related things because it can consume so much of your time.

What is a day in the life of a grad student like?
There is definitely a difference between the life of someone who is pursuing a M.A and one who is pursuing a Ph.D. As a Ph.D student, summers no longer feel like breaks, but more so an opportunity to get personal projects started or finished without the distractions of classes. The actual Fall/Spring school year will differ based on your funding. As a fellow, I don’t have a “job” so I spend my free time volunteering with research projects and gaining real experience. Typically grad school courses are later in the day, so I generally spend the day doing work, reading for class, or working on my master’s thesis or another project. I have to plan out my days carefully and be very efficient with my time. I try to make time everyday to workout, to eat nutritious meals and to just relax and watch a bit of TV or hang out with friends.

What is the greatest difference between undergrad and grad school?
I have much less of it. Depending on what projects, papers, assignments I have during a week I can sometimes work 100+ hours. Though it is suggested in undergrad that a student studies 3 hrs for every hour they are in class, most don’t and often not to their detriment. This is not the case for grad school. My first semester in grad school I took a theory class that met only once a week for 3 hrs, but I spent 40+ hrs a week preparing for it. The reading load is higher, and you HAVE TO READ. The assignments are also a lot more complicated, mostly consisting of lengthy papers that should be publishable quality. At least for Ph.D students, work and school are intertwined.

What do you know now, and wish you knew then?
There are graduate fellowships that you can apply for in your last year of undergraduate that are really generous. Along with applying for graduate programs, they should make an earnest effort to apply for these also. It will look good on your applications and if you actually win one, it will only help your odds of getting into top programs.

What are 3 tips for students applying to your program?
Research, Research, Research: Get as much and any kind that you can before applying. What they are seeking are students who have the potential to produce interesting and unique scholarly work. Having research experience will only make the transition into a program like this easier and will give you a huge leg up. Take classes in statistics and methods, anything that will help you articulate that skill set and your potential.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it?
I worked with the AHAA project in Population Research Center under Dr. Kelly Raley and Dr. Chandra Mueller. This was with the NSF Demography Summer program. I coauthored a paper which looked how school and community contexts contributed to academic achievement. I also complete an Honor’s thesis in Sociology which looked at the relationships between homes, schools and classrooms on children’s achievement. I received applied experience through my internship with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the National Center for Education Statistics through the UT in DC program.

If you wouldn't have accepted the UW Madison offer, which school was your #2 choice?
Staying at UT-Austin was my second choice. The reason why I choose UW was because when choosing a Ph.D program there are few things that are important to consider, especially if you are hoping to go into the professoriate.

  1. Ranking of department- Schools look at this when making hiring decisions. You want to go to the best, as reflected in ranking, program that you can get into.
  2. The faculty and the reputation specifically of the faculty that work in your field- you want to be mentored by people who are doing work in the area that you are interested in and you want them to be respected in the field. Your adviser is your number one spokesperson; you can see them as equivalent to an agent in the entertainment business. You want someone who when they say you are good, smart, a star, that it means something to others in the field even though they may not have read your work or know you personally.
  3. Getting all three of your degrees, BA, MA and Ph.D, from the same university or college is generally dissuaded.

What is an interesting website you would recommend a friend interested in sociology to check out?
The national organization of sociologists’ website.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Teaching and producing some interesting and policy relevant research at a Research I university.

Download Michelle's Profile


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Sociology, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Interest: How social relationships impact health

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., Sociology, Minor in Biology, University of Virginia

What is life like for a sociology graduate student?
The beauty of grad school is that you have a lot of control over your schedule, but the trouble is that this requires a lot of self-drive and motivation. There is not a lot of structure, and so it is easy to get lost. During my first year of grad school, I swung between working all the time and being exhausted and not working enough. I think I’ve finally struck a balance. Now that I’ve found research projects I’m really interested in (as well as classes that I enjoy), I have motivation to work every day, and I don’t run into the problem of not working enough. And living in Austin makes it easy to not be a workaholic, since there are always so many fun things to do (instead of spending my life in my office). Grad school can be isolating, so it’s important to surround yourself with other grad students (who can make your work more enjoyable and commiserate with you) and some non-grad student friends as well (who can help you remember that there’s more to life than just school.) My church, Bible study group on campus, and other graduate students in the department have been incredibly helpful in keeping me grounded and not overwhelmed with school.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
It is difficult to describe a typical day for a sociology grad student, because it is so variable from person to person. I have classmates who come to campus everyday from 9-6, work hard during those hours, but don’t touch any schoolwork on nights or weekends. I also know people who like to work at night and sleep in during the day. Rather than thinking of how much time I should be working every day, I like to think in terms of how many tasks I want to accomplish. In a typical week, I have tasks associated with classes (attending classes, writing papers, reading), research (collect and analyze data, meet with my advisor, write sections of my working papers, prepare presentations), and my work with the journal (answer emails from authors and reviewers, read new papers, assign reviewers). I then break up the tasks over the days, so that on one day I may tackle a particularly difficult task and end up working for ten hours, whereas another day I may assign a simpler task and have a bit more free time. I try to stagger everything, so that I don’t get burnt out.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
I love being around other people who share a lot of the same interests as I do. This doesn’t mean we all agree on the same thing but it is always easy to find a good conversation with fellow graduate students and professors, be it in class, in the office, by the pool, or at a nearby bar or coffee shop. I had trouble settling on my thesis topic at first, but I was able to find many people in the department who were happy to bat around ideas with me and give helpful critiques and advice.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
I am broadly interested in studying how social relationships impact health, particularly at later ages. I just finished my master’s thesis, which looked at how married couples who have been together for many years care for each other during periods of physical illness and injury. I am finding that it is not just the healthy spouse who looks after the ill spouse. The ill spouse often cares for the healthy spouse as well, such as through encouraging caregiving breaks and masking their own symptoms and anxiety. The performance of this care is largely patterned through gender. My next step is to expand this same research by looking at long-term gay and lesbian couples and at how couples care for each other during periods of mental illness, specifically depression.

Where are you in the graduate school sequence?
I am beginning my third year of the M.A./Ph.D. program. I turned in my thesis this month to earn my masters. I have been working on my thesis for the last year. This year I will complete my last year of coursework and take my comprehensive exams in the Fall of my fourth year.

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
I currently work as managing editor of reviews for the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, so my funding is supplied through the American Sociological Association and the department of sociology. I assist the editor (who is a professor) in processing all the articles from the time they are submitted to when they are either accepted or rejected. My main responsibilities are to read and process every article we receive, suggest reviewers to the editor, contact the reviewers, and then process the reviews. I enjoy it, because I am learning a lot about the process of publishing articles, what articles have the best chance of being published, who’s who in the field, and what topics people are currently researching. Before I started working for the journal, I was a TA for three semesters and then a GRA for one. Doing all three of these positions has helped me to get a good perspective on several different aspects of academic life.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
In graduate school, your grades in a class are unimportant. And if that was the case in undergraduate, then I imagine that most of the students in class would check out, stop coming to class, and never participate. But in graduate school, particularly in a doctoral program, people seem to be motivated by much more than grades. There is a real interest in engaging with the material, both because it’s interesting and because we want to be able to apply it to our research, and this leads to a much different atmosphere than in undergrad. In undergrad, I wouldn’t think twice about solving a crossword puzzle under my notebook while the professor lectured, but in graduate school, the classes tend to be much more engaging and dozing off just isn’t an option.

Also, in undergrad, classes felt like the most important part of my education, but in graduate school, they often feel like an afterthought. I spend more of my day thinking of the research I am doing then the classes I am attending, and I look at my classes as helping me reach my research goals and sharpen my abilities as a sociologist, rather than just degree requirements. The difficulty in this, though, is that being successful in graduate school is not as straight forward as being successful in undergraduate. It requires a lot more self-direction and motivation.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
I wish I had known that my professors and TAs would be future colleagues and that I had actually taken time to get to know them. I didn’t think I wanted to enter a doctoral program until the very end of college, and so I didn’t spend any time getting to know my professors and TAs and talking to them about what they were researching and what life was like in academia. This definitely feels like a wasted opportunity and is something I definitely regret.

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

  1. Carefully consider who you will ask to write your letters of recommendation. The three professors who know you best may not be the best three people. Also, you may not want to use the same three professors for all the schools you apply to. Research whether any professors who know you went to the schools where you are applying. Ask around to see if any of your professors are prominent in the field. You should start this process early.
  2. Contact professors at the schools where you are applying who share your same interests. Some may even be willing to talk to you on the phone before you submit your application. (At the very least, most will email with you.) If they know your name, they may fight for you as an applicant. You should also be sure to mention these professors in your application, such as in your personal statement.
  3. Talk to graduate students at your school and at the schools where you are applying. They have successfully been through the process and probably have helpful ideas of what works and what doesn’t. They can also help you decide if you really want to go straight to graduate school from undergrad, or if it makes sense to take some time off. And they can point you towards professors with your same interests who you should probably get to know.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it? Would you recommend research for undergrads?
Yes, I assisted a sociology professor with research for three years and then did my own research as part of my honor’s thesis in my final year. For my honor’s thesis, I was interested in how transitioning from one stage of life to another impacted the decision to volunteer, so I interviewed ten students who had recently started college and ten recent retirees, all who volunteered at the hospital. After working with a professor for so long on studies he designed, it was great to be able to design one of my own, with a research question I found interesting and using theories, like life course, which intrigued me.

I recommend research for undergrads who want to go to grad school, because research is essentially what graduate school is all about, so you probably want to make sure it’s something you like before you start applying to schools. Also, doing research as an undergraduate helped me to get to know more professors and think seriously about what sort of research I wanted to do in the future. I ended up using my honor’s thesis as my writing sample for my graduate student applications.

Also during undergraduate and afterwards, I worked at a nursing home as a nursing assistant. This experience is actually how I decided I wanted to go back to school and study the sociology of health and aging. I would recommend thinking of research as more than just gathering data and writing a paper, but as going into the field and interacting with what interests you, even if it’s not through your university or officially “research”.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
The Pennsylvania State University.

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in sociology to check out? This is a blog by the people who edit Contexts, a sociology journal published by the American Sociological Association. They also produce a great podcast you should check out. Each post has brief sociological discussions of current issues in the media, consumerism, pop-culture, etc. Recent posts have ranged from a discussion of a Marxist analysis of the global recession to a sociological discussion of a recent controversy when a designer used plus-sized (size 8-10) models on the runway. There is literally something for everyone interested in sociology!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully teaching and researching in a tenure-track position as a professor in a warm city (maybe near the beach!)

Do you have a “grad school survival tip” you would like to share?
Don’t ever let yourself get too isolated. It’s incredibly easy to do in graduate school, but you should prioritize doing things with others, beyond just studying, if you want to keep your sanity.

Download Mieke's Profile


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Sociology, The University of Texas at Austin; Dissertation Research: How race, class, and gender shaped the housing experiences of Katrina survivors.

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., Sociology & English, Rutgers University – New Jersey

What is life like for a sociology graduate student?
I have found it relatively easy to balance my personal and professional lives. I feel like I have enough time to get work done and also do fun things with friends on some nights and weekends. I try to visit my family regularly and I have time for that as well. I am not partnered and I do not have children, and I think it would be harder to do this if I had a family. However I do have friends who do have partners and families and they seem to make it all work.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
Finding a supportive group of fellow graduate students. Our department is collegial and I have made many great friendships with other grad students. This has been invaluable to me as I have gone through this program. It is great to have other people around you who are going through the same thing and can support you. In fact, one of my fellow grad students has now been my closest friend and roommate for over four years! These friendships have also been valuable to my professional development, not only because of how supportive they are but also because it has given me opportunities to co-author articles with friends/colleagues and give and get feedback on papers and projects.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
In my dissertation research, I examine the experiences of people who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Specifically, I look at how race, class, and gender shaped the housing experiences of Katrina survivors. My preliminary findings suggest that the policies that the government put in place to help displaced survivors secure housing made it difficult for those who were not in "traditional" nuclear family arrangements. Black survivors ended up in more remote areas of the city than White survivors did, which caused these survivors further difficulties in trying to recover from the disaster and re-establish themselves. I have also found that displaced people turned to family members when they could not obtain adequate assistance from the government, and that this strategy both provided support and contributed to strain among survivors. Women were more commonly involved in both providing and receiving family support than men were, which indicates an interesting gendered component to family and disaster recovery.

Where are you in the graduate school sequence?
I have finished all of my classes and defended my dissertation proposal, so now I am working on writing and revising my dissertation.

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
I have been a research assistant, teaching assistant, and instructor in my time as a graduate student. I found the research assistance-ship through a professor in the department, but it was in another department. I strongly encourage students who are looking for funding and/or research experience to ask around about other departments. Mine was in the School of Social Work and I learned a lot and gained a lot of valuable skills. I worked as an interviewer and a data manager for a project. I ended up using the data gathered for that project for my dissertation, so it was extremely useful!

I was a TA for my department for a semester and it really helped me learn how to teach and how to interact with students. Then I began teaching my own course, which I have now taught three times. This has also been great and enjoyable experience. I have had students tell me that my class inspired them to have a talk with their family members about sociological perspectives on inequality, and that they have switched their majors to sociology after taking my class. This is always very rewarding.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
I think that you are doing more of one's own independent work and thinking and setting your own schedule can make grad school somewhat more difficult than undergrad. While of course I have great advisors and professors who guide me through the program, it is still up to me to decide where I want my career to go, how hard I am going to work on various aspects of my career, and when I am going to work. In a grad program, it takes a lot of work and willingness to try out new ideas and the ability to accept criticism in order to succeed.

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

  1. Try to get some experience teaching or researching before you apply to graduate school if at all possible. I was able to be a peer mentor in undergrad, as well as conduct research for my senior honors thesis, both of which gave me a glimpse into life as an academic and as a sociologist. These experiences can help you know if you like a particular topic or aspect of the field you are planning to go into. (They also will look good on your applications!)
  2. If you are strongly interested in studying a particular topic or method, research departments to see if people there work on these areas. Contact some of the professors or graduate students who do work in your areas of interest and ask them about their experiences.
  3. Do some research about funding options. When planning to enter a long academic program (I have been in mine for 6 years now!), you might want to consider the long term cost and whether specific programs offer funding for their students. This is something that I wish I had more foresight about when I was deciding on when and where to go to graduate school. Funding should not be the only consideration at all, but practically I think it is important (especially if you have or plan to have a family and/or if you will end up in a job that is not very high paying).

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it? Would you recommend research for undergrads?
I did an undergraduate sociology honors thesis at Rutgers. I conducted a content analysis of women's magazines from the 1950's to the present to get an understanding of how topical coverage changed over that time period. I remember driving to this library that I had never been to in northern New Jersey during a serious snowstorm to do this research (because this is where the magazine archives were), but I was determined to get it done! I try to remember this moment of determination and inspiration if I ever get discouraged in my current research.

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in sociology to check out?
I always recommend the site "Sociological Images" to people interested in sociology.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I plan to be a tenured professor at a school where I can continue to do research as well as teach.

Do you have a “grad school survival tip” you would like to share?
Try to make a work schedule for yourself, even if it changes by the day or week. Because most grad students do not go into an office 8 - 5, sometimes it is hard to know when to start working and when to stop! I try to set a schedule for myself each week that includes a starting time and end ending time for each day, and which of my several projects I will work on when. It is important to designate some time that you will not be working or you will feel like you should always be working, which will really wear you out!

Download Megan's Profile


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Sociology, The University of Texas at Austin;Research Interest: Immigrant Integration, International Migration, and Development

Other Degrees: M.A., Latin American Studies, University of Florida – Gainesville, FL; B.A., Spanish & English, Pennsylvania State University – University Park, PA

What is life like for a graduate student?
Overall, life as a graduate student is a lot of fun. It is intellectually stimulating and provides you with an opportunity to meet people from around the world who are working on interesting research projects. In addition, graduate school fosters a strong sense of camaraderie among students, and I feel like I have made many really good friends in graduate school as a result of that.

I will say that the workload in graduate school is very heavy (though not unmanageable). I have made a strong effort to strike a better work/life balance. This is something that I struggled to achieve during my first few semesters. However, it has become easier now that I have a better idea of what I need to do in graduate school and what I can realistically accomplish in a day. One thing that has helped me to achieve a better work-life balance is to do most of my work on campus. During my first year of graduate school, I worked mostly from home. I have since switched to working almost entirely from school. This really helps me to be able to better relax when I go home each day. I also make sure to make some time each week to hang out with friends, exercise, and pursue other hobbies.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
I typically work on campus each day from about 9-5. When school is in session, I usually have class 4 days a week (most graduate classes meet once a week for 3 hours, but it can vary). I spend my time before and after class working on my RA responsibilities (such as data analysis and writing papers).

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
The thing I like best about UT’s graduate sociology program is that it is highly collaborative. Students and faculty frequently work together on research projects. The department really encourages this type of collaboration. For example, there are working groups in which students and faculty interested in a similar subfield of sociology present their work to other members of the group in order to get constructive comments about the paper before sending it out for publication or presenting it at a conference. It is an excellent way to gain research skills, learn how to constructively critique others’ work and revise your own work, and to make your work the best it can be.

Another cool thing about the department is that there is a strong emphasis on mentoring. Upon entering the program, all graduate students are assigned a faculty mentor and a graduate student mentor. Strong mentors are extremely important in graduate school. Academia can sometimes be a confusing world to navigate, so guidance from faculty and more senior graduate students is an invaluable resource.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
My broad research interests include immigrant integration, international migration, and development. I am currently working on a project that looks at characteristics of schools in new immigrant-receiving areas in the U.S. I am also working on a second project that examines the impact of migration on households in rural communities in Guatemala and Peru.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it? Would you recommend research for undergrads?
I did not work on a research project as an undergrad because at the time, I did not intend to pursue a career in research. However, I would highly recommend that undergraduate students take advantage of any research opportunities they can—whether it is working on a project with a professor, interning at a research institution, or participating in a summer research program.

Where are you in the graduate school sequence?
I will begin my third year of the Ph.D program in the Fall. I completed my coursework requirements last semester and am preparing to take my comprehensive exams in Demography in the Fall.

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
I have worked as a TA for one semester and an RA for three semesters and found both types of work to be valuable experiences. Working as a TA is a great way to interact with students and hone your teaching skills. Working as an RA provides excellent hands-on research training.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
There are many differences. One main difference is that graduate students are expected to take more initiative and be more self-motivated. Graduate students are expected to make the transition from being consumers of knowledge to producers of knowledge. This can be a tough transition, but taking initiative is a great first step.

Time management becomes even more important in graduate school, especially after you complete your coursework. As an undergrad, you have clear deadlines for handing in papers and completing other class assignments. After you finish your coursework in graduate school, most of your time is largely unstructured expect for office hours, TA classes, and meetings. Knowing how to structure your time and stick to some sort of schedule is very important for being productive in graduate school.

Another main difference is that graduate students work much more closely with their professors. Most professors treat their graduate students as colleagues, so graduate students are expected to voice their ideas and make contributions to the research projects on which they are working.

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

  1. Identify at least two faculty members whose research interests are similar to yours. Check out their CVs to find out about their current research. Read a couple of their recently published articles. Contact them to let them know that you are applying and that you are interested in working with them.
  2. If possible, visit the departments at your “top choice” schools. Departmental culture can vary, so it is important to get a feel for the department to see if you think it will be a good fit for you. While there, make sure you set up some time to talk to your potential faculty advisors, the graduate advisor, and current graduate students. Current graduate students will really be able to give you the inside scoop on what life is like as a graduate student in that department.
  3. Consider what types of resources (such as funding, computing services, etc.) the program offers. For example, for me, it was very important that I went to a school with a Population Research Center so that I could gain strong training in Demography.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
City University of New York

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in sociology to check out?
I enjoy reading reports from the Population Reference Bureau and the Urban Institute.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope to be in a tenure-track faculty position.

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