The decision to pursue a Sociology degree at UNC was easy. During a two-year Sociology Masters program at Brigham Young University, I had been part of a working group studying adolescent development with a small number of graduate students under the direction of a faculty member. The main focus was on parent-adolescent relationships but there was an effort to attend to adolescent lives as part of a broader ecology. When I thought of developing this line of inquiry, UNC seemed a natural fit.
After I was accepted, the decision became much easier after the department reached out to me. One day I went into the bank of offices where we worked as graduate students and was greeted by another student. She immediately says to me, in a rather congratulatory tone, “I spoke to someone famous on the phone because of you.” It turns out that Glen Elder had been given my application materials by one of his graduate students and felt like I would be a good fit for the work he was doing with the Add Health data. We eventually connected by phone and that marked the beginning of a significant investment on Glen’s part to my development as a scholar for which I could never repay him.
My first year in the program was mainly focused on coursework. I enjoyed getting to know the other graduate students, though I got to know them less than I might have after getting married in December that year. It may be that the rumors I had heard about other graduate programs as being cutthroat were overdone, but I didn’t pick up on this at Carolina if it was there. There seemed to be a comradery among the students that helped me feel part of something important. I have a couple of distinct memories that I connect to this feeling, although they may seem unrelated. One was while I was in the first-year carrels. I was reading Marx while snacking on some raw green peppers when another first-year came in and said, “What are you eating? Green peppers? You don’t even want any ranch or anything on that?” The second was an email exchange among the graduate students that was right around the time when the department was hit with budget issues for what must have been the first time in a long time. The pinch was felt by graduate students because the informal policy of funding graduate students until they graduated seemed to be giving way to the formal policy of losing funding if timelines were not met. I remember the students feeling quite upset about it. During this time, the urinals in the men’s room were replaced with non-flushables. Shortly after, deodorizers were placed in the urinals. An email lamented the potential loss of graduate student funding while the department could afford “urinal cakes” for the bathrooms. A return email quickly arrived…”and [the chair] said, ‘let them eat cake.’”
Glen made room for me in the Life Course suite of offices during my first summer. I worked the entire summer coding open-ended responses to one of the questions in the Add Health mentoring module. It was a grueling task but one that would serve to pay dividends as the coded information ended up being part of my dissertation. Throughout the second year of the program, I retained the office space in the suite even though much of my time was spent in classes. Being able to interact with the advanced graduate students and post-docs there really
helped my development and I came to have a great respect for those who were there. While my time in the suite was extremely valuable, I lament just a little that spending so much of my time there made me feel a bit distant from the cohort of students I began school with. Still, the next couple of years were so critical for my development. One of the most rewarding experiences at the suite was to be included in the working group Glen organized with students and post-docs where we met weekly to review paper drafts and discuss analyses we had been working on. This was such a fertile environment for learning. Although I know that this is a common practice in academic training, the role Glen played and the mix of individuals in the group made it seem like such a magical thing to me.
Two difficult experiences during my last two years of graduate school helped me learn more about myself than I perhaps wanted to. The first involved my comprehensive exams. I had chosen to take the Family and Life Course and Quantitative Methods exams. The advice I had been given was that I just needed to pass, not pass with honors, so I should take them together and get them out of the way. While I wanted to do the Quantitative Methods exam, I was terrified of it. In the months previous to the exams, I spent 90 percent of my time working on the Methods reading list, trying to drown the fear. I took that exam first and had two weeks to prepare for the Family and Life Course exam. I worked hard during that time but did not feel particularly confident when the time had arrived to take it. That exam was the first one to be graded and the result was that I failed.
Members of the committee were supportive and tried to help soften the blow. I worried about the Methods exam, failing it would have been catastrophic for me but I did finally get the result that I had passed. So, the next six months was night and day studying for the new Life Course and Aging exam. I worked harder and stressed more for that exam than anything I had before, knowing another failure would be the end of my graduate work. At one point during this time I felt an awkward feeling in my throat. It felt as if someone’s hand was lightly but continually choking me. I had about 20 white spots in the back of my throat. Worried, I went to the doctor to have them checked out. After a quick look, the doctor said that they were just canker sores and asked if I was experiencing any particular stress. I couldn’t help but laugh. The canker sores eventually went away and the time for the test finally came. I passed this time. I’ve found occasion to share this story with many students who are stressed and/or feel inadequate to what is expected of them.
The second experience was, of course, my dissertation. The faculty at BYU where I did my Masters degree had kept tabs on me and knew that I could be approaching the end of my degree. They contacted me, asking me to apply for one of the open positions they had. The timing wasn’t quite the best because I hadn’t defended a prospectus yet. In fact, I was still waffling on what my dissertation would even be. So, I pulled together some of the work that Glen had me working on related to the mentoring module in Add Health for a job talk. With that, the decision to do the dissertation on mentoring became an easy one…I had to do something that was practical. Some time after the job interview, I defended the prospectus and went to work on completing the dissertation. This is where it really became difficult. My wife had just given birth to our second child. She took sole responsibility for caring for the kids at this time but even so, she was getting more sleep than I was so I could make the progress I needed to complete the dissertation on time. I remember leaving our apartment to go back to campus to work at 8 in the evening, staying
many times until as late as 2 am. In the end, I made the deadline I needed to and my committee was generous enough that they only made me do light editing as revisions.
The transition to a faculty position as an Assistant Professor was not particularly smooth for me. I negotiated to postpone my starting date until January of 2006 to have enough time to finish the dissertation. That meant that I defended the dissertation, packed up our apartment, moved across the country, and was in front of two different courses full of students in about a month and a half. I still had so much work remaining to figure out how to do research and I had to fit that in while trying to keep a step ahead of my classes. I think I did stay ahead of them, just barely, but it seemed I made hardly any progress on the research front for months.
Near the end of the first semester, my wife and I purchased a house that needed some renovations. I spent hours and hours in doing most of the work myself. It took nearly two months to do it all, working almost all day every day. In other words, I put research on hold until we moved in. With what time of the summer I had left, I did make some progress on preparing a paper from my dissertation for publication. However, it wasn’t until a number of months later that it was ready to be submitted. I remember the feeling when I had that first article ready to submit…I felt as if I had forgotten what it felt like to do research and was just being reminded.
I imagine that the story of my transition has a familiar ring to many who might read this. The years as Assistant Professor were difficult with having the dual task of learning to research and teach and at the same time trying to maintain a presence at home. We had a third child toward the end of my second year as a faculty member. I wasn’t sure I could manage a fourth child but my wife made the decision. Our fourth was born during my fourth year. Around this time, my wife and I considered a move to Australia where I had been offered a position at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. It would have been a fantastic opportunity and we were excited about the prospect but we ultimately turned it down. My wife had just been accepted to the nursing program at a local university and so we stayed. I was surprised that her being in school provided me more time to work, and I spent it on a number of papers that were published just in time for tenure. I have to admit that I enjoy post-tenure life much, much more than pre-tenure life, even though I feel I’m busier now than I was before.
I’ve reflected often on my time in the Sociology department at Carolina. It was such a good time of life for me. While there were a few bumps in the road, it was a critical time of professional and personal development…perhaps because of the bumps rather than in spite of them. I knew I was lucky to have been able to be a graduate student at Carolina and to have had Glen to be my advisor and mentor. But, having been a professor for a number of years now, I’ve come to appreciate my experience even more. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn from such accomplished faculty and to associate with so many bright graduate students. I will be forever grateful to the faculty who taught and mentored me.
Submitted April 2019