In this Alumni Spotlight we caught up with Jessica Crowe and Ali Ilhan, both of whom have used their sociological training inside and outside of academic settings. We hope you enjoy hearing about their memories and experiences.
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Jessica Crowe earned her PhD in Sociology from WSU in 2008, specializing in environmental and rural sociology. After graduating, she worked as a faculty member in academia for more than a decade at various institutions. Today, Jessica is the chief of the Rural Economic Branch of the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (ERS).
Tom: How did you end up at WSU?
Jessica: WSU was the only sociology program that I applied to. I was a psychology undergraduate major, and I didn’t realize that what I wanted to do was sociology, and so I applied to a bunch of psychology programs and, like most things in my life, I end up in places and positions serendipitously.
Tom: Do you have any salient memories of graduate school?
Jessica: When I first arrived, David Sonnenfeld was at the Tri-Cities campus, and I took an environmental sociology class with him over the screen. Greg Hooks was in the class because he said he needed to know more of the environmental sociology literature, which was funny because he was the chair at the time and he had just published that paper on the treadmill of destruction, which was basically an environmental sociology piece, in American Sociological Review, a top-tier journal. And here I am, brand new, I don’t even know if I’m a sociologist and I’m taking a class with a chair. It was intimidating. The next semester I took theory from Greg, and he did end-of-the-semester oral exams at local Pullman establishments like Rico’s Pub. I had never taken a sociology theory class until I took Greg’s class because I was not a sociology undergrad.
Tom: I recall you working with Don Dillman?
Jessica: Don and I had an interesting relationship. I was never one of his students, per se. He sat in on my master’s thesis and asked me a softball question and I froze. My mind just went blank. He came up after and told me he was interested in my research because I did community stuff, and that’s how we got acquainted.
Then I took his survey class, and I did a good job and I enjoyed it—clearly, because I’ve done so many surveys since then. He became my dissertation chair, and I really enjoyed that. We’ve stayed in touch. Fifteen years later, I asked him to write a letter for me when I applied to my current job.
Tom: After you graduated you accepted a position in academia?
Jessica: Yes, and graduating in 2008, what a time. The market was horrible, and I was lucky to get a job. Practically all the positions were canceled. I ended up in a visiting position in sociology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, which is a public liberal arts school.
It was the only offer I got, and I drove my family from the West Coast to the East Coast. It was a 3/3 load, but I was still able to publish. It was nice because at WSU I saw the faculty in their offices working all the time, and there were a lot of people that were good role models and mentors. Don asked me, “How do you do it all? Manage a family with all these rugrats running around, teach this higher load, and still do research?” I put in a full 40 hours and didn’t mess around. Just go in there and work, not chit-chat, which is hard for me. That’s why I shut the door.
St. Mary’s College kept telling me they wanted me for a permanent position, and the economy was going to pick up, but it didn’t in the two years I was there, so I had to move on to something stable.
Then I moved to the University of North Texas Dallas for a tenure-track position in sociology, and I was there for three years.
I enjoyed teaching there because I learned a lot from the students. It was the first time I taught students who weren’t your typical young college students. When I taught at UNT Dallas, the average age of my students was in their 40s and the biggest demographic were African American women. It is on the south side of Dallas which is very segregated. They were interactive. You never had to worry about having a quiet class, and it was easy to teach them. Some of them hadn’t been in school in 10 or 20 years, but they were dedicated, they read, and they tried, and that’s all I wanted.
Then I went to Southern Illinois University Carbondale. I was there for eight years, and I worked my way up to full professor and was chair when I left.
Tom: What brought you from an academic position at Southern Illinois to your current job at ERS?
Jessica: It was a hard choice, but again, all the pieces just fit together. I was promoted to full professor, but other full professors in my department were making significantly more money than me. I tried to make the case to the dean as to why I should make as much as my male counterparts. I had a great case, but the dean says, “No, go get another offer.” That day, I saw the email in the rural sociology list that they were hiring a branch manager for the rural economy branch. I always knew ERS products, especially the rural economy branch, because they put out things like the rural urban continuum codes that rural sociologists know and use.
I was not looking to leave, but I had this conversation with the dean, and I was coming off of my time as chair, and restructuring had taken place that we in sociology didn’t want. And here comes this great job opportunity. I decided to apply and I got the job. I went back and forth for a month trying to decide if I should accept it. The job ended up being a fully remote position, which put me over since I didn’t have to move. The pay was way better. On top of that, this is a management position. I learned I liked management when I was chair, and I was going to be managing people who all study rural topics. This is amazing going from a department where I’m the only person who conducts research on rural areas.
Tom: Can you tell us what you do in your position?
Jessica: I am basically a first-level supervisor. I work with a team of 15 social scientists ranging from agricultural economists to geographers to rural sociologists. They are in research roles, and I manage and oversee them, meeting with them regularly to go through their work plan and making sure they’re on track. They write reports for the agency and maintain and update the data products that we’re in charge of through the ERS website, like state factbook and the rural urban Continuum codes. I’m also in charge of hiring and networking my branch with other people and other agencies. I am sort of the face of it. And I am the one that foresees what the rural economy branch looks like in terms of the strategic plan and big picture stuff, like what are the important projects that we’re going to work on for the next few years? Sometimes we’re given projects through congressional appropriations bills, but we have a lot of flexibility with what we can prioritize.
It’s great and I’m happy I made the choice, but I was scared to go into government, especially having tenure. ERS is full of mentorship opportunities and training, and I feel like I’ve become a great manager from this job and developed professionally.
It’s also nice to see research have an impact. We always say we want to make an impact with our research, but theirs does. The Secretary of Agriculture reads it. Some of the research is requested by Congress, and we’ll give briefings to different secretaries’ congressional aids. We see bills that address our research. Someone in my department does persistent poverty, and there’s a bill looking at things having to do with persistent poverty and allocating money to persistently impoverished places. ERS came up with the methodology for persistent poverty a long time ago. It’s nice to see that impact.
Sadie: It’s interesting to hear from someone who spent time in academia and then moved to government. What advice do you have for graduate students who are trying to figure out their career paths and considering various options?
Jessica: I would say wherever you end up, industry, government, academia, keep publishing because that’s going to be your ticket to another job. For me, the way I could move was to keep publishing, presenting, and keep my name and face out there in the societies relevant to me. After graduating from WSU, I worked my way up to becoming a branch chief at ERS through publishing.
You might stay in a job forever and that’s great, but things change and you might decide a job is not for you. I never thought about anything besides going into academia as a grad student. If you want to keep options open, just stay active in the field.
Ali Ilhan earned his PhD in Sociology at WSU in 2013. He joined Özyeğin University in Istanbul as a professor. Today he works in the Ullman School of Design at the University of Cincinnati.
Tom: Can you start by explaining the somewhat unusual path you took to WSU sociology?
Ali: I have a background in industrial design, but I had this urge to move to sociology for a long time.
When I was trying to come to the U.S. for graduate school, I applied to design programs and sociology programs, but I didn’t know much about sociology. I was accepted to many design programs and no sociology programs, unsurprisingly.
At the time there was a good design PhD at WSU Spokane, and my wife and I both entered the program, but my interest in sociology remained. Greg Hooks was the Sociology department chair, and he was teaching a sociological theory class I wanted to take. He was skeptical at first, like, “What are you doing here as a designer?” But I took the class and loved it. I talked to him about a possible switch to Sociology and after a year in the design program, thanks to Greg, Scott Frickel, and Tom, I applied to the Sociology program, was accepted, and transferred. That’s the long story short.
Tom: Once you arrived in Sociology, what happened?
Ali: Although I had a background in math and science, I was into qualitative studies back then. I had this intention of studying design disciplines, such as industrial design, architecture, and interior design, and how they created their professional ideologies, so in the realm of sociology of professions, expertise, and knowledge. Although Scott was mostly doing stuff in environmental sociology, he was interested in the creation of expertise and sociology of knowledge, so our interests aligned, and he became my advisor. But he didn’t know anything about design, so I had to convince him why they were worth studying from a sociological perspective and would be interesting for a general sociology audience.
I learned a lot from everyone. Scott introduced me to a large data set IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) which the National Center for Education Statistics collects since the 1970s. It has information about U.S. universities and disciplines, and my research evolved to questions such as how do you establish a discipline? How do they shrink or grow under certain institutional conditions? That data set became my life. It was complex and longitudinal, and I found myself in the realm of quantitative design and research. There were a lot of resources for this in the department and I took many methods classes.
Tom: What were you doing in design? And how did it connect to sociology, if at all?
Ali: Design is a very interesting discipline. I worked as an industrial designer, both in the corporate world and in freelance consulting. Industrial designers are responsible for shaping everything that’s mass produced like cars and chairs, but they’re unlike engineers. I worked for one of the biggest consumer appliance manufacturers in Turkey, designing washing machines, dishwashers, etc. Then I switched to design consultancy, which are firms that consult many manufacturers.
Designers are the bridge between humanities and technology because they are human-centered. They are interested in how things are used and how things interact with human beings. You need social science research skills because there’s a lot of user involvement. You need to know how to understand people, how to derive insight from people and collect data. Most of what designers adapt as research methods come from the social sciences, so there is a natural connection. It’s a very interdisciplinary field.
I got bored of the corporate world; I don’t need to design the one billionth-plus chair. So, I went back to school in Turkey and got an MSc in industrial design, but it was more theoretical. I was interested in how designers created ideology, how people get professionalized, and why some disciplines are regarded better than others. Although designers are very important, they are almost invisible between marketing and engineering, and they do not call the shots.
Designers create the material world, and the material world shapes our socialization, but sociology often ignores the world of material reality. They leave it to anthropology or cultural studies. So there are a lot of connections between design and sociology, but there weren’t many people who wanted to build those connections. And designers don’t really engage in sociology. They pick and choose very pragmatically to design something that sells and that people use. My job was to find something that would be interesting for both designers and sociologists.
Tom: Do you have any memories from the department you’d like to share?
Ali: When I came to defend, I didn’t have a home in Pullman anymore, so I stayed in Greg’s house, and he gave me his car to use! Who does that as a professor? He cooked for me, and Turkey is a very traditional society, so you cook for the professor, not the other way around.
Tom: So after you successfully earned your PhD, what did you do?
Ali: For many reasons, after graduation in 2014 I went back to Turkey and became an assistant professor in the newly established but well-funded industrial design department at Özyeğin University in Istanbul.
Turkey is interesting because there was an expansion of state universities in the early 2000s/2010s. People with money started building universities in their name, and they became high-ranking universities quickly because they attracted Turkish people with foreign PhDs.
At Özyeğin University, they were establishing a new graduate program in design, technology, and society. So I could combine my sociology and design backgrounds at the graduate level. I immediately became the graduate studies director of the program with zero experience, so it was a bit of a trial by fire. The founder of the university is one of the richest people in Turkey. He founded it as a non-profit research university. He doesn’t have any expectations to earn money from the university, he just wants his name to live.
Tom: And what happened next?
Ali: I was there officially until 2022. We don’t have tenure in Turkey, but you can be an associate professor and I was almost there.
In 2022 my wife got a tenure-track job in the design department at the University of Cincinnati and I’m the spousal hire. It’s a top design department in the U.S. and I’m teaching mostly skills-based classes, like sketching and 3D modeling in the industrial design department. I also teach design theory where I can use more of my sociology skills to help design students create better projects. This week I was talking about ethnography and netnography, ethnography in virtual websites or online communities. They don’t expect me to do research, but I’m doing a lot because that’s my thing.
Tom: It sounds like you found a good home that allows you to express your interests within the context of both design and sociology.
Ali: Around 2018 I started doing a lot of work outside of academia such as consulting for NGOs, using my statistical data analysis skills and machine learning—stuff that people think is creating miracles, which it is not. Now a lot of social scientists are getting into design; it’s called UX, which is short for user experience. Since the PhD market is tight, many social scientists are looking for work outside the PhD. Tech companies like Facebook, Google, you name it, invest a lot into user experience. This was traditionally what designers did, but social scientists with good research skills can do a lot there. There aren’t many people who know both the design side and the social science side, and there are a lot of manufacturing and tech companies in Cincinnati with connections to the school, so I’m hoping to expand to that in the future.