Alumni Spotlight

In this Alumni Spotlight, we caught up with James McCall. James graduated with his PhD from WSU in 2019, with a focus on life course, family, mental health, and well-being. James is currently working at Westat as a survey methodologist. He contributes survey data collection methods in funding proposals and conducts survey methods research. He also leads survey data collection and analysis efforts for federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, as well as some private organizations.

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James McCall outside Liberty Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Tom:  Please tell us how you arrived at the WSU graduate program in sociology.

James: I received a top master’s degree in digital sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Goldsmiths’s program is geared towards digital sociology, exposing students to sociology in a digital context, everything from how you can write Python scripts, to data scraping, to the intersection of society and technology. My master’s research looked at time banking—how small communities can organize time and resources. I studied the different time banks people were using and developed technical descriptions for those looking to adopt this social technology. I wanted to pursue a PhD and come home to Palouse, so I applied for the graduate program at WSU. Once you’ve been away from home for a significant amount of time and have seen other things, there’s just something about going back to where you’re from that will resonate, as it did with me and my family.

Tom: What were your research interests when you started graduate studies at WSU?

James: I was interested in well-being and mental health from a family perspective. My master’s thesis at WSU focused on the life course and whether the sequencing of key life events, like educational attainment and starting a family, mattered for mental health outcomes. My dissertation left life course sequencing and instead explored the mechanisms between educational attainment and mental health outcomes. The mechanism that I found mattered was sense of control and the timing of when that control was attained in the life course.

Tom: What are some of your memories of graduate school?

James: Professor Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson, my chair, developed a great relationship with me as my mentor. We met often and we discussed many topics, not always about work. I am so grateful for my relationship with Monica. I don’t think I would have succeeded in graduate school had it not been for my relationship with her.

Tom: It’s neat to hear about your mentoring relationship with Monica. Can you elaborate on that? What was unique about Monica’s mentorship?

James: Monica and I developed trust. I had trust in her, and she had trust in me without ever really thinking about it. I felt I could come to Monica with issues and sometimes those issues intersected with my personal life. And maybe it was a bit of a risk to bring those more personal issues to her, but it was my reality, and it was important that she was aware of certain things. So, early on, we had that level of deep conversation. We talked about our kids and other topics outside of work. We were good at making space for both personal and professional lives. Monica gave me the advice I needed to make progress. In a way, we just clicked. I’m so grateful for that. I can’t stress that enough.

Tom: What were your goals after graduation?

James: It was a process that started when I took Don Dillman’s survey practicum course. That class changed my career trajectory without me even knowing it. Don and Lena Le, the director of the WSU Social & Economic Sciences Research Center (SESRC), proposed a course for sociology students who had taken Don’s class the previous semester. In the course, students would learn how to consult on survey design and implementation. So, I enrolled in that class and became a survey consultant at SESRC. I discovered that I liked solving survey problems, figuring out how to collect survey data, and giving advice about how to manage survey data. I worked for the SESRC during my last year in graduate school, and this turned into full-time employment. I defended my dissertation and worked at the SESRC for a few years. It was an incredible opportunity that allowed me to begin my post-graduate school career, use my survey research skills, and continue to live in the Palouse.

Tom: Where are you working now?

James: Now I work for Westat as a survey methodologist doing similar work to what I was doing at SESRC. I’m doing research on surveys, response sets, visual displays of questionnaires, and web design.

Shekinah: What advice would you have for graduate students who hope to pursue a career in an industry outside of academia?

James: The skills I learned in graduate school, especially the quantitative skills, have been invaluable to the work that I’m doing now. The perspectives that I gained on how to think about data and how to think about analysis were all developed in graduate school. In the sociology graduate program at WSU, students learn how to be critical of data and how to manage data. If I had one piece of advice, it would be to think about those skills and look for jobs in data analytics or data analysis. Our skills are transferable to any of those jobs in any industry. Also, just stick with it. Graduate school can be tough, but good things happen from pushing through tough things.