Starting Out: The Experiences of 10 New WSU Sociology PhD’s

Starting Out: The Experiences of 10 New WSU Sociology PhD’s

By Don A. Dillman

Years of study go into getting that doctoral dissertation written and approved. But what happens when it is finished and one begins the challenges of full-time employment? We asked the 10 individuals who finished sociology doctoral degrees from spring 2012 to fall 2013 to share with us what they were experiencing as they began work in their current positions, which range from assistant professor to strategic planner. Their “on the job” experiences may surprise you as they take on new responsibilities with widely varying expectations.

Most PhD students come to graduate school in our department hoping to teach and do research in colleges or universities when they finish, and indeed that’s what many are doing. Five of our recent graduates are employed as assistant professors in sociology departments, and are teaching 2-3 courses per semester. However, they have learned that their responsibilities go significantly beyond classroom teaching.

Sarah Whitley, who became an assistant professor at Fresno State (CA) in September described to us the challenges of combining her responsibilities for teaching undergraduate courses with service learning components. She is working on a revitalization project for a struggling neighborhood in Fresno, investigating food deserts in Fresno County and the central valley, and working on compiling and completing several journal articles for submission. She said: “I have my sociology of education students working with fifth graders in a struggling school and I have my critical thinking courses working with various hot meal sites and food pantries. I am also involved with a community called El Dorado Park that has high rates of poverty and significant amounts of crime, and many of my students are also involved with projects in this neighborhood.”

Sarah values greatly her past experience with nonprofits: “It helps me connect my students to community organizations and provides insight on how I can talk to my students about applied sociology and working in the community.”

Meredith Williams, now at Humboldt State University, has already been challenged with building a new major in Criminal and Justice Studies offered by its Department of Sociology. She is also preparing for graduate coordinator responsibilities for the department’s MA program that includes Teaching Sociology as well as Practicing Sociology tracks. She is excited to have her love for activism, teaching, and research intersect in defining her responsibilities, and expects to publish pedagogical research on teaching social justice in the new few years. She said: “I feel pretty lucky to have found a home at HSU.”

Kyle Knight is now starting his second year at University of Alabama-Huntsville. He is teaching three courses per semester and is involved in several research projects on society-environmental relationships. He notes, “My time at WSU was excellent preparation for my current work…my transition from graduate student to professor was made very smooth thanks to my training at WSU.”

Michelle Edwards, who emphasized environmental sociology and survey research methods in her graduate program at WSU, began work this fall at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. In addition to teaching 2-3 courses per semester, she has started development of research on water management issues in Texas that will build upon her graduate work at WSU.

Lindsey O’Conner at California State-Channel Islands noted that her department expects community engagement, and she is hosting a panel of female scientists to talk about the challenges  women face in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers. She has also been asked to host a local workshop on challenges women face in leadership positions.

All five of these new assistant professors face the challenges of combining significant teaching responsibilities with research and publication responsibilities which their graduate training was designed to provide. One of them commented that even though her teaching and research responsibilities linked directly to her PhD work, she felt relatively under-prepared for the service-side of faculty responsibilities. She noted that this was probably the biggest disconnect between her graduate and faculty experiences. Another of these very busy new faculty members indicated how much she appreciated the way that WSU sociology professor and statistician Prof. Thomas Rotolo teaches, and how critical that has been for helping her to teach quantitative literacy. That also helped prepared her to assist other faculty members at her new institution with their quantitative instruction.

James Sanders is facing a different set of challenges as a strategic planner for the University of Utah Health Sciences. In this position he uses data to inform strategy as part of his department’s effort to delineate and implement business models that contribute to their success in a competitive market. Is this a big stretch for a sociologist?  Perhaps not.  A core part of the WSU sociology graduate program focuses on quantitative data analysis, and James notes that his work, “has a sociological feel that involves assessing market and consumer needs.” He comments further, “The skills I developed in graduate school…critical thinking, statistical analysis of large data sets, methodological creativity, synthesis of materials and ideas, ability to succinctly present and discuss issues…are put to use regularly in my job.” He also notes how additional business training, such as an MBA degree, would be of help to him in advancing in this career path.

Benjamin Messer faces similar challenges, as project analyst for Research Into Action, an energy efficiency evaluation and research firm in Portland, OR. His responsibilities involve drafting proposals, formulating research questions and analysis plans, designing and implementing surveys and writing reports. He is also encouraged to present research at professional conferences and to publish in scholarly journals. He sees his work as building directly from both his undergraduate work, when his interest in energy issues began to develop, and his graduate emphasis at WSU in environmental sociology and survey methodology. “Undergrad and grad training greatly prepared me for the work I am doing,” he said.

Rayna Sage came to the sociology PhD program from a background in human development, and was hired last summer by that department to coordinate their internship program that is required for all of their undergraduates. She also worked as research associate on the Project Healthy Campus. She is now a clinical assistant professor in that department with both teaching and research responsibilities. The latter focuses on gender ideologies and student expectations and strategies for dealing with conflict between work and family responsibilities. She appreciates being in a department with applied interests, and believes that her sociological perspective complements and is appreciated by other faculty whose backgrounds tend to be in developmental psychology and human development. Rayna was the founding co-editor of Sociology E-News in 2012-2013.

Indeira Persaud has returned to St. Vincent and the Grenadines Community College, where she was employed prior to taking an educational leave to work on her doctoral degree at WSU. She also has returned to her position as a psychology lecturer and counselor.  She is responsible for teaching the Associate Degree in Psychology program which she had developed prior to coming to the WSU sociology program for enhancement of her professional skills.

Kristin Cutler remains at WSU as an instructor in Sociology, where she has major teaching responsibilities in addition to working with all undergraduate sociology majors, as described elsewhere in this issue of Soc E-News (See: “Sociology Undergraduates on the Move“).

All 10 of our newest Sociology PhDs are employed in work that uses their sociological skills and demands excellence. They continue a longstanding tradition of sociology doctorates being employed in a wide variety of work settings. Our conversations with them suggest they are pleased with their work situations and meeting the challenges that go with them. Most were able to obtain employment in locations where they prefer to live. Some are also working through spouse or partner accommodations, which are increasingly a major aspect of deciding what graduates will do and where. Our department feels a great deal of pride in their diverse interests and accomplishments.

New WSU Sociology PhD’s:





Kristin Cutler


Department of Sociology, WSU

Michelle Edwards

Assistant Professor of Sociology

Texas Christian University, Ft. Worth, TX

Kyle Knight

Assistant Professor of Sociology

University of Alabama, Huntsville, AL

Benjamin Messer

Research Associate

Research Into Action, Portland, OR

Lindsey O’Conner

Assistant Professor of Sociology

California State University, Channel Islands

Indeira Persaud

Psychology Lecturer and Counselor

St. Vincent and Grenadines

Rayna Sage

Clinical Assistant Professor of Human Development

Department of Human Development, WSU

James Sanders

Strategic Planner, Health Sciences

University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

Sarah Whitley

Assistant Professor of Sociology

Fresno State, Fresno, CA

Meredith Williams

Assistant Professor of Sociology

Humboldt State University, Humboldt, CA