Sara Ray Stoelinga

Sara Ray Stoelinga, Sociology PhD'04

1) What was the most important aspect of your professional development as a graduate student that contributed to your professional success?

In my mind, there are three critical aspects of my development as a graduate student that have contributed to my professional success. The first is the theoretical foundation that it provided me. I have a very diverse, hybrid portfolio that includes leading the work of an institute that focuses on urban education, teaching and advising students and writing and research. The intense focus on theory sharpened my ability to effectively frame my work as a leader, professor, and researcher, drawing upon a very deep theoretical foundation. Secondly, I gained the ability to distill and organize large bodies of knowledge and evidence into consumable and understandable constructs. This skill is incredibly important across all of the facets of my work. And finally, completing the doctoral program in Sociology deepened my grit and perseverance and increased my confidence in my ability to persist and succeed under high demand.

2) What was the most significant obstacle you faced in your career trajectory upon graduating that you wished you had prepared for better?

For me, a significant obstacle to me in my early career was finding a position with the right combination of work. I wanted to be able to cross the boundaries of the urban education field: leadership, scholarship, teaching, advising, research, policy and practice. I wanted to have one foot in the world of the University, and one in the world of K-12 education. Early on, I was able to do work in some of these areas but not all of them. I kept striving to find the right position where I could do exactly what I wanted to do. Another challenge for me in this process was the divergent opinions about the path I was pursuing: whether it was feasible, valuable or appropriate given my doctorate in Sociology. In hindsight, I am grateful for the learning I gained from these experiences, but times when I was in the midst of it, I felt uncertain and frustrated.

3) Do you have any general words of advice for current students?

I have two pieces of advice. First, graduate school is first and foremost about building relationships. I don’t know that I understood that clearly when I was a graduate student. The relationships that you build: with advisors, committee members, faculty, cohortmates, and colleagues, not only define your graduate experience, they will define your career. Focus on building relationships early, and see relational work as essential to your success as your academic work. My second piece of advice is to open your mind to the diverse pathways that are available to you with a graduate degree. The work world has become a much more diverse place, with exciting possibilities for those with doctorate degrees across all fields. While a tenure track position may be exactly right for some of you, for others it will not end up feeling right. Open your mind and open your heart and know that only you know what path is right for you.