PhD Alumni Spotlight: Philip Cohen (compiled by Kathleen Denny)

Dr. Philip Cohen is a professor and current director of graduate studies in the sociology department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  He publishes extensively on the family, gender, race and occupational inequality, and other stratification issues.  He also teaches courses on demography and demographic methods, gender inequality, and the family.

Dr. Cohen is a distinguished graduate from this department.  He received his Ph.D. from Maryland  in 1999.  He was kind enough to share some insights from his experiences so far, as well as offer some advice to current graduate students.

Q: Where did you grow up and how do you think this experience prepared you to be a sociologist?

A: I grew up in Ithaca, a college town, as the children of academics – a mathematician and biologist (my mom is on the faculty at UMD now). The way my privileges worked out, I had the chance to do a lot of different things before I left for college, from an attempted career in music to radio and print journalism, to working as a counselor in a group home. It was all good for my sense of self-efficacy, you could say, but I honestly wasn’t very much exposed to the wider world.

Q: After attending the University of Michigan for your BA and the University of Massachusetts for your MA, why did you decide to attend the University of Maryland for your PhD?

A: I wasn’t sure I would complete a PhD when I left UMass. I took a job at a non-profit in the DC area for a year and considered the possibilities. Looking around at UMD helped me decide I could get back into sociology. The department made a great impression on me, and I started to actually see myself in this career. It was a great decision.

Q: Upon graduating from the University of Maryland, you became at a professor at the University of California, Irvine. Why did you choose to teach at UC Irvine? What was the transition like from being a PhD student to being a professor?

A: UCI was my only tenure-track job offer. I knew nothing about Southern California and had never heard of UCI. The department there was very small – about seven faculty at the time – and it was very friendly and supportive. The transition was great. I stressed about publishing and tenure, but I had good momentum coming out grad school and great colleagues to work with there. Matt Huffman was there a year ahead of me, and got me going. We hit on a collaboration that was very dynamic and a lot of fun

Q: What does the “sociological imagination” mean to you and how does it influence your daily activities as a professor, researcher, and your life outside of campus?

A: Maybe the biggest thing is trying to remember that things can be different. The most taken-for-granted aspects of life are really up for grabs. I’m always amazed by this. I recently learned pink and blue was the other way around in the U.S – boys in pink, girls in blue – until WWII or so. It seemed so natural to them that way. And that’s just the small stuff. On the sociological imagination itself: I really do often say to myself, “biography and history.” That’s got to be the most influential idea I got from sociology.

Q: What does the term “intellectual maturation” mean to you? In answering this, what advice, guidelines, and words of wisdom would you give to us graduate students in the beginning stages of our “intellectual maturation” process?

A: I’m not sure maturation is a great goal. It has upsides – like a more even keel, a longer-range perspective on life and work, and a bigger-picture view of social change and social science. But it’s got downsides, too, such as complacency and degenerative diseases. Ironically, as your future gets shorter, your perspective sometimes grows longer. There’s no reason to rush that. In the last year I’ve started working on a textbook – for undergraduate family courses – and it will take me a few more years. I’ve never made a commitment to one project that will take that long before. I’d like to think it was maturation that made me able to weigh a lot of different implications of that and make a good decision. Who knows?

On words of wisdom for grad students, I would have two:

(1) Learn how to do a good lit review. It’s not just a formality at the beginning of the paper. Use citation links backward and forward through the literature to find the most recent and most important work in your area, so you really understand the foundations and the direction of knowledge on your questions.

(2) Find questions you don’t already know the answers to, and that you can actually answer with your research. If you can meet both those criteria you have a good chance of remaining interested in your own work, and drawing other people in as well. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

How’s that for advice?

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

A: Please visit my blog ( To those who don’t know me, don’t be shy about contacting me if you like. Thanks for having me visit, and for having me in the newsletter.

Kathleen Denny is a second year PhD student.


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