The Sunday before graduation from Dartmouth, I got a phone call from a former employer—a professor in the School of Public Health at Emory University—who wanted to hire me to work as a research coordinator on a Center for Substance Use and Prevention (CSAP) study of drug prevention curricula among black youth who lived in six of Atlanta’s public housing communities. As I had absolutely no plan of how to flip my AB in philosophy into income, I giddily accepted the invitation. While at Emory, I had the privilege of working on this and other research projects all focused on the health of US society’s “surplus populations”—prisoners, drug users, black people of all ages. Eventually, another professor offered me a new full-time position heading up a new project along with the prospect of earning a Master’s degree in Public Health. I would have been making more money than I had ever made and would be in graduate school. I could have also continued being of service to other people in my community on a daily basis. I ran the offer by another professor and trusted mentor. I will never forget her response. She asked me if I wanted to keep working on some else’s study or if I wanted to have my own studies. I made plans to apply to graduate school.
One of the critical features of my tenure at Maryland, and a big part of my nascent success, was departmental and external funding. I was privileged to maintain a graduate assistantship for all my eight years at UMD—a privilege not enjoyed equitably by all students. For my first three years, I worked as a research assistant for Professor Bill Falk; I held an ASA Minority Fellowship for three years under the direction of first Leonard Pearlin and then Patricia Hill Collins; and then I taught my own courses for two years on a teaching assistantship. Having access to a (meager) wage and health insurance, conference travel monies, plus the social prestige of being funded all were important factors in helping me move through the program. While I’m not aware of where efforts at graduate student and adjunct faculty unionization stand right now (they were always underway during my time there), addressing equity and fairness in terms of these structured elements of work within academia remains pivotal to graduate students success. My case was no different. For many of my eight years at UMD, I remained an active participant in the Graduate Student Forum and for a few years served as its Faculty Liaison in part as a way to work in concert with other students on behalf our shared interests. More broadly, issues of access to and the equitability of funding remain critical for academic departments in a climate of union-busting, budget-cutting, and generally exploitative labor practices that seem increasingly pervasive in higher education.
A second critical feature of my experience at Maryland was the Work-in-Progress (WIP) seminar, spearheaded by Professor Meyer Kestnbaum. This seminar provided me with a real sense of intellectual community and served as a space where I could have my work critiqued and practice critiquing others’ work, two skills that have proven essential in my new life as a professor. WIP also helped to establish a socialized system of accountability for my intellectual production—something I desperately needed and still use regularly. I use the editorial and professional skills I developed over my years of participation in WIP nearly everyday. Inspired by WIP, Michelle Corbin and Emily Mann and I formed a dissertation writing group (which also temporarily included Amber Nelson, Mike Danza, Craig Lair, and Jeffery Stepnisky) whose purpose was to help improve our scholarship and provide a system of accountability for real production.
In the fall of 2009, I joined the faculty in sociology at Georgia State University in Atlanta. I currently teach undergraduate and graduate courses in sociological theory, political sociology, and medical sociology. I have begun the rewarding process of mentoring undergrads and advising graduate student research. Here, I give thanks to the large body of peers and professors from Maryland and elsewhere for mentoring and advising me—that has been the best preparation for this aspect of my service to my communities. As I draw near the end of my second year of my professorship, the long transition from Maryland to Georgia State is finally coming to an end. With family and work issues always intersecting in patterned ways, it has taken time to adjust to my new social role with new responsibilities and added pressures. In the summer following graduation in 2009, I began a two-year National Institutes of Mental Health (NIHM) postdoctoral training fellowship at the Morehouse School of Medicine in the areas of mental health, substance use, and HIV/AIDS in prisons and jails. This training fellowship has presented me with new knowledge, new opportunities, and new challenges. My third year pre-tenure review approaches. Speaking of which, maybe I should stop writing this alumni update and work on my research …
In terms of my current research, I am currently preparing several different manuscripts that investigate the relationships between race, science, and power in contemporary society. Some of this research is based on my dissertation which was a Foucauldian genealogy of race and something called “the metabolic syndrome”—a new biomedical category that scientists use to describe the comorbidity of serious metabolic health problems in one body. Concurrent with my NIMH fellowship, I am also designing a pilot research study that examines the intersections of race, gender, and age that structure the diagnosis of serious mental illness and the distribution of prescription psychotropic drugs in the US prison system. The study will document how prescription psychotropic drugs are distributed in US prisons and to what extent, if any, prescribing practices vary according to race, gender, and age.
In closing, I want to speak directly to graduate students and share my two cents about how to survive and thrive in graduate school. First, I strongly encourage graduate students to get serious about publishing their work in academic journals early and often throughout their training process. I certainly remember hearing this all the time and often felt frustrated and quite removed from this aspect of working life in the academy. As I navigated the job market and now participate in hiring new faculty at GSU, this issue stands out as one I wish I had paid more attention to at Maryland. Academic jobs are highly competitive; even one publication can serve to select you into the “Yes” file as opposed to the “No” file in a job search. While conference presentations are nice (I had eight presentations on my CV in 2009) they are no substitute for peer-reviewed publications. Work together in groups, aim for specialty and online journals that publish quality research, and above all else—keep positive!
Second, remember to develop, utilize, and maintain your professional and intellectual networks. Establish relationships with allies who are positioned to help you achieve your professional goals, and develop relationships with other graduate students whose work is akin to yours. I find this hard to do in practice given the busyness of life, but its importance only increases over time.
The third bit of advice I want to share with graduate students is about something sociologists know a lot about: labor. Professor Collins always emphasized to me the importance of labor—actual work—in the process of intellectual production. Any notion that sociological genius, excellence, and/or high levels of production derive from “natural” abilities or the muse is false. It takes work. Lots of straight up hard labor. So keep working. As a close friend at UMD once joked, completing an intellectual project involves two things: ass and chair. Production involves your ass sitting in a chair with the document in question open with you reading, thinking, and typing. If you are not doing those things, you are probably not working.
Lastly, don’t forget to nurture your sociological imaginations. It seems fitting to me that after years of quasi-neglect, the C.W. Mills Library is finally getting renovated and updated. In the Millsian spirit, renovate your own imagination and deploy it regularly. This may come off as elementary or taken-for-granted, but it is important. Your sociological imagination is what got you to graduate school and its what will take you to the next level, whatever and wherever that is. What this means to me is that as long as I keep the interests and problems of the least among us in the center of my sociological vision, I have the chance to create knowledge that is meaningful and perhaps, if I’m lucky, transformative.
Tony is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.