Graduate Student Spotlight: Alice Nixon Thompson

Where did you attend undergrad? What was your academic focus?

Originally from Tampa Florida, I moved to the Baltimore area after high school to attend Goucher College. I had originally planned on majoring in Fine Art with a specific focus on drawing, painting and photography. However, after taking an introduction to sociology class, I immediately changed majors. From the start sociology allowed me to explore my academic curiosities and draw on my strengths in math, history, and social studies. I found that studying subjects important to me through a sociological frame gave me a way of seeing the world that made intuitive sense and provided me with a way of connecting my own experiences to the larger currents of society and history.

What was life like after college?

After completing my undergrad degree, I found that sociology did not immediately translate into employment. I moved a few times and had a number of different jobs. I lived in NYC for a time and worked at the New School University as a teaching assistant. I also worked in coffee shops, a travel agency, a couple law firms, and meeting planning company before realizing that to get the type of job I wanted I would have to return to school for an advanced degree. I decided to go back to school and I earned a masters degree in applied sociology with a focus on medical sociology. With this degree, I had found my niche and doors started to open. Over the next few years, I found myself in a series of more and more interesting jobs related to health and society. I worked first for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, then the Government Accountability Office, and finally at the Institute of Medicine working evaluating U.S. Government-funded international health programs.  I loved my work but began to see an academic glass ceiling quickly approaching.

Why did you decide to return to graduate school in Sociology? Why did you decide to attend the University of Maryland, specifically?

Looking around at work, I began to notice many of my supervisors, organizational leaders, and people I admired in the work place had doctoral degrees. It became clear that if I wanted to directly shape programs, policy, and/or research I would need to go back to school. The people with advanced degrees had something I wanted: levels of expertise and set of skills that can only be gained by taking the next step.  So it was decided I would need to go back to school but where and for what? This question was also answered by my surroundings. For many in my field the answer would have been straightforward: public health. But my background in sociology had provided me with ability to see a gap in the current debates about international health. For years, I had sat around conference room tables listening to doctors, politicians, public health experts, epidemiologist, and bureaucrats debate about how to improve health in “developing” countries. And while many effective suggestions were made, the solution was often missing the insights that could be provided by the discipline of sociology. In many cases, institutional, structural, cultural, and normative challenges were hindering potential progress in development and health in these settings.  I knew I could get a public health degree and provide the same types of insights others were already providing OR I could get a PhD in sociology with a focus on areas like development and demography and add a new perspective to the conversation. The answer was pretty clear. The University of Maryland with its complementary specialty areas and access to the MPRC was the perfect place to go to root myself in sociology and get exposure to other related disciplines.

What are your research and goals? What motivates these interests and goals?

I have maintained an applied focus to my studies here at the University of Maryland. My goals when I returned to school were to strengthen my core understanding of the discipline of sociology as well as gain specific knowledge in areas that would be directly applicable to the type of research and evaluation I had been exposed to through my various jobs. The concentrations of development and demography complemented my “real world” experiences and have given me useful theoretical perspectives and methodologies for examining issues related to international health. My current dissertation work is an attempt to bring all of these areas together. I am currently designing a study to explore the continuing influence of colonialism-era health-related institutions on variations in the health of populations in Sub-Saharan Africa. My hope is to produce a work that speaks both to an academic as well as policy audience. For me if my research isn’t in some way leading to an improvement in the lives of real people, I have missed an opportunity.

What does the “sociological imagination” mean to you and how does it influence your daily work?

From my first sociology class, the concept of sociological imagination has provided me with a way to see the world and framework for understanding what I saw. The connection of the seemingly personal with the public came as a relief to me and put into focus what I had always viewed as a world skew. This many years later, it is difficult to view the world without seeing institutions, organizations, norms, patterns of behaviors that sketch out the relationship between individual “troubles” and public “issues”. In my work today, it is the intersection of history and biography, and the relations between the two within society that I hope to bring to my future work on the challenges of global health.

Alice is a third year PhD student.

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