Shengwei Sun, a second-year doctoral student, had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Dr. Wang to learn about her academic experiences, professional trajectories, and her advice to current graduate students.
Dr. Wendy Wang is currently a Research Associate at the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy “fact tank” in Washington, DC. She conducts demographic research on issues pertaining to family, gender, work, aging, health, and time use. She also leads questionnaire and sample designs for public opinion surveys. Prior to joining Pew in 2008, Wendy was a Research Assistant at the Maryland Population Research Center here at the University of Maryland. She graduated from our department in 2008, specializing in Demography and Gender, Work & Family.
Wendy is an author of many widely cited, influential Pew Research Center reports, such as Breadwinner Moms, Modern Parenthood, and The Rise of Intermarriage. She also engages in academic research, with publications in journals such as the American Journal of Sociology and the Journal of Marriage and Family. She has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR and numerous other media outlets. She frequently talks about the Pew reports in print and broadcast media, and presents research findings at national conferences.
What motivated you to pursue a PhD degree in sociology and what are your academic interests?
Sociology has been my long-term passion. I studied sociology as an undergrad in China, and my master’s degree was also in Sociology. So it was not a hard decision for me to pursue a doctoral degree in sociology. Growing up with a single parent, I am especially
interested in the role of family in one’s life. I have tried to combine research topics with my personal interests, with the recognition that my experience is not totally unique – It is shared by a lot of other people. So when there is a new issue coming up, I try to capture what drives such change.
At Maryland, under the influence of my advisor, Suzanne Bianchi, I chose to do my dissertation about time use, looking at how fathers spend their time on childcare and what factors affecting father’s involvement. It was also the time when the American Time Use Survey data first became available I feel fortunate that I am one of the earlier researchers who were able to make use of the data.
What extra-curricular or professional activities were you engaged with back at grad school? How did you come to pursue your current career path?
I enjoyed social gatherings, going to the gym, and also participating in conferences. I had fond memories of sharing hotel rooms with fellow students and we would chat the whole night and then realized that we had presentation to do the next morning!. The Maryland Population Research Center used to have weekly social hours when students could interact with faculties from other departments. I was able to make friends with several students from the economics department.
I’ve been very fortunate to work with great mentors at Maryland, including my advisor Suzanne Bianchi and Rebeca Wong at the MPRC. My very first publication on the Journal of Marriage and Family (2005) was based on a term paper in Suzanne’s class. It was about parental monitoring of teenager’s internet use. Interestingly, I was using Pew data for that project.
I still remember the moment I found out about Pew’s job openings. One afternoon I was taking a break from my dissertation writing, I did some random job search and googled about Pew. I saw that they just started this new project on Social and Demographic Trends and they were hiring It sounded like a great match. Maryland has a strong program in social demography which is highly recognized in the field of demographic research. I think the fact that I have worked with great mentors and colleagues in the field adds to my credential. So it was an easy decision for me.
What are some highlights of your current position as a research associate at the Pew Research Center? How has your experience at UMD helped/influenced you professionally?
A rewarding part of my job is to work on research projects that could connect with a larger audience. Last year, after we published a report on interracial marriages in America, I received phone calls from people telling me about their very own stories of interracial marriage. It shows that our report is really connecting with the people.
Another unique part of my job is that in the process of producing a report, I get to work with people with diverse professional backgrounds. For example, working with the journalists helped me greatly improve my storytelling skills so that I could better convey our message to the public.
What are some key pieces of advice you might have for the current PhD students?
I would say my number one advice for the current graduate students is to take good care of your health –both body and mind. Getting a Ph.D. is not an easy task. Keeping up with exercising is a great way to relieve stress as well as to stay energetic and productive. Number two, I would say, don’t worry too much about what you want to do in the future. Speaking from my own experience, I think it’s more important to focus on what skills you want to learn (building a “tool box”), what topics actually interest you, and knowing what you are capable of doing so that you would be prepared when it comes to career choice. This brings me to my third point that it is important to know your own interests. I wouldn’t have made through two hundred pages of my dissertation if it’s not for my actual interest on the topic. Having some internal source of motivation makes the whole research process more enjoyable. Finally, I think it would be nice if you could find a role model to follow during your time in graduate school – either a professor or a peer mentor who can provide you with advice as to how they got there.
Wendy contributes regularly to the Pew Research Center blog “Fact Tank.” She also blogs about research findings on her personal blog.She is also on twitter:@WendyRWang.
Shengwei is a 2nd year graduate student.