In the fall our department will be joined by two new faculty members, Andres Villarreal and Wei-hsin Yu. Graduates of the University of Chicago, they join us from Austin, where they currently work in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas. Rounding out their household is their four-year-old daughter.
As a demographer and a former Austinite, I jumped at the chance to ask them a few questions.
Your earliest degrees are in mechanical engineering (AV) and business (WY), but shortly after you earned your first degrees each of your research interests took a turn toward the sociological. Can you tell us a little bit about that process and how that happened?
AV: Several factors contributed to my decision to leave engineering for the socialsciences. First, I became very interested in the dramatic social and political changes going on in Latin America at the time (the late 1980s and early 1990s). In my native country of Mexico, pro-democracy forces were making headway against an authoritarian regime that had been in power for almost seventy years. Deep structural reforms were also underway intended to combat inflation, and liberalize the Mexican economy. These reforms were having serious negative consequences for a large segment of the population. I found myself wanting to better understand these social and political changes. I also became quite involved in student organizations opposing U.S. foreign policy towards Central America. I began spending much more of my time reading on these subjects instead of working in the lab. It was then that I decided to switch fields. However, I believe there is another part of the explanation, which in some ways has interesting sociological implications. My decision to leave engineering was in a very direct way also a result of having more opportunities available to me after transferring to college in the U.S. As a kid growing up in an industrial city in Mexico, there was considerable social pressure to study something practical, particularly something relating to business or engineering. If you were good at math, you were invariably encouraged to study engineering, which was considered both a practical and a relatively high status profession. So when I began college in Mexico I majored in engineering. There were few other choices available in the university where I started. There was certainly no department of sociology. When I transferred to a university in the United States after my second year, a whole new set of fields of study were opened to me. I found myself enjoying courses in the humanities and social sciences, with which I had no prior experience.
I am not sure I see a very strong connection between my training in engineering and my current research. I don’t think there are any substantive connections. But perhaps my training in engineering does affect my choice of sociological methods. All of my work so far has been quantitative in nature. I feel more comfortable with statistical analysis than other kinds of methods. I especially enjoy programming code.
WY:I went to college in Taiwan. Over there one chooses a major before entering a university, largely based on one’s score in the national college entrance exam. The business department in my university was among the most desirable departments in the country, and I had the exam score to get in, so I chose it with a very vague idea about what a business major entailed. Soon after I started college, I knew I was in the wrong business. I always found organizational behavior courses, especially the ones talking abouteconomically irrational organizational behaviors (e.g., isomorphism), more appealing than the courses about management, finance, or marketing. In the process of searching for what I wanted to do, I came to take a lot of sociology courses. I realized that my way of thinking about organizations and labor markets was really closer to a sociologist than an economist or a businessperson. Thus, I decided to move to sociology after graduating from college.
What does your research focus on now, and what drew you to that area?
AV: My current research focuses on three broad areas within sociology: international migration, race and ethnicity, and social inequality. I also retain a strong interest in the study of crime and violence, a topic in which I was particularly active earlier in my career and which I hope to revisit in the coming years. All of my research is carried out within the context of Latin America, with a special focus on Mexico. I am drawn to the study of Mexico because I want to better understand the society I grew up in and with which I still have strong ties. Beyond that, I have been known to roam around different topics, depending on what catches my attention. Sometimes it is a very pressing social problem that draws me to a particular topic, other times it is simple curiosity.
WY:My research has always been on work and inequality. I focused more specifically on gender inequality in the labor markets in the past, but in recent years I paid more attention to consequences of various work conditions, including psychological health, long-term economic outcomes, and marriage and family patterns. As to what drew me to the area, work (in the labor market) is always a very important part of my life, and I think it is the case for most people. Even people who work merely out of necessity spend much of their lives in the workplace. Given that we have to spend so much time and physical and mental energy on work, it makes sense to try to understand it more.
What do you love most about what you do?
AV: I love the freedom I have to explore any ideas that I find interesting. Very few jobs outside academia give individuals this amount of flexibility. I am sometimes amazed that I can make a living satisfying my own curiosity regarding social phenomena. Of course, on a day-to-day basis, academic research involves an enormous amount of grunge work. Each paper I write involves a lot of tedious work, including endless revisions to manuscripts. But there are also exhilarating moments of discovery. These moments constitute perhaps two percent of our work experience, but they are worth the effort.
WY:I am able to think of all sorts of random ideas and can actually get paid if I manage to convincingly demonstrate these ideas with data. It’s the series of somewhat sociological questions and observations that come to my mind every day that excites me.
Is there anything in particular that you think you’ll miss about living in Austin?
AV: I will miss some close friends I made over the years. I might also miss eating good breakfast tacos, but I am hoping I can find a good place in the DC area that serves them.
WY: Short commute. We live about one mile from the campus and spend very little time on transportation. The DC area is much bigger. There is no doubt I will end up spending more time on my commute.
And what excites you about coming to the DC area?
AV: I find the idea of living in a large and diverse metropolitan area exciting. I think the DC metropolitan area has a lot to offer culturally. I have already explored some of the attractions during my visits over the past year and a half, but I am looking forward to seeing more. Professionally, there are lots of important think-tanks and NGOs located in DC that do important work in my areas of interest.
WY: I never lived in the DC area, but I imagine that it has everything a large city can offer. I lived in Taipei, Tokyo, Chicago, and Singapore before Austin. Austin is not bad, but it is the smallest city I have ever lived. I always want to be in a more cosmopolitan area. Besides, the DC area is very diverse, with people from everywhere. As a result, I already have some old friends from high school or college in the area. I also think I will get to meet a lot of interesting and different people in the area.
Do you have any great advice for graduate students?
AV: Graduate school can be very anxiety-provoking. It’s difficult to balance one’s intellectual interests with practical concerns about finding a job. My advice would be to keep practical concerns in mind, but take the opportunity to explore topics you may have not encountered before. Oh, and learn as much about sociological methods as you can!
WY: If I have to give a general advice to graduate students, I would say, be open-minded and allow yourself to be exposed to things you don’t think would interest you. I changed a lot over the years in terms of what I found interesting and what I’d like to work on. I frequently found myself developing interest in things that I had not thought much about. I sometimes see students coming to a program with very clear ideas in mind about what they want to study, which can work really well for some. But at the same time, this way of thinking may limit a student’s exposure to other topics that he or she may find equally (or more) appealing. The same applies to methods. Students who are strong believers in qualitative methods sometimes won’t allow themselves to get into data and statistical analyses. They might just lose the opportunity to find out that they actually enjoy quantitative data analyses.
We thank Drs. Villareal and Yu for their easy and earnest responses, and we are newly inspired to find (or learn to make) good breakfast tacos in the area. The commute, however, is out of our hands.