Alumna Spotlight: Sara Raley (by Megan Wilhelm)

 Raley Sara -ProfessorDr. Sara Raley graduated from the department in 2007. She is now an Associate Professor of Sociology at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. Her research interests include demography and gender, work, and family issues. Dr. Raley has publications in a number of journals, including the Journal of Marriage and Family, the Annual Review of Sociology, and the American Journal of Sociology. In 2012, she received the ASAI SAGE Teaching Innovations & Professional Development Award.

 I was able to connect with Dr. Raley and ask her some questions about her time in the department, what it’s like to be a professor at a small, liberal arts college, and her advice for current graduate students who might be interested in following a similar career path.

 What have you been up to since graduating from UMD?

After graduation (2007) I went straight into a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor at McDaniel College in the Sociology department. I got tenure two years ago and went on sabbatical–which was glorious–last spring. I’ve kept busy teaching and publishing and even briefly returned to the UMCP sociology department during my sabbatical.

What is the focus of your current research, and where do you think it is headed in the near future?

I may sound like a huge bore, but I haven’t moved that far from my focus in graduate school which was (is) on family time use, the gendered division of labor in the home, and father involvement. I have started to paying closer attention to issues of racial variation in the gendered division of labor in some of my work as well as variation by educational attainment, but I still research in the same general area.

How has your personal background influenced your research interests?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and am still not sure of the answer. My mom was involved in the feminist movement in the 1960s and I’m sure reading Our Bodies, Ourselves at a young age while she campaigned for Geraldine Ferraro helped to push me in the direction of gender issues, but I’m not sure about the rest (work, family, and demography). In college, I was always fascinated by the idea that it seemed as if some women were selecting majors and careers with the thought of tending to family responsibilities in the future whereas this did not seem to be the case for men. So, that may have been where I began thinking about the intersection of gender, work, and family. And then I have always loved numbers and statistics, so demography sort of makes sense in light of that interest.

Why did you choose to attend UMD, and how did the program help you get to where you are now?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was utterly clueless about graduate school programs and was generally looking locally (I was a Virginian resident at the time). I wanted to teach college, but I was so naive about what being a professor involved and had almost no idea how to conduct research (or that I would even be expected to do so as a faculty member… I know… utterly clueless). It was dumb luck that I ended up at Maryland and got to work with Dr. Suzanne Bianchi shortly after I enrolled. I pretty much owe my entire career to the opportunities that my advisor Suzanne gave me and the preparation I got from the faculty at UMCP. I worked hard when I got those opportunities, but I really see myself as having lucked into them. Seeing as how my advisor was also a tough cookie, I also spent most of my graduate career somewhat terrified of disappointing her, which I think is key. Strong advisors are to be loved and feared.

What would you say was the most useful class you ever took at UMD?

I’m going to cheat because I can’t pick just one. In terms of my areas of interest, Harriet Presser’s “Gender, Work, and Family” course will always be legendary as well as Suzanne Bianchi’s “Family Demography” course. But I would have never gone down the path of demography if it weren’t for Joan Kahn’s “Demographic Techniques” and I could not function as a quantitative sociologist without the statistics courses. Even though it isn’t ultimately my area of interest, George Ritzer’s theory courses helped me to think creatively about the importance of theory, and I even published a chapter in his McDonaldization reader which remains one of my favorite things I’ve ever published.

What is your favorite thing about being a professor?

Mentoring. I am passionate about teaching, but even more than that, I get the most out of making a connection with a student and mentoring him/her. I was just a reference for a former student who got a job with the UMCP campus police to address issues related to Title IX and rape culture as well as another former student who is just wrapping up her law degree and plans to work with issues related to gender and immigration law. It’s so energizing to help coach students into careers where they are applying their sociological training. Given that sociology is engaging but not always the most uplifting subject to teach, students who are inspired to get directly involved in issues of social justice make all of the little frustrating aspects of my job worthwhile.

I know you only asked for one thing (see, faculty members are just as bad–if not worse–than students when it comes to following instructions!), but I also think a lot about my autonomy and how valuable that is. I have autonomy to teach classes how I please and to research what I want without having to get special approval (beyond IRB). I don’t think I fully appreciated this until several of my graduate school friends went to work for the government and non-profits and I saw the hoops that they had to jump through to do the kinds of things I do without any real oversight. It’s hard to put a price on that. Of course, my friends also make substantially more money than me, so I guess there is a tangible price!

What do you find to be challenging as a professor?

People are both the most enriching and most exasperating part of my job, as well as life in general. I am lucky to have some terrific students and colleagues that keep me going, but then of course there are also the energy-zapping people that drive me bonkers for various reasons (the top one being a sense of entitlement).

And on the flip side of the autonomy that I mentioned as being a favorite aspect about working as a professor, it comes with some challenges. One is the constant public scrutiny of the value of higher education (specifically professors). It is very diicult to shake the public perception that professors have “summers off” as well as long winter of prep and a few hours a week in the classroom, with lots of extra time for research. No. Good, strong teaching requires a lot of prep both in terms of time and emotional energy. I did not anticipate how much I would worry about presenting the lesson in the most effective and engaging way, how exhausted I would feel after an hour and a half class, and how much I would second-guess and fret about my classroom experiences (e.g. “Well, *that* discussion didn’t go as I intended… I should’ve framed it this way instead!”).

What advice would you give to current graduate students who are interested in a career similar to yours?

Come shadow me. Seriously, this is how I got into the job I have now–I shadowed a professor at McDaniel College. If you are thinking about a job at a small, liberal arts school, come follow me around for a day and see how I spend my time. It truly is the best way to get a sense of what this job is like. My email address is: sraley@mcdaniel.edu

 If you weren’t a sociologist, what would you be?

I would probably work as a consultant doing diversity training (which I do on a very limited basis right now)… unless I became independently wealthy in which case I would quit my job and just do some volunteer work. Mayyyyyybe I would adjunct every once and a while, but I am not one of those people who would “just keep working.”

What do you enjoy doing outside of your work?

Spending time with my friends and family. I also enjoy watching movies, knitting, reading fiction (yep, I’m old enough to be in a “book club”), working out in my Body Pumpexercise class, and rooting for the Orioles (recognizing how sociologically weird it is to have a favorite sports team, “Gee, I’ll root for these guys because they play in the stadium near my residence but otherwise have no real connection to me”). Perhaps the most important thing I learned in graduate school and from my mentor, Dr. Suzanne Bianchi, is that there is so much more to life than work and it’s important to savor all aspects of life.

Megan is a 2nd Year Graduate Student.

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