A Recent Graduate's Story
More than anything else, I would like to express my gratitude to Roanoke College's Sociology Department and its faculty. I graduated with a B.A. in Sociology in 2009 and now my academic career has taken me to Europe. I am completing an MPhil in sociology and political theory this year at Cardiff University. My classical doctorate will be obtained at Cardiff University, Die Freie Universtät Berlin or die Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in sociolinguistics and multicultural/intercultural theory in an EU policy context. The graduate system in Europe is incredibly competitive; they do not accept any undergraduate who is not fully educated in either the liberal arts or the classics and it is impossible to succeed in a European program if you are not already an independent thinker. My success in the European graduate system's social science programs is due in large part to the training and education I received through the sociology program at RC.
Research degrees in Europe - both in Britain and on the continent - are usually obtained in isolation and independence. Meetings with supervisors may be regular, but they do not necessarily occur very often. Students rarely get together to compare notes and to share their experiences and woes. Each research student is expected to manage their own time and to figure out how to complete a research project on their own from start to finish. At the same time, in order to minimize the isolation, we are expected to participate in the academic research community by running and organizing academic conferences or giving presentations in other countries. It is left up to us to find these opportunities and get the most out of them. I remember my shock when one of my supervisors told me, "The library is over there. Now go get your degree. Try to steer a few conferences a year while you're at it." The independent studies at Roanoke College with my supervisor (Dr. Meeta Mehrotra) were excellent practice; the shock would have been greater if it had not been for them.
It takes a great deal of internal structure to make up for the lack of external structure in the European system. Ironically enough, for the first time, I was truly grateful for the sheer volume of work that my professors at the Sociology Department had assigned me during my studies there. The numerous readings, assignments and exams gave me the organizational and time management skills that are essential to working alone and on one project day in and day out. In fact, working on merely one thesis and chairing conferences and giving presentations on the side at least felt easy in comparison after the amount of work I had to grapple with in undergraduate.
The endless readings that my professors assigned had a wonderful side effect - it gave me a great deal of general knowledge about sociology (!). All of that information that I had gleaned from thick books and dense texts finally had some other use besides just passing exams. There is no required coursework for research graduate degrees in Europe. There aren't any seminars or any required readings. They expect you to already have a great deal of knowledge. It's just you and your degree. The theoretical grounding and rigorous, methodological education that I had received at the Sociology Department allowed me to execute my research project quickly and effectively. In fact, one of my supervisors, Dr. Colin Williams, who advises the Basque, Catalonian, Quebecois, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh governments in regards to minority language policy and planning, commented on my theoretical background. 'It is such a relief,' he said, 'to have an American student who has such a strong understanding of sociological theory and methods!' A compliment coming from such a well known and well connected think tank scholar meant a lot to me. But, if it had not been for my core courses (such as Dr. Dunn's Social Theory, Dr. Wills' Research Methods and Research Seminar, Dr. Berntson's Data Analysis) and my electives (like Dr. Mehrotra's Social Stratification, Prof. Brogan's Juvenile Delinquency, and Dr. Leeson's Anthropology), I would not have had an education that would allow me to make it in the European system.
But the most important skill that I learned at the Sociology Department was the ability to think. As one professor said to me at Cardiff, "You're a researcher now. You shouldn't have to memorize a bunch of facts and write it out on an exam. Go out there, read the current research, disseminate it, and figure out if it will help you answer your research questions." Furthermore, at the graduate level, you are taught to identify the gap in a body of information and then you are expected to determine the questions that will fill that gap. This is an abstract skill and it is more difficult than it sounds - it requires you to step back, see the bigger picture, make connections and identify correlations that are - and are not - there. All of the small research projects and term papers for my sociology courses - which required me to investigate the relationship among knowledge of the social world, theory, facts, statistics, and methodological practices - prepared me for learning such an abstract, thinking skill, one assignment at a time.
I greatly appreciate the education I received through the sociology program - it has given me the skills to grapple with social theory, contemporary public policy, and methodology on a daily basis. So a big thank you to the Professors of Sociology at Roanoke College!
- Lucy Vazquez Morrow
7 February 2011