Graduate School, Gender, and Taking Chances – A Conversation with Development Sociology PhD Candidate Katie Rainwater

Written by Keelin Kelly, Polson Institute Undergraduate fellow. For more information on the Polson Institute, visit our website.

To most, junior year in undergrad marks the start of seriously considering the question: Where do I go from here? In my case, I’m going to leave Cornell with a degree in Development Sociology and Environmental and Sustainability Sciences. What does this mean? Where does this take me? More importantly, where do I want it to take me? Getting a job, law school, graduate school, peace corps: the possibilities seem distant and uncertain. Yet the haven of undergrad isn’t going to shelter us for much longer. How do we know what’s right for us? The bright, intelligent faculty and researchers in the Cornell community have already ‘made it’ past the hesitation of undergrad and might have some ideas, but personally, I feel bad enough taking time away from their grading and research to have them explain Marx’s consciousness for the third time, let alone asking them their life stories. But maybe that’s what we need to start doing. The field of development doesn’t exactly have a linear career trajectory. We haven’t been studying for the LSAT since we were in diapers; we haven’t had our eyes on J.P. Morgan since we first walked down Wall Street.

Something I’ve always wondered is, why do people go to graduate school? Did most PhD’s always know this was the path they wanted to take? I sat down with Development Sociology PhD Candidate Katie Rainwater in hope of finding some clarity. For Katie, it wasn’t direct. She majored in anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill, and never had a clear idea of what she wanted to do after. However, she took a semester abroad in Thailand at UNC, which served as a defining moment in her undergrad experience. She fell in love with the culture, the people, and the language, and knew she wanted to return. After graduating, she moved to Thailand and immersed herself in Thai society. Ultimately, she decided to pursue a PhD to develop a critical voice; to analyze and understand labor injustice issues she was seeing in Thailand.

After hearing how Katie’s path lead her to graduate school at Cornell, it gave me both relief and wonder. Maybe choosing academia isn’t something that is for the select few. Maybe it’s for those that have a burning question about the world, and the drive to answer it.  But do we start graduate school right after undergrad? Jump in while the material is still fresh? Or do we give ourselves a break from the constant stress of deadlines and papers to enjoy life for a while? I asked Katie what she recommended. While she had waited longer before grad school, she advised, ‘for women who wish to have biological children, you should consider whether it’s important for you to have finished your PhD program and settled into a job before starting a family or whether you are okay with having children at the same time as you are completing your PhD program (often with limited to no parental leave/accommodation) and facing the precarity of the academic job market.” Katie recounted that she had seen her friends struggle with infertility after waiting too long to start a family, and that was something she didn’t want. She was torn; she knew she wanted a family, but she also knew that having a child while doing her PhD would be difficult. Attempting the impossible: she did both, but not without additional difficulty. It struck me that even in our progressive bubble of academia, the limits of gender still constrict women to making these difficult decisions. Family, or career?

My talk with Katie was an exercise in grounding planning in reality. Sometimes it seems like everyone at Cornell has a plan. Whether you’re doing research, applying for your next internship, or pledging this fraternity or that club, there’s always a careerist motive. There’s always a move towards the next step. While there’s nothing wrong with that mentality, it’s also alright to relax and enjoy the present. Often, the best opportunities tend to be surprises. In Katie’s case, pursuing what you like tends to lead you to work that you love.

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