Peter Lista is currently a first year graduate student at Indiana University where he’s pursuing a MA and PhD in sociology. He graduated from The College at Brockport in May 2012 with a BA in sociology. His research primarily focuses on studying organizations–how they respond to crisis and change in their environments and how the people embedded in them enable organizations to act.
Q: Briefly describe the research you’re doing with Dr. Eric Kaldor. How did you get involved in the project?
I have worked extensively with Drs. Kaldor and Moulton since the beginning of my junior year. At first, I was a research assistant and collected financial data on 500+ Community Development Loan Funds (CDLFs) from their IRS 990 tax forms. During that time, I was thinking about changing my major to sociology and wanted to do a senior thesis that would help me get into graduate school. That next semester I started a new project, which eventually developed into my senior thesis and the paper Dr. Kaldor and I are currently working on together.
In that paper, we look at how CDLFs changed the accountability data presented on their websites between 2003 and 2012 in response to the 2008 financial crisis. I collected financial data from IRS 990 forms and performed content analysis on 117 organization websites over four time points (using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine). We found that instead of presenting quantitative measures of performance (amounts lent, clients served, etc) like they did prior to 2009, CDLFs began focusing on qualitative “trust building” measures like case studies and organizational histories.
Q: At what conference did you present the research? What was your conference presentation experience like?
We have presented this project at a bunch of different conferences:
- 2011 New York State Sociological Association annual meeting at Sienna College
- 2012 Eastern Sociological Society conference in NYC
- 2012 Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action conference in Indianapolis
Each time we presented we were able to build on our previous work and bring something new to the table. Beyond just presenting your own research, going to conferences gives you the opportunity to go to interesting talks you might not otherwise have had the chance to see. It’s a very important part of your professional training as a sociologist and having a project to present at those conferences allows you to engage with the other researchers in your field. I highly suggest students looking to pursue a career in academia start early and take any opportunity to present they can.
Q: How did your experience at Brockport prepare you for graduate school?
I was really lucky to start working with Dr. Kaldor relatively early on at Brockport. I took his Introduction to Sociology course as a freshman and started working with him directly when I changed my major to sociology my junior year. One of the great things about going to a smaller school like Brockport is that professors have more time to work with you one-on-one. A lot of my friends in the PhD program went to larger schools and didn’t have the same opportunities I did to work on their own research as an undergraduate.
I was also a part of the Delta college program, which made it easier to work on research because I was already required to do internships and my senior thesis contributed to my required courses. Being able to do research, either working on a professor’s project or doing your own, is really helpful. It lets you see how sociological research is done and helps you think about whether graduate school is right for you. But again, more than anything else, I had a great community of professors and other students to work with in the sociology department.
Q: Was there a particular experience or course at Brockport that prompted your interest in graduate school? Tell us about that.
I always knew that I wanted to get my PhD, but it took me a while to find a subject that really interested me enough to make the extra seven years of school worth it. The one class that really encouraged me to look into sociology as a possible career path was Dr. Weininger’s Sociology of Culture course that I took as a sophomore. That particular class really got me excited about both the empirical and theoretical aspects of sociology and gave me prospective on the range of subjects sociologists study.
Q: How did you choose your graduate program?
I really credit Drs. Kaldor, Weininger, Moulton, and Guptill (and a number of other professors outside the department) for helping me choose what schools to apply to and where to accept. Applying to graduate schools is weird because you sometimes get into places you didn’t expect you would. That’s what happened to me. Indiana University was one of two programs of the nine I applied to that accepted me. If it weren’t for the guidance of my professors I probably wouldn’t have thought to apply there. The importance of having a network of people at your side throughout the process cannot be overstated.
I looked for schools where my own research interests fit well with the current faculty. Having a good fit with the program you are applying to is very important because you want to know that your interests are well supported by the faculty. I knew I wanted to get a research position when I graduated, so I chose programs with strong records for placing their graduates in other research universities.
It may seem a little petty, but program rankings are very important. If you’d like to work at an elite program when you graduate, you will likely have to have gone to an elite university yourself. This is dependent, of course, on whether you’d like to work at a research university or a liberal arts college. Research universities tend to hire from other top ranking programs. Likewise, colleges that focus on teaching look at your teaching experience, which you might not get at a top-tier university.
Finally, going to graduate school is expensive if you have to pay for it yourself. The one thing I’d tell any student who wants to get their PhD is that they SHOULD NOT go if they have to take out loans to do so. It’s just not worth the cost. Luckily, most PhD programs offer living stipends, health insurance, and tuition waivers so that you are supported while you are studying. Thinking about what type of assistance is offered is important to what schools you decide to apply to.
Q: What has been the biggest difference between undergraduate and graduate school?
The biggest difference is that most of your time is spent on projects you are directly invested in. Final papers are tailored to your interest area, methods courses can be applied directly to the work you are doing, and your time outside of the classroom is spent working on your own self-directed projects. There is a lot of freedom to do your own thing and work on the projects that are interesting to you. And that’s a great feeling.
Q: What projects you currently working on?
I am primarily working on my MA Thesis right now. The thesis pulls from the organizational ecology literature to look at how an organization’s age affects a variety of organization-level outcomes like structure, organizational culture, and various decision making processes. This is the first big project you write in my program and it gets the most attention. Of course, the final papers you write for class are usually the introduction, literature review, and methodology sections of a paper you could potentially be writing. So, you always have something you could be working on or getting ready to turn into a new research project.
Q: What advice would you have for sociology majors who are considering PhD programs?
I think the best advice I can give is more of a caution to potential PhDs. Graduate school is difficult and before you commit you NEED to know that you are ready to spend the next 6-7 years in school. That’s not to say that getting your PhD isn’t fun, or important, or fulfilling, but it can also be extremely stressful at times and it takes a lot to complete a program. Especially in today’s market, where there are way more PhDs than there are jobs in academia for them to fill, it is important to be sure you are making the right decision. I encourage a lot of my students to consider graduate school—I personally find it very rewarding—but there are plenty of other places to use your sociological imagination outside academia as well.
If you want to apply to graduate programs I suggest talking to your advisor immediately. Applying to graduate school (to a PhD program especially) takes a lot of time and effort and you should make sure to start as early as possible. Seeking out graduate students already in a PhD program is important too. We can answer questions about particular programs or more generally about the process, what to expect, etc. There is a network of Brockport graduates who have gone on to graduate school who would be glad to talk to you—myself included—just ask your advisor.