Carr, Deborah S.
Ph.D., The University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1997
Department of Sociology, School of Arts and Sciences, New Brunswick; Rutgers
Areas of Interest: Aging, Social Psychology, Social Demography, Sociology of the Family, Work-Family Intersections, Death and Dying, Social Stratification, Gender.
When I was young I wanted to be either a journalist or a psychiatrist. I was interested in people’s lives, why they do what they do, and trying to explain it. Like many others, I was captivated by the interesting or quirky people around me. I was also interested in looking at patterns and I loved surveys. When I used to work at Baskin Robins in high school, I would notice the patterns that would emerge in age differences and ice cream flavor choice. Adults would go for the classic flavors, like pralines-n-cream, while children tended to like the sweeter stuff.
My original career path was to be a professional musician. All through high school and college I was in orchestra, playing flute. I also played piano and accompanied other musicians. Part of my school funding was from this involvement and I always had a main focus on music. However, I realized to make it as a professional flutist or pianist you have to be the absolute best. There are only two to three flutists in an orchestra. I decided that music should be a hobby rather than a career choice.
My first year in college I took a sociology course. I really loved it, and decided to make that my major. However, I did not decide to enter graduate school for sociology until three years later. After graduation from undergrad, I worked as a journalist because I thought it would be the most interesting thing to do. I worked first writing about commercial real estate development. I would have to interview the men who basically developed the New York City skyline. I knew nothing about real estate financing and development when I first started by job! I would read as much as I could on the subject and develop a list of interview questions. As a social scientist, I find I am doing similar work. I am trying to find out what is the “hook”, what is the interesting angle on this question, that other people haven’t looked at a thousand times, and how do I ask the questions to elicit the answers. There are a fair number of parallels between journalism and sociology. The major difference is scientific rigor and a higher standard for the type of data sources we use.
After writing about real estate, I worked for a business travel magazine which meant that my job was basically to fly to cool places and write about them. A few years later I realized that I was always writing about things that my editor would assign me. I wanted to choose what I wrote and I wanted to create the science I was often referencing in my articles. My epiphany to leave the field of journalism came after attending this business writer’s dinner in the south of Portugal. While listening to my colleagues talk about their favorite hotels and restaurants throughout the world, I remember thinking that we all sounded so arrogant! We were not helping to eradicate world poverty or developing the cure for cancer; we were writing about expensive hotels and fancy meals (that we got to experience on someone else’s budget)..
When I started grad school I was interested in gender and the political aspects of gender. I was recruited to work as a research assistant on a long-running study at the University of Wisconsin of all men and women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957, and who were then in their fifties. My work on this study started me thinking about how events from age twelve can impact a person’s life at ages thirty, forty, and even fifty. I started coming up with research questions along these lines. One of the first studies I did, and your first study signifies your scholarly”identity” in the social science world, was on whether how achieving (or not achieving) your early-life career plans affects your psychological well-being later in life. I was interested to see if someone who originally had aspirations of becoming a lawyer and ended up in a blue-collar field would be depressed or disappointed. I also sought to discover if it was the status difference that mattered or the substance of their work For instance, if someone had dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, would they be happier twenty years down the road if they were a high-earning attorney, or a piano teacher who earned only a modest salary?
I don’t feel like being a woman working in sociology has ever been an impediment in any way, at least for me. My specific field has become dominated by women, when you look at the statistics. I think if you’re good at what you do (and you treat others well), the rewards come and people respect you. I have been able to do pretty much everything that I want, professionally. I teach and do research on exactly those topics that I find most interesting. Getting published and receiving grants are the benchmark of success, not one’s gender.
My parents have had an indirect influence on my career path. I grew up in a blue-collar town with a father who was a piano tuner and a kindergarten-teacher mother who then stayed home to raise five kids. I felt that I never had the pressure to “top” my parents and that I could choose any career I wanted and my parents would be proud of me. My parents would have thought it was great for me to be a musician and I had tremendous latitude in choosing what I wanted to do. In some people’s eyes, social scientists’ ideas are supposed to come from “theory” rather than from the real world. However, we can’t help but turn to our own personal experiences to get ideas and to ponder interesting questions about human behavior. Many of the studies I have developed were influenced by my family. I have studied widowhood and the effects of death on the surviving family, which was partly inspired by my father’s prolonged illness and eventual death at a fairly young age.
In terms of mentor influence, I have been incredibly lucky in that I have worked with good, kind, supportive people at every stage of my career. I’m particularly lucky that my mentors also loved what they did, and were all at the top of their game, professionally. I am still to this day very grateful for my graduate school advisor, Bob Hauser, whom I still collaborate with. He says, even now, “I learn from my students.” I recently nominated him for a fellowship and have nominated two other former professors for membership and awards in a society which I was already a member. Writing recommendations for my former professors is definitely a rewarding – although an admittedly odd! – experience.
I think the most important “practical” thing for graduate students to understand is that publishing begets publishing. The more you do and write, the more opportunities you will have to write and publish and serve on interesting committees. I think the single most important message for them to know, overall, is that if you love what you do AND you’re very disciplined about actually doing the work (rather than just thinking or talking about doing the work!), you’ll be successful at whatever field you choose.
Transcribed from interview with Christina Leshko.