A Year Later: 3 Gerontology PhDs Talk About Their Professional Lives After Graduation

One year ago, the Gerontology Institute blog brought together three newly minted UMass Boston PhDs to talk about their dissertation experiences. They discussed everything from original dissertation designs to the eventual defense of their work.

The blog recently reached out again to all three – Wendy Wang, Jane Tavares and Ian Livingstone – to ask them about their professional experience in the year following graduation. What happened after they received their degrees and how do they view their careers now? Here’s what they had to say in response to our questions:

Q: What are you doing now and how did you come to that work?

Wendy Wang: I am working full time as a post-doctoral researcher in the gerontology department at UMass Boston with Dr. Elizabeth Dugan. I used to work as Dr. Dugan’s research assistant on projects such as the Healthy Aging Data Report, dementia-friendly Massachusetts, and a scan of transportation services available to older adults in Massachusetts. At the time of my graduation, I was lucky enough that Dr. Dugan offered me a post-doc position to continue working with her on these projects.

Jane Tavares: I have remained connected to the UMB Gerontology Program and, based on my prior research experience, was approached about job opportunities at UMB. I am currently a research fellow in the Gerontology Institute, working for the LeadingAge LTSS Center. I am also teaching courses as an adjunct in the Management of Aging Services program in the Gerontology Department.

Ian Livingstone: I am working as a Research Public Health Analyst at RTI International assisting in the development and maintenance of quality measure in post-acute and long-term care settings. I started as a research analyst contractor after my second year of coursework and have been with the company since. Since defending my dissertation and graduating I have transitioned to a full-time role where I split my time between the quality measure work and an ASPE (Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) funded project examining the financial impact of minimum wage increases on the nursing home industry.

Q: What skills that you learned as a PhD student are most important to you now?

 Wendy Wang: Research methods, critical thinking, writing skills, and using multiple software to generate maps, analyzing data are all essential skills to my current work. But I think the most important skills I learned from my PhD training are the ways of thinking and the ability to solve research problems.

Jane Tavares: I spent a significant amount of time as a PhD student learning about and utilizing the Health and Retirement Study both for coursework and in other research projects with colleagues. Having so much experience with that survey data, paired with the advanced statistical analyses techniques I learned and honed in the PhD program, has directly led to many of my work opportunities. Although it’s a challenging survey to work with, it affords so many possibilities for in depth studies on various aging topics. I’m grateful to have been able to steep myself in it so deeply during the course of the program.

Ian Livingstone: I think it’s a combination of everything. To be successful you should have a good understanding of statistical analyses/methods and study design to carry out the work. But you also need to disseminate and communicate your work to others so writing is also a very important skill to have.

Q: Is your career path clearer now than it was at the time of your graduation? Do you now have a better sense of your opportunities over the next five years or beyond? 

Wendy Wang: Yes, I find myself enjoy doing research, and would like to apply for an academic position after finishing my post-doc. I am gradually building up my experiences in writing manuscripts and conducting grant-funded projects. I believe these experiences will make me a stronger candidate than I was at graduation when I am on job market.

Jane Tavares: I would say that my career path has become clearer for the time being. I’m currently a stay-at-home parent to our toddler son while also balancing my professional career. Although I had initially pictured aiming for an academic tenure-track position after graduation, my current positions as a research fellow and an adjunct are perfectly suited to my family circumstances as well as my interests. I am really enjoying both my current research work and teaching, and I can see myself doing this work for a quite a while. That being said, I certainly won’t rule out a tenure-track position in the future should the right opportunity and life-timing align.

Ian Livingstone: There is a lot going on at RTI so we hear about other projects people are working on. Some of the projects use similar data or work with the same client (divisions within CMS) and seem interesting. I do think I have a better sense of the opportunities that are available because of my exposure to these other projects. I do not know exactly where I will be in five years or even what I will be doing, but exposure to different projects and communication with colleagues opens doors and allows you to think through the pros and cons of each.

Do you miss any part of being a student and the student experience?

 Wendy Wang: My life has not changed much because I am still in the same program as when I was a PhD student. However, I miss the time when our cohort worked together on class projects, shared ideas, and hung out together. Now I am working more independently. I also miss the fact that, when I was a student, the registration fee for conferences was much cheaper.

Jane Tavares: I really miss all of the personal connections and exchange of ideas that came with being on campus. I always found such a great sense of camaraderie with fellow students, faculty, and staff in the Gerontology Department. Having that wonderful support among such passionate individuals who held a wide variety of interests was exceptional and unrivaled.

Ian Livingstone: I do – at times the coursework or being a student was stressful but it was always exciting. It was nice being on the academic schedule because things were changing every 3-6 months. Plus it was nice to operate on your own schedule and do work when it was best for you.

Q: What advice would you offer current students about their studies and future career?

Wendy Wang: I have two bits of advice. First, think about time management. For students who are taking classes, enjoy the deadlines. Although it’s painful to catch up for deadlines, you will feel a big relief afterwards. For students who are working on their qualifying exams or dissertations, separate time for work and relaxation. Try to set up a daily or weekly goal, and leave a day or two to relax. My second bit of advice is to think about your future job and prepare in advance. Then you will be clear on how to allocate your time, build up your CV and be well-prepared when you are on job market.

Jane Tavares: My best advice would be to always keep an open mind and utilize the resources you have to the fullest. Don’t box yourself into one topic or interest and take time during the program to test out or learn new areas and skills; it’s the best time to experiment and find your passions. The faculty and staff in the Gerontology Department are so knowledgeable and have invaluable experience in aging and academia in general. Take the time to have conversations and exchange ideas with them. And ask a lot of questions, you’ll be amazed by what you can learn! These connections you make now will be invaluable not only as you move along in the program, but also in building your post PhD career

Ian Livingstone: Live and be in the moment. Get everything you can out of your studies and try not to think about the future, unless it is in a motivating way. Opportunities will always exist but knowing what it is you want to do and how you want to spend your time is important so you know what opportunities to pursue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *