Liberal Arts (Law and Sociology Intern) Senior Shawn Lauzon
I began the semester with the goal to begin graduate school for Sociology in Fall 2009. I had already taken the GRE and scored a 1410. I received A's in both of my upper divisional Sociology classes, and they were both fascinating. I stopped in during office hours for a couple professors and had good conversations with them. In short, everything seemed positive on my way towards becoming a sociologist. Now, after much debate, I am planning on entering law school rather than sociology. I am glad of this change, and I can thank the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program for helping to adjust my career focus.
My background needs to be discussed before understanding why I made this decision. I currently work full-time at IBM as a software developer, and have been doing so for just under 12 years. While this job has been rewarding both mentally and monetarily, I have recently become frustrated with the relative pointless of the work. Sure, working on a software product that is used by companies such as eBay and Bank of America is important to the corporate world we live in. But when you examine the other issues in the world, enabling people to sell Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwiches doesn't quite measure up to any of the true global issues of our time. So after being out of school for over a decade, I decided to take a couple undergraduate classes to prepare for grad school full-time.
Psychology was my first choice: I had taken two enjoyable classes previously, and I also liked to analyze people and their motives. But I soon realized that while the classes were fascinating, having an actual career in the field didn't strike me as something that I wanted to pursue. My reasoning went as follows: 1) Helping a single person is a good thing. 2) Helping groups of people is an even better thing. 3) Psychologists study individuals, but sociologists study groups of people. 4) I should study sociology rather than psychology. Yes there are flaws in the reasoning, but that was it nonetheless. So the following summer I took an introductory sociology classes, where I met my mentor and friend, Chris Pieper. The class taught me to better understand the world around me and how interconnected people were - it just seemed to make sense.
When I began taking the IE program, I had completed 3 sociology classes, 2 of which were upper divisional and extremely interesting. However, none of them required a writing sample of any length, and as I looked into grad schools, I noticed that nearly every school required one. So I thought that the IE program would provide an excellent opportunity to produce a writing sample that could be submitted with my applications. I also planned to work with Chris and gain a better understanding of the type of work required in graduate school and in the field.
At least, that was my original intention. The beginning of the semester was a hectic time for me, so I didn't start on either goal immediately. Chris did, however, invite me to a symposium that he was coordinating called "Power, History & Society: What are the Big Questions?" sponsored by the Department of Sociology. The symposium was filled with grad students and faculty members, and so was a great opportunity to chat with these people about their work and ideas. It was interesting hearing about the research people were doing, but the majority of the information did not seem relevant to the current world around us - the emphasis was on creating theories rather than trying to solve problems. This same theme would be repeated to me when I interviewed my Sociological Theory professor, Ari Adut, for the second IE assignment. I had talked with him previously during office hours and after class, so it was easy to stop by during his office hours and talk with him.
My goal in becoming a sociologist was to do research which would help humanity in some way. I never did decide how specifically to relate research with pragmatic goals, but it still seemed a reasonable goal. Prof. Adut, however, thought that the role of the sociologist is to be completely dispassionate about his research, and offshoots such as public sociology were at odds with the true sociological research. This sunk in when I learned that his newest research was on the French Revolution which, although interesting, would not in any way affect life on this planet other than for a small handful of academics. I began to think that sociology was not the right path for me.
The other fact that I had not realized previously was how incredibly long it would take to get to a respected point in my career. Completing grad school and a dissertation takes around 7 years, and then becoming tenured was at minimum 5 more years, and likely much more than that. And to become tenured requires nearly complete dedication to the field, leaving little or no time for other activities such as raising a family. This may be acceptable for a 21 year old just coming out of college, but 12+ years for a 34 year old starts to look pretty intimidating.
So I thought that there might be a different field that would fit my goals. Perhaps economics, which I was also taking this semester, would be a better fit. I had been curious about economics ever since reading Freakonomics, but thought that a real class on the subject would be better than the pop literature I had already read. And I was right: I did learn a lot about economics and how economists think. Our textbook had some quotes from some well-respected economists talking about why they started studying economics, and they seemed to closely match my own. For example, one said that her "reason [for getting into economics] was that [she] wanted to benefit society", and another said that "economics was a profession where it would be possible to help make the world better." One of them even compared economics to sociology and concluded that sociology was not rigorous enough (which is a view that I also shared). So perhaps economics would be a better fit for me.
I discussed all of this with Chris over the course of a couple conversations, and his insight was extremely useful to me. He explained that while quantitative data is kept to a minimum for undergraduates, this sort of information is crucial to the graduate student and to the real-world sociologist; in the past, perhaps, sociology was not rigorous, but the current field is grounded in quite rigorous methods. He also confirmed that yes, the majority of sociologists, especially at the University of Texas, thought that the role of the researcher was to be above the subject matter, so as to not influence the resulting work. However, his own research was on social movements and how they change over time, with the intention of creating a blueprint for successful social movements which would be used in the real world. It was very refreshing to come full circle to hear that what Chris was researching was exactly what I wanted to research when I first started the program. However, that still left the problem of having to spend a significant portion of my life in school, and in the end I just couldn't justify it.
As for economics, it too fails to stand up to the reality of my current situation. Whereas sociology graduate study does not require a large amount of previous knowledge, economics graduate departments in general require 12 credits or so of undergraduate work, which would take an extra year to complete. Even if I didn't go to graduate school, getting another bachelor's in economics didn't appeal to me. Additionally the introductory course, which started out quite interesting, become more and more dreary as the semester progressed. We talked very little about economics applied to social or political issues, which is what I was interested in. Perhaps there is no way around this, as there is a limited amount of time available to teach all the material; still, it was a disappointing class.
With my options diminishing, I started to wonder if this whole going-back-to-school thing wasn't the wisest idea I ever had. Then I remembered something that Professor Adut said to me after class one day: "If you want to change the world, become a lawyer." At first this seemed odd: I didn't see how convincing people to sue others would do anything to improve the world. But then I started to see the work lawyers do, with respect to environmental law, international law and the like, and began to think that it might, finally, be the correct fit for me; certainly the friend who told me "you would argue with the Pope" thinks it is.
So, while the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program did not achieve what I originally intended, it was an extremely valuable program for me. Without IE, I would not have talked with Professor Adut about becoming a faculty member, would not have discussed the role of sociology and economics with Chris, would not have attended the symposium to hear what faculty members were researching, and would not have thought about becoming a lawyer. While I no longer plan to pursue a graduate-level sociology degree, I still plan on finishing my research with Chris that I promised. So it's always possible that I will change my mind again and pick a new career path. In any case, my experience with the IE program has been beneficial to helping me understand what career path I should follow and what people do in their fields.