Graduate Student Reflections: An Interview with Herrissa Lamothe

This semester, in our spring series, PCURs will interview a graduate student from their home department who either is currently a graduate student at Princeton, or attended Princeton as an undergraduate. In, Graduate Student Reflections: Life in Academia, interviews with graduate students shed light on the variety of paths one can take to get to graduate school and beyond, and the many insights gained along the way from research projects and mentors. Here, Taylor shares her interview.


Herrissa Lamothe, 3rd Year Graduate Student in the Sociology Department

What’s your research about?

During graduate school, I became interested in learning how people know what they know. It’s essentially the idea that you as a person embody or have access to very rich cultural knowledge that is passed down to you through the people that you know in very subtle ways. At any given moment in time, you are actually operating on this incredibly rich, complex body of knowledge that is not only available to you, but is also available to the people associated with you. I’m interested in figuring out how to analyze knowledge like this–how it’s distributed not just to one individual, but to a group of individuals, and how to develop methodologies to do that.

As a personal interest, I want to know how this impacts inequality–does where you live and who you have access to affect not only what information you have, but your perception of the world, the assumptions you have for how you should function in society, and this kind of stock of cultural knowledge that you use to go about doing things like choosing clothes, taking care of your body, applying for a job–these types of knowledge that look simple in implementation but are really, highly complex.

How did you end up deciding to go to graduate school?

My adviser at the time recommended that I go to graduate school for Sociology, but only after taking some time off. They said that since I’d be dealing with really complex systems, it would help to have some experience in the environment that I’m trying to study. I didn’t think too much about it then. At the time, I thought I was going to go into policy program evaluation work, so I ended up doing that. But I did take a year or so after I graduated to RA for a professor at Harvard, and I got to interact not just with the professor, but with a post-doc who was closer to the graduate school process. Seeing them do things that I could do made me feel a bit more confident about applying.

After three years, I decided it was time. I believe it’s a good sign when your realize that you don’t just want to implement, or just evaluate work that someone else has done; you realize you want to question certain problems more deeply and come up with your own solutions that might differ from what is popular or accepted at that time. So I wanted to use graduate school to learn more methods and use new techniques.

Was it difficult transitioning back to school?

Yes and no. It was actually a relief to go back to school. It’s very freeing to not have people tell you what to think; it’s great to have people who appreciate your questions and to have people who understand that the answer isn’t the end goal. The process of learning and the process of researching is really what the graduate experience has been for me. It is amazing to be in that environment, to be around people my age who care about similar issues and who have also selected to be in a program like this one. I learn as much from them as I do from my classes. So that part was great.

It was hard because I had homework and it’s been awhile since I’ve had homework. Also, being in grad school, especially the first two years when you’re taking classes and developing a research agenda at the same time, is harder than a full time job. It basically takes over your private life. It was weird to realize I have no free time anymore because I am reading about my topic all the time, talking about it all the time, and I don’t have the separation from work and private life that I was used to before.

How do you try to separate the two?

People have different strategies. One is the 9am-5pm strategy where you essentially treat graduate school like a job. You come in, you work for your 8 to 10 hours, and then you go home. And then you enjoy time with your friends (the non-academic ones), with family, and you invest in activities that are not related to your research. The other option is to live away from campus. You don’t have the time separation, but you have the space separation. Whenever you’re here, for however long that is, you’re working all the time–fully immersed. But when you leave, you’re unplugged.

For my approach, I’ve found that it’s okay if graduate school takes over my life because I’m still early in the Ph.D. program. But I should be having fun. It’s okay if I am up till 4am or I lose my weekend as long as I feel excited while I’m working, I feel like I’m learning something, that there isn’t somewhere else I’d rather be. And the format I’m working in should feel pleasurable to me–instead of working at the library all the time, I’ll go to cafes, work outside when it’s warm, and read while I’m on the treadmill. I try to incorporate academia and research with my own life. And that’s just because I don’t think I could have either the time or spatial separation right now.

What was the most unexpected part of graduate school?

I first visualized graduate schools as classes, projects, and mentorship. I didn’t realize it would be a lot about me growing as a person. Right now, I’m taking my general exams, and the part where I am a student, learning and consuming knowledge, is ending, and I’m starting a process where I am creating knowledge. I’m realizing that this is not so much about what I know and what I’ve learned, but about who I am. Literally, your whole self goes into this academic life.

What is the best part of graduate school?

Freedom. Quite honestly, it’s not for everybody. Freedom can also be lonely and isolating. Someone told me before I started that academia is somewhere where you have to be comfortable with being in your head. You can brainstorm, you can have a support group, but at the end of the day, it’s you and your ideas. If you’re someone who finds that that’s really exciting and liberating, then you’re going to love it.

I found talking with Herrissa to be truly enlightening in shedding some light on what the graduate school experience is like. As someone who may be starting a very time-consuming job in the upcoming months, I especially appreciated her tips on strategies for creating a work-life balance. If you also enjoyed learning about Herrissa’s experience, you can read additional information here.

–Taylor Griffith, Social Science Correspondent