Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Jenna Christian - Penn State

Name: Jenna Christian
Family: No kiddos or spouse!
Major & Minor:
At Eau Claire I was a Comprehensive Geography Major. I’m at Penn State University now, doing a masters degree in Geography, with the plan to also doing a dual degree in Women’s Studies.
Year Graduated: 2008
Current Employer: Penn State University/NSF
Length of Employment:
I am in the second year of my masters at PSU, and was being paid last year via teaching and research assistantships, although this coming year I am lucky to be on a fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
Interests and Hobbies:
Academically, I’m interested in issues of gender, war, and peace. More specifically, my research looks at how women’s peace movements change and transform through various phases of ‘conflict’ and ‘peace’, with particular attention to the way that peace and peacebuilding are defined and practiced in both public and private spaces. I am currently doing my masters research on these topics in Liberia, West Africa, which is a country rebuilding from fourteen years of war. I am also interested in feminist and postcolonial approaches to issues of power, representation, and agency, which help guide me as I struggle through trying to become a good researcher in a place where researchers (and westerners more generally) have not always been a positive presence.
…Of course I do have interests beyond academics, and when I’m not trying to work through the things above, I love to cook with friends (good Midwestern potlocks!), ride my bike, explore new areas, and paint (prior to becoming a Geographer, I considered being an art major). Part of why I liked geography is because studying it felt like traveling, so even beyond school, I love meeting new people and seeing/learning about new places whenever possible.

What helped you decide what route to take after graduation (i.e. graduate school or type of job)?
I learned as an undergraduate that I really liked to do research—talking with people about their lives and ideas, coming up with questions about why and how things work, exploring different ways to think about the world, and sharing what I learn in the process. Graduate school was a place where I would be able to do this, while taking on larger, more in-depth projects. I have also always been drawn to the idea of teaching, and being a part of an academic community, so it felt like a natural direction for me.

What do you think gave you to edge to get your current position?
Definitely doing undergraduate research projects helped me get admitted to Penn State, and helped me to hit the ground running once I arrived. For example, I know I would not have been prepared to write a proposal last fall for the National Science Foundation fellowship I received if had I not already had the experience of applying for a UWEC Student-Faculty Research Grant or conducting research in Liberia as an undergrad. It gave me a least a better idea to start from with respect to how a proposal, and a research project more generally, might be formed. I have also been lucky to have good advisers and teachers who encouraged me to do these things, and advocated for me as I applied for grants and graduate school.

Describe your typical day at work:
Well, as I write this, I am in Monrovia doing my master’s research on issues of gender politics and peacemaking in postwar Liberia. My typical day here involves fighting to get transportation (shared taxi) into town, doing interviews with many different interesting people, making phone calls to schedule more interviews, and (ideally!) meeting friends to share some food and talk in the evening. I’m learning about my research topics both in town at meetings, as well as more informally in the house and community where I stay, so (in a way) it’s all work—but it’s (mostly!) enjoyable work…
…Back at Penn State, my typical day at work involves getting up in the morning, heading to campus with some coffee. I’ll do some reading or writing in my office (shared with three other grad students). Some days I have class, other days I don’t. When I was a TA, I taught four 50 minutes discussion sections of Intro to Human Geography per week, with about 20 undergrad students in each section. Planning course material for that can take a good amount of time… Grad school is similar to undergrad in some ways (you’re a student, go to classes, have an adviser, etc), but different in many others. As a grad student I spend much less time in class, and classes are generally smaller, with a large amount of reading (at least for the Human Geographers, I know less about the way classes work for the other sub-disciplines). While course grades are important, the real focus is your research, and ideally your courses help contribute ideas or skills directly to what your research will be. We are expected to be pretty self-motivated in designing and implementing research plans, and meeting our academic deadlines, although different advisers may be more hands-off or hands-on. I end my day in the office any time between 3pm and 3am, depending on what I’m working on. Some people are more disciplined with their time than I am and never end up in the office so late, but I like to work at night. I guess I would say my ‘typical’ day varies a lot. I have the big scale ( J ) goal—the master’s thesis—to complete, but at the small scale I have a good amount of control over how I spend my time.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Completing a Phd, (hopefully!) and just entering the job market. At this point the plan is an academic track job, but we’ll see…5 years is still a ways in the distance.

What advice can you give to those who are still in school?
If you’re at Eau Claire, take advantage of the opportunities to do undergraduate research. Not every school gives undergrads the chance to design and implement research to the extent that is possible at UWEC, and particularly in the Geography Department. If you’re considering graduate school this will give you a big leg up both in applying, as well as in succeeding once you are there. Also, take the opportunity to go and present at the AAG. If you are thinking about grad school, it’s a great way for you to get a sense of what type of work graduate students in Geography are doing (i.e. everything under the sun!) at both the MA and PhD level—as well as a way to see which schools might be good fits for you (based on who is doing work that resonates with your interests). It’s also a good place to meet and network with potential graduate advisers if you are really on top of it. Finally, I would say don’t jump into grad school too fast if you aren’t sure about it. I took some time off in the middle of my undergrad, and took advantage of some other opportunities to travel and study abroad, which really helped me figure out what type of work/research I would want to do once I actually started a graduate program. The experiences that you get from travel, internships, jobs, etc are things that will help you get into better programs and do better work when you get there.

PS: There is a good book Ezra lent me when I was heading to grad school. It’s geared toward the Humanities, so it’s a bit different than a Geography program works, however it still gives a decent sense of what you might expect in a grad program—from time management to department politics: http://www.amazon.com/Graduate-Study-Twenty-First-Century-Humanities/dp/1403969361

Anyone call feel free to get in touch with me about whatever:

Jenna Christian
Masters Student
Pennsylvania State University
Department of Geography
302 Walker Building
University Park, PA 16802
715-559-2431

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