Joanna Pinto-Coelho ’09 is currently a visiting assistant professor at Bryn Mawr in the Department of Sociology and the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She earned a master of science in social policy and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.
In a Q&A just before the start of the Spring 2018 semester, Pinto-Coelho talked about the crucial support she received as a Bryn Mawr student from the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program; her current research and career path in academia; and how current students can benefit from what she has learned along the way.
She previously spoke with two other Mellon Mays fellows about the benefits of the program, in a story she wrote for the Alumnae Bulletin magazine.
On how current Bryn Mawr students can benefit from the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship opportunity:
This one I think I covered well in the piece I wrote for the Alumnae Bulletin, but I would say that MMUF helped me prepare for and get through graduate school. The Bryn Mawr program demystified academia for me, and then the financial support in graduate school was an enormous help. Perhaps the biggest help, though, were the two five-day workshops/retreats to work on our dissertation proposals and to finish our dissertations. They helped me get over difficult “humps,” as it were, in the process.
On ways that her Mellon Mays and Bryn Mawr experiences helped to make the daunting nature of research and an academic-focused career path seem less overwhelming (current students might find a rundown of Pinto-Coehlo's own research quite daunting, for example):
It is a lot of work, there’s no question there, but you don’t do it alone. The academic path often feels very solitary, especially if you’re a quantitative researcher, but there are ways to make sure it isn’t, you just have to put in some extra effort to build a support structure for yourself. MMUF is a first and critical step to building that infrastructure. Your MMUF mentor and your fellow fellows are your first touchpoints in your support network, and you build out from there — other fellows and program alums and supporters you meet at MMUF conferences, and then your graduate school cohort, your graduate school advisor and professors and committee members, other academics you meet and make friends with at conferences, your future teaching colleagues, even academics you make e-friends with on Twitter.
And in terms of the work itself, it accumulates over years. You have to start changing your perspective of what accomplishments mean, and start celebrating all the little victories along the way, because getting papers published takes forever, the research takes longer, and you’ll probably do a lot of job hopping. You get good, over time, at all the little hacks: you co-author things with peers and superiors, you try to turn anything you work on (e.g., paper for a class, conference paper, blog post) into a publishable journal article.
All this — and, you know, being a person in the world who does other things — can often feel overwhelming, I won’t lie about that. It’s important to remember that self care is absolutely critical, and whatever you may be feeling to that effect, you are never, nor have you ever been, alone. Taking care of your physical and mental health are very important, in spite of the popular image of the grad student who doesn’t sleep, only drinks coffee, and only eats pizza (the free, cold, and stale kind that lays around the department after meetings or talks). There’s absolutely nothing to be gained by trying to live up to that, or by playing "misery poker.” Eat well, sleep well, go to a therapist, take whatever medication you need, and set healthy boundaries in terms of taking breaks, and spending quality time with family and friends.
Your Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship mentor and your fellow fellows are your first touchpoints in your support network, and you build out from there.
On how she envisioned a career in academia as a student, and the differences and surprises compared to how she thought it would be:
As an undergraduate, I think I envisioned a career in academia as something that would come more easily. Perhaps it was naïveté, though I do recall professorship sold to us, in the abstract, as a vocation and not as a job, as a make-your-own-hours, spend-time-with-other-bright-people, get-paid-to-learn-all-you-want-about-the-things-you’re-interested-in kind of dream situation.
I know I’m only at the beginning of my career, but I also know it’s not like that now, and it probably won’t be later down the line. The job of an academic is a job, not a magical calling. You can think of it as a vocation, but that is often a dangerous path. Then your self-esteem and self-worth get tied up into it, and the constant rejection that’s a part of this career can really cut you down.
It really is a career like any other. There are politics and uncertainty, reasons to stay and reasons to go. We can’t afford to hide in our offices, our libraries, or even our classrooms or fieldsites, and think we are insulated from everything that’s going on in the world. Tenure is not safety, if we're lucky enough to have it. The world is changing, and we — as researchers, teachers, and people — have to constantly adjust.
On her current research (in early January 2018) and the shape it is taking:
I’m in Paris right now, in my research partner’s living room, and we’ve been working for the past week or so on a lot of things.
We’re working on a research project together — she’s the qualitative brains and the grant writer, I’m the numbers guy and the paper writer — that we first got funded through a grant from the France-Berkeley program last summer. We want to understand how welfare state structures (the “macro”) and interactions with social service agencies (the “micro”) facilitate or frustrate the integration efforts of Latin American immigrants to European and American receiving cities.
So far, our first grant has funded interviews in Madrid, ESP; Paris, FR; and San Francisco, CA, USA. In the next month or so, we’ll hear back about another half dozen grants for which we applied that would continue to fund our research. Some are actual block grants that would provide us salaries, health insurance, and research expenses over a year, two, or three as we do our international fieldwork; and others are postdoctoral or junior faculty fellowships that would provided similar packages over similar periods of time but in residence at a single institution in a single city.
This past week and half has been the first time since my research partner and I have actually physically seen each other in over three years! We met at a conference in Chicago four summers ago, when we were both living in Cambridge, MA, and we’ve been doing research and writing papers together since then. She is based in Paris, though she’s also lived in Palo Alto, CA over the past few years, and I’m now based in Philadelphia, though I’ve also lived in Washington, DC in that time.
So my research partner and I have spent a lot of time planning during this research trip. We don’t know what grants or fellowships we will win or lose, or exactly what we will do or where we will go if we do win any, but we still had a significant amount to plan. We outlined and plotted out “burn charts” for our articles and conference papers in progress, which means we made very detailed lists of every single task we need to complete for every current project, identified how long each task would take, assigned each task to one or both of us, and then blocked out time during each week of the semester to accomplish each specific tasks. Burn charts like these are so helpful when you aren’t working with hard or external deadlines, or when you’re working with a partner or a team, especially when your team member(s) live far away or in other time zones, because they help keep both of you on track.
We’re also making sure we share everything — books, articles, drafts of papers and grant proposals, spreadsheets — in the cloud so we both access and edit the latest version, and so we have access to the same information all the time.
We are also thinking long-term about our futures as academics, and how we can take steps in the present to position ourselves better for the futures we want. I told Marie that I had read a lot recently about the increasing importance of branding in academia (as opposed to its existing importance elsewhere in the world, and in other fields), so I’m revamping my personal website and adding a page on there for her (since she doesn’t have one), making another page on there for our shared research, developing a plan to blog more (and meaningfully), and getting her on Twitter.
As part of what the French call vulgarisation, which is the process of translating the academic into the more publicly consumable, we’re also going to do training with the Op-Ed Project and try to get opinion pieces and editorials published in English, French, and Spanish in the next few years. I’m also planning on learning R and system dynamics — the latter of which I’m convinced is the best way for us to accurately meld qualitative and quantitative methodologies.
The world is changing, and we — as researchers, teachers, and people — have to constantly adjust.