Sociology at John Jay (feat. Richard Ocejo)
Alumni Aloud Episode 18
Richard Ocejo is Associate Professor of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He earned his PhD at the Graduate Center in 2009.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Richard talks about what it’s like to make the career jump from graduate school to a tenure-track position, how to think about your professional development over the course of your PhD studies, his top tips to help you stand out on the academic job market, and how to hack your productivity in any job—whether it’s academic or non-academic.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: You’re listening to Alumni Aloud, a new podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career and the advice they would give current students. This series is sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at The Graduate Center.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: This is our final podcast episode of the semester and we thought it would be interesting to talk to a GC graduate who is still teaching at CUNY. In this episode I sit down with Richard Ocejo. Richard got his PhD from The Graduate Center in 2009 and he’s now an Associate Professor of Sociology at John Jay College. In this episode Richard talks about what it’s like to make the career jump from graduate school to a tenure-track position, how to think about your professional development over the course of your PhD studies, his top tips to help you stand out on the academic job market, and how to hack your productivity in any job whether it’s academic or non-academic.
RICHARD OCEJO, GUEST: My name is Richard Ocejo. I’m an Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY, primarily at John Jay College and I’m also at the Grad Center, where I went.
WALLACE: So it’s an interesting case, you’ve gone to the GC for grad school and now you teach at CUNY. Stayed in New York, all of that has worked out pretty well it sounds like
OCEJO: Yeah I tried to leave, they wouldn’t let me.
WALLACE: *laughs* So can you tell me a little bit about your journey of how you came into that position.
OCEJO: Yeah I mean, the short answer is that they gave me a job when I was done with grad school. It was just an open position that I saw and applied for toward the end of my grad school and yeah, it was the only one that gave me an offer so really I just stayed with them. But I always had the intention of staying within academia. So that was the position I was in, that I laid out for myself.
WALLACE: That’s great! You hadn’t been teaching at John Jay, so it was a fresh opening for you.
OCEJO: Yeah I taught at other CUNY schools but John Jay I didn’t really have experience with.
WALLACE: Where had you taught before?
OCEJO: I taught at Brooklyn, I taught at Bronx Community College, I was a Writing Fellow at BMCC downtown and I taught at Pace, so not at CUNY, a private school also downtown. Oh and I taught at the College of Staten Island once. So I did the rounds.
WALLACE: Nice, a lot of CUNY experience.
OCEJO: Yeah, yeah I had a lot of CUNY experience. Except Queens…always stuck with me.
It always has.
WALLACE: *laughs* You’ll get it one day. And can you tell me a bit more about your background? You went through the Sociology program here at The Graduate Center and you graduated in 2009?
WALLACE: And you said you were always really intending to go to an academic track.
OCEJO: Yeah, I think even when I didn’t really know exactly what that meant, I knew that I wanted to go to grad school to stay within academia. I think I liked scholarship, I liked the professor life. I liked higher ed, so I think I wanted to stay within it in most likely a professorial capacity. So I think that’s just the track that I put myself on from the outset in the Sociology program at the GC.
WALLACE: What’s your research about?
OCEJO: Broadly, my research is about…I’m an urban cultural sociologist. I do community studies, I’ve studied work, I study economy. I’m a primarily a qualitative scholar so I do a lot of fieldwork and interviews. And then my research has been on more specific topics like urban growth, gentrification, community conflicts, cultural change, transformations in work, economic transformations, and now I’m doing a study on a small city, small city growth and development.
WALLACE: Other than the small city aspect, New York would be the perfect place for you to pursue your research.
OCEJO: Right, yeah. And it was smooth transition for me in the sense that I did my fieldwork in New York and then I was able to stay here and continue working on that project. That turned into a book. While also continuing to work on another project I had started as a grad student that became another book later on. So I lucked out a lot by not having that break, right. I didn’t have to like put down roots somewhere else and figure out the lay of the land somewhere else. So that was a big benefit for me. That was luck obviously but it really helped me out.
WALLACE: What’s a typical day like, if there is such a thing?
OCEJO: My favorite part is there is no typical day. I guess every day is very, very different which I like because I learned pretty early on in my life that I did not like routine, a routine I didn’t create I guess. I didn’t like doing the same thing every day, I didn’t like having to go to the same place every day and I don’t like being told what to do. So that’s why academia worked really well for me, I could make my own schedule more or less. At some point I have to go somewhere to teach or do something but for the most part I can do it all myself. But I guess really, really general typical day…I mean I get up very early. I have a small child so this helps. I get up at 5 or so and get some writing done for an hour. And then no matter what happens during the rest of the day, I know I did an hour of writing. And I try to come back to it later on, then I’ll get my daughter’s stuff ready for school, I’ll bring her to school. And then I’ll usually go do fieldwork or do interviews. Or go to a café or library near my home to write, to read. It’s different every week, different every day. And yeah, in many ways it is a more enhanced version of the grad student’s life I would say. You’re juggling a lot more things, a lot more responsibilities as a faculty member but your kind of being groomed to do so at grad school.
I think CUNY does an especially good job of that. Well, I guess it’s like making virtue out of necessity because CUNY students teach a lot, CUNY students have side gigs you know, really to make ends meet. But in many ways that can help them later on down the road. Because they’ve proven that they could do it. That they could conduct their own research, follow up on a project while also teaching a course or two, maybe even a course or two at two different colleges you know. And while also tutoring or something or whatever kind of side project they have. While also contributing to their department on a committee or something like that. That’s more or less in a nutshell what the academic’s life is. So it was pretty good for me at least and CUNY students more generally. It was really good training, it was really good prep.
WALLACE: How are the responsibilities of being an associate professor similar or different from being a graduate student? You mentioned there’s also more responsibilities in addition to the research and the teaching.
OCEJO: There’s a lot more in the sense that your discipline asks more of you and you’re more involved in your discipline, if you want to be I guess. I am. So you get involved with your professional associations. In the American Sociological Association we have sections and they’re all themed around themes or sub-themes. So you can get involved or not get involved as much as you want or be a member or not be a member. But the more advanced you get, typically the more you do. So you’re on committees for stuff like that. Help mentor students from around the country. I’m working on a few, for instance, pre-conferences for our annual meeting. I’m doing a mini-conference at one of our regional sociology conferences. One of the big ones in the East. And you do a lot more reviewing of articles and papers and manuscripts and book proposals. And people start to call on you a lot more to help out, to read over stuff, to look over manuscripts, to look drafts, to mentor students. People funnel some of their students to you if they’re doing research that’s related to your own. So as your name gets out there a little bit more, people start to come to you. So that’s a big difference. So it takes up a lot of time.
WALLACE: And it’s obviously important to cultivate those relationship and service some good will for one’s career.
OCEJO: I benefitted from as a grad student some senior folks who would, you know, talk to me or mentor me or read over a draft I had or something like that. So this is pretty much growing into that role you know. That’s part of the job. Again, you don’t have to do it, it’s not like you get paid extra. But this is what the job means, I guess, is my definition of the job I suppose. And it pays dividends down the road, you know, people will do your favors, they will look after a student of yours or they’ll read a manuscript they have like a draft. Or they’ll invite you to come give a talk at their school or something like that. And a lot of people benefit from there.
WALLACE: Yeah, it’s not always made explicit to students to think about cultivating those relationships early also in the program.
OCEJO: It’s really important. People say that conferences are all about networking and stuff like that, but that’s really true. That’s mostly what it’s about, is meeting other people, networking. Even other graduate students you know. Just meeting anybody you can who has in any way something that’s related to what you do or that you find interesting. And making that effort to get your name out there, right, in some way. It’s really important, it’s big. It can be tough to do in a material sense. To you know go to different conferences, to afford it. It’s a social practice, so you don’t just go up to people and start talking. But it can pay dividends if you want to stay within academia.
WALLACE: That’s a good perspective. I know a lot of people don’t like networking. Seeing it as a practice, I think is liberating. These are just social norms.
OCEJO: Even people that are good at it, that do it well, say they don’t like doing it, they hate doing it, stuff like that. One of things that’s cool to say you don’t like it.
OCEJO: But its, yeah. It’s just one of those things, you pick up on it the more you do it.
WALLACE: Are there other responsibilities on the university-side? Services may be asked of you to perform once you have a position.
OCEJO: That varies a lot. I have colleagues that have very, very strict service requirements almost from the jump when they start in their first tenure-track job. And then I have colleagues who are the opposite. They don’t really have to do anything or they’re sheltered, they’re protected by some of the senior folks in their department because they know that once you start it’s important to start publishing, starting a new project, start distancing yourself from the student record. Then a ton of people fall in between. So it’s a real mix. In my own experience, I think I did a decent amount of service when I first started. Some of it was pretty light and then some other service roles I had were kind of heavy in hindsight. That I maybe should not have done.
The best thing to do is to keep in mind if you’re going to go that route and get an academic job to be aware and not over-extend yourself. And realize that it’s going to be more important that you publish. Your record is going to be judged far more on the publishing aspect over the service aspect, probably. I mean every institution is different, every program is different, every department is different. But for the most part, you can get bogged down by it for sure. And you might not have senior folks looking out for you. But you might also. So I mean it’s just something to be very conscious of.
WALLACE: Right, I could see that it could potentially be overwhelming.
OCEJO: I lucked out, I got a job in the same city. I didn’t have to leave, I didn’t have to switch apartments. But let’s say you just finished up, a month later you’re packing up your bags to leave for a new city or a new rural area or a new state or whatever. Starting this new job and now you’ve got service responsibility and you’re adjusting to life there and you’re figuring out the traffic patterns. Maybe you have to buy a car for the first time, who knows. Your first year is pretty much orienting yourself to this place and this new lifestyle and this new role that you have. So if you’re on a tenure clock, you might have just burned your first year not publishing anything because you had too much service to do on top of adjusting your new life.
OCEJO: So, just a caution to be aware of. And that’s fruitful too, to do committee work that’s going to get your name out there in your academic community at your college or university. To meet people, you can introduce yourself to colleagues in other disciplines. And that’s valuable because you’re going to have to interact with those folks too. And at some point they’re going to be evaluating you and your record so it’s good for them to know who you are to a certain extent. But that said, you may want to pump the brakes and not give up so much of yourself and your time to something like that especially as a newcomer. So it’s a balance you have to figure out at some point.
WALLACE: So what do you enjoy the most about your work?
OCEJO: Reading. *laughs* I just I love… You know to me I get paid to read, to be a professional reader. I mean I have to write but I don’t especially like writing. I just do it because it’s part of the job. I like teaching, I like interacting with colleagues. But at the end of the day I think my favorite part is to be by myself and reading purposefully. Very few jobs that pay you to do that.
WALLACE: What about some challenges or frustrations on the other side of that spectrum?
OCEJO: I guess there is… and I think this is also something the Grad Center really equipped me for is that a big challenge is the amount of self-direction you need to do this job and do it well. Nobody’s mapping out a course for you or a path or anything like that. I have felt some friends who went to other PhD programs in sociology and their programs were very structured. A lot more structured than ours was in the sense that you put with an advisor relatively early on, early stage in your career as a grad student. Perhaps you publish with that person, perhaps you work on their projects, perhaps your dissertation is an off shoot of that project or falls under that umbrella. And you have that guidance, you have that direction. And then after that once you’re on your own and you don’t have all that support and all that structure and guidance the you can be a little bit lost.
And I had some friends who struggled with that a few years out of grad school. They just struggled a little bit to find their own way and to find their own identity. To chart their own course. The program in Sociology is a bit looser than a lot of those programs. So you had to really chart your own course and chart your course was very much encouraged in the program. Which is both exhilarating and liberating but also very terrifying because you don’t have that anchor, I guess or you know, you don’t have that map that’s really. You have to kind of figure it out for yourself and piece it together. But that cultivates a sense of self-drive that I think is important, that’s a challenge for this job.
You know you can wake up in the morning and your day can be spent doing nothing. Or you get up at 5am and you write for an hour and then you make sure you cover this and this and then you save emailing for this hour. So the self-discipline that’s involved in it. But you have to keep that up. That’s like a muscle, you have to work it. You have to cultivate and you have to keep working because it can stale and you get lazy. And you can just stop doing it. And then it kind of becomes a little meaningless or directionless and aimless and not very fulfilling.
WALLACE: I like how you framed it as a practice, as a muscle. It’s a way that you sort of work things to your benefit and everyone has their preferred way to do that.
OCEJO: I mean yeah, it’s a discipline, it’s a practice, it’s a job. You have to do it. So you have to figure out what works for you. I’ve talked to friends about what I do and they’re like “I can’t get up at 5.” I’m like “then don’t get up at 5.” Do something else, you know. It’s whatever works you know.
WALLACE: Are there any other things that spring to mind-frustrations or things. I know a lot of people might say grading.
OCEJO: Well one challenge I guess for grad students is learning how to juggle multiple scholarly responsibilities because CUNY students are good, like I mentioned, at juggling different overall responsibilities. Like teaching a couple courses, and TA’ing at Queens and teaching at the Bronx and Brooklyn but they live in Manhattan and they have a tutoring gig in Westchester and they still take courses and they’re doing fieldwork somewhere in Harlem you know. So that kind of stuff, they’re good at that. But where we really start to separate you from other candidates when you go onto an academic job is your ability to show that you can juggle a lot of scholarly responsibilities at once. So this is something that takes a while to really figure out. But learning how to work on more than one project or topic or chapter in a dissertation or article t once. It’s a big, big challenge that students have to learn. The earlier they learn the better. It’s not an easy thing to do. So like you send an article out for review.
The second you send it out, you start working on a second one. Some people just wait three months until they get it back and they spend six months revising it. A year and half later it’s like “great I got an article.” And that’s all you have. And where’s the next one? So if this is something that you’re interested in doing then you always have to have a few pots on the stove. And know where each one is at, at it’s level of readiness and once one is done then start focusing on another one right away even if it’s a chapter. Don’t rest on laurels, be productive. That’s what being productive is really all about. And this is not easy, that’s what I’m saying. It’s a level of competence you know, that students should really strive for.
WALLACE: Were there any other resources that you found especially useful or that you sought out or that you wish you sought out when you were a grad student?
OCEJO: Well the library was great. I always enjoyed working there. The staff were always very helpful in terms of getting what I needed, resources and so on.
WALLACE: The cliché of the competitive job market is a reality but also creates a climate of a lot of fear or uncertainty for students these days. And academia itself is changing a lot. So are there any other thoughts you have on ways students can professionalize themselves in different ways they may not expect could be useful to them? To show to a hiring committee when they’re going on the academic job market.
OCEJO: Yeah I mean, I’ve hinted at some of the obvious ones like networking and publishing, obviously, early and often If you can. Those are big. I guess I mentioned them but they shouldn’t be under-stated because they’re very valuable. The more people you can have in your corner, stronger a CV you can put out there, the better it’s going to be. Dissertation topic is important. There are ways to pick a dissertation that are strategic while also ensuring that you frame more important than the topic, maybe slightly more important, is also just how you frame that topic. CUNY inspires a lot of really creative ideas out of students. I think it tolerates a lot of really interesting topics. And if you look at graduation programs and you just look at title of dissertations and compare them to some others. You’ll see a pretty broad range of interesting, cool, cutting-edge topics in CUNY that may not be on the surface mainstream in that discipline. But anything can be mainstream if you frame it the right way.
So I think CUNY students let this freedom get ahead of them. And they can’t let it take them too far afield from some of the core discussions and debates and frameworks that are being used in their discipline. Because that’s what will really shine a light on their work in a way that others may not have thought about before. One thing my advisor always told me- there is that CUNY context but there’s also that New York context. Which, you know, the rest of this country founds strange. Not strange, but once you’re a New York person that’s it. You’re doing weird New York stuff which doesn’t exist anywhere else because it’s such a rarefied, unique city. What are you going to do here in South Dakota or wherever it is? That could be a little bit of a challenge for some CUNY students to get. If they have a really New York topic I guess may be a potential problem for them. Unless they really work to frame it as something that is very relevant no matter where you are because it’s dealing with some of these very central debates and key trends of processes that are occurring in cities across the country, around the world, whatever.
WALLACE: You applied to academic jobs awhile ago at this point and you got an acceptance right off the bat, so that decision wasn’t hard for you. Could you speak a bit about what your considerations, your priorities were when you went on the job market? I know this varies for all students.
OCEJO: Well I was single at the time, so I could have gone anywhere. I didn’t have any family, restrictions. I was willing to go absolutely anywhere. I think I applied to 30 jobs my first year, maybe that including 5 postdocs, something like that. And I think it was a mix. Sociology has jobs that are like an open call, meaning no matter what you do, apply. We’ll consider it no matter what your subfield is. And some are very specific to subfield. So I think I applied to a mix of maybe half open calls and the rest were probably some urban or community or qualitative methods or some type of culture maybe type jobs or something like that. So geographically it was broad. So when I was on the market, I was pretty much an open book, I would have gone anywhere.
WALLACE: And John Jay’s known for criminal justice. Did that fit well or was that an adjustment to move to fit in with that institutional framework?
OCEJO: Not for me, I mean it’s something I asked when they hired me because I don’t do criminal at all. I’m pretty sure it’s because they were expanding their liberal arts programs and they wanted to add…they were adding majors that they had lost during the fiscal crisis in the 70s and sociology was one of them. So they were looking to round out their department and found some folks who didn’t just do crime or the law or policing or gangs or whatever, those kinds of topics. I never felt any pressure to do anything other than the research I was doing. You know, that’s something to keep in mind I guess, if you go on the market and you see a school that may not seem like a fit. But do the research and you may find out, “hey I would be a fit here” because of some type of parallel or intersection between your work and what goes on there that you never thought about before. Or because you will be that missing piece, you will round out a program or a department or a curriculum that you never thought about. You don’t know what they’re looking for so you never really know.
I guess related to that there’s also interdisciplinary programs and departments that exist out there. So at John Jay, we had a large police science department. I don’t know how many programs there are but there‘s no such thing as a PhD in law and police, it doesn’t exist. That’s an interdisciplinary department so if you studied the law or policing from whatever background then that’s a pretty good department. So there are sociologists, there are criminal justice scholars, there are criminologists there, there are policy people there, there’s some forensic people there, there are former cops and former law enforcement there. So if you’re someone who does research in a particular subfield, that could work in one of those big-10 interdisciplinary programs like cultural studies or a gender studies or a women’s studies or a sexuality studies or Africana studies or Latin American studies or whatever. Go for it because it could work. My friend is at Arizona State and they did away with traditional discipline-based departments awhile ago and more places are starting to do that. So look around, you don’t just have to stay in your discipline. Your work could fit someplace else and you might be happy there.
WALLACE: Yeah that’s great advice. And one thing I wanted to circle back around to is you were at CUNY as a grad student, you work in CUNY now as an Associate Professor. Do what extent and how do you think that that CUNY experience helped you in getting the job?
OCEJO: I think it helped me, as I mentioned, in terms of I was able to show that I can do a job, I can juggle multiple balls at once, do multiple responsibilities, that I could do it in New York, that I could do it with a CUNY student population which is unique in many ways. Commuter school, urban public school. Lots of people from under-represented populations, a lot of under-privileged folks, a lot of non-traditional students. So older students, students who work, students with kids, students who have been in school for a long time that are in year 7 or whatever. I showed that I could do that so I think… CUNY does hire a lot of Grad Center students. I mean, it doesn’t seem like it but they do compared to other programs that they take from. And I think that‘s a big reason because CUNY students have shown that they can work within this giant being that we call CUNY. Which is large and complex but is very unique. It’s a very unique place.
That’s something to accentuate no matter where you go. You look at job ads now, they all say that “we’re a diverse school” and have a diverse environment and all that stuff. And they all want you to show somewhere, maybe it’s in your teaching statement, maybe it’s in a separate diversity statement. How do you deal with diversity? How do you use diversity? How do you respond to the challenge of diversity? Whatever it is. And if you’re a CUNY student, you know that inherently. You just have to think about how to articulate it. But it can really take it very long way if you really do it right. That is a piece of experience that very few students coming out of a lot of grad programs have that CUNY students have. They don’t just have teaching experience and teaching on top of doing scholarship and research on top of doing service, but they have it in such a diverse student population as CUNY has. The onus is on you as the student, as the candidate to translate that to other people so that they really understand where you’re coming from. And if you can do that, then I think that, that comes across as a really strength, as a real asset.
I guess you know, use whatever resources your department has. If they don’t have it, make it. You’ve got to strike while the iron is hot or you have to learn how strike until the iron is hot. That’s probably some advice I would have. If your department doesn’t have mock job talks or would do like a mock presentation. Like you got on a good panel on a conference and you want to practice it and your department doesn’t do that, make it. Then gather colleagues, gather friends, talk to your advisor, talk to some other faculty members. See if they would sit for 15-20 minutes and listen to your presentation and give you feedback on it. Stuff like that. Be proactive, would be advice I would give. Create your own environment to succeed. In many ways, this is your career. No one can want it more than you otherwise it won’t work. So you have to take initiative and put in the hours.
HOST, VOICE-OVER: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I’d like to thank Richard for taking the time to join us and share his advice on academic career preparation. I’d also like you, our listeners, for joining us every two weeks throughout this academic year on Alumni Aloud. We’ll be back with a fresh series of interviews with GC alumni working across academic and non-academic careers starting in September 2018. Be sure to tune in from our blog or on iTunes. Also, if you know someone who would be a good fit for an interview with us, please reach out to our office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a great summer!
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