Research Ruminations

Sara Wilf: A Journey from Nonprofit Work to Graduate School

In this article, Ishani Desai interviews Sara Wilf. Wilf is in her second year of the Social Welfare PhD program at UCLA’s Luskin School of Social Welfare. In this interview, they cover Wilf’s path to her current research and tips for undergraduate researchers on campus.

Ishani: On your CV, I saw you worked in India! What inspired you to travel there and what kind of work were you involved in? 

Sara: I traveled to India right after I received a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Brown University. I knew I wanted to do nonprofit work internationally— India was a good option because it had a lot of nonprofits that inspired me. Most recently in India, I was an independent program evaluation consultant. Program evaluation helps nonprofits understand the result of their work. 

Ishani: What motivated you to come back to academia?

Sara: While I was working with Ashoka—a nonprofit organization in India—I started reading the literature on the topic of my current research, youth civic engagement. I discovered some gaps in research and became very interested! Then, I started working at Mathematica Policy Research. Part of my job required me to write literature reviews on youth empowerment and education. I kept seeing things I wanted to study. 

In the world of program evaluation, a lot of people I admired had PhDs. I realized if I  wanted to advance in the field, I would need to attend graduate school. 

So I came back to academia because I wanted to gain the proper skills and make contributions to the literature. 

Ishani: How did you first form your research project? 

Sara: During the first year of my Social Welfare PhD program, I mainly conducted literature reviews. By reading many research articles to find a gap in the literature, I could determine which projects to pursue. I wanted to study youth civic engagement on social media. However, I didn’t have a definition of civic engagement. When I read the literature to find a definition, I found that youth civic engagement is really difficult to define on social media.

So, I decided to study how young people themselves defined and practiced civic engagement on social media.

Ishani: What are the research projects you are conducting under your advisor?

Sara: I’m working on several different research projects that can be classified as either qualitative or quantitative. 

An example of a quantitative study includes a collaboration between my advisor, a professor at another university and other PhD students. We are conducting a longitudinal survey of high schoolers across the U.S. Every month, we send them a survey about anxiety, stress, academic outcomes, civic engagement and the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, we analyze the results of that data set. 

My qualitative project involves examining how immigrant origin youth are using social media for civic engagement. We are using a new type of qualitative methodology: screenshots of young people’s posts on Twitter! Those posts become our data unit and then we will code and analyze those. 

Ishani: What is a major roadblock you have experienced when it comes to conducting research? 

Sara: I faced the biggest roadblock at the beginning of my PhD program. I kept asking myself questions such as: I’m in class, how does this turn into a research project? How does this turn into a publication? How does this turn into presentations at conferences? I had no idea how to turn nothing into something.

Ishani: How did you overcome that? 

Sara: As I said, the first year of our PhD program is devoted to identifying a gap in the literature. This process creates your research question which then determines your methodology. So, I started finding the gaps in the literature. I came with a research question: What is civic engagement on social media?  

Simultaneously, I was talking to a lot of second and third year PhD students in my program. They gave me lots of advice. By taking a deep dive into the literature and finding talking to people who were involved in similar research, I carved out my path. 

Ishani: What tips do you have for undergraduates who are applying to grad school or want to go to grad school? 

Sara: My first tip: contact PhD students! Ask them about the culture of their department. Every department is unique. By understanding the dynamics of each department, you will see how your research topic fits in. Information about the culture will help you figure out where to apply. 

PhD students can also recommend faculty members to contact based on your research interests. PhD students (at least in my field) are basically an apprentice for about seven years and work closely with their advisor—therefore, you should get along. Talk to other PhD students in that department about faculty advisors known for being good mentors. 

Furthermore, getting accepted into a PhD program can be based on luck. Faculty advisors can go on sabbatical the year you apply, or could be advising too many graduate students. You might get in one cycle and not get in the next year. Therefore, I highly encourage applicants to think of this journey as a two year process. This is a very normal experience for most PhD students. 

IshaniHow can undergraduates take advantage of their four years and be good applicants to graduate school?  

Sara: First: do research with faculty members! Build a relationship by going to office hours and ask if they have any research opportunities. If you can be an author on a peer reviewed paper, that is considered gold stars on your PhD application.

However, don’t worry if you didn’t conduct research when you apply (I didn’t). In the field of social welfare, having a demonstrated commitment to your research interest outside of academia is very important. At Brown, I did a lot of volunteer work with youth empowerment nonprofits and continued to work in that field after graduating. My work demonstrated I cared about young people’s positive development. 

However, this answer can vary per field and per department. Again, I refer you to my answer about PhD students—they know how undergraduates can get involved. Often, they are leading research projects and can involve you as well. 

Ishani:  How can undergraduates connect with professors? How do you recommend approaching them about research opportunities? 

Sara: You don’t need a relationship with a faculty member to contact them. You can cold email them! Write a brief message asking for an informal interview about their research. Then, read articles they have authored most recently and come with questions or observations to ask. 

You can ask these types of questions:

  • What research projects are you currently leading?
  • Are there opportunities for undergrads to be involved in your research?
  • Are there other faculty or PhD students who have similar research interests?
  • What skill sets do you look for when hiring students? 
  • What other undergraduate research positions could I apply for?
  • Once your project is complete, what do you hope to do with the research? 

It’s important to demonstrate that you have a genuine interest in their research topic and build a relationship. Then, you can ask about opportunities to be involved in their research. 

Ishani: What’s your end goal? What would you like to do with your research? 

Sara: I am at the end of my second year and therefore have at least two more years in this program. In the social sciences, there are many options. My primary goal is to become a tenured professor, although those jobs are difficult to get right now! I could work at a nonprofit, a research firm or in the government. There are even positions for social science PhDs in tech! Therefore, the short answer is: I don’t know.

Ishani: How should students make a decision between an industry job versus getting a PhD and going into academia?

Sara: So for me, an industry job means program evaluation with nonprofits. In order to get that job, I need a PhD. In that sense, I’m not choosing—I had to do academia first. 

One benefit of industry is much higher pay. As a PhD student in this field, you should expect to make $20,000-30,000 per year.

Also, getting a tenure track position in academia is very competitive. It is not a job with traditional hours. In industry, I have heard there is a better work-life balance.

However, if you are self-directed and like to be in control of your projects, academia is the best place for you. In the corporate world, your managers generally tell you what to research, whereas in academia you get to choose your projects. 

Another benefit of industry (tech, nonprofits, or government) is the opportunity to make a real world impact. Sometimes, in academia, your work is not read by many people and you may not necessarily see the impact of your work. 

Ishani: What is the most important advice you can give an undergraduate researcher? 

Sara: The most important part is figuring out what you love. Listen to your gut—it will tell you everything you need to know.