PhD Spotlight: Karin Johnson

By Karin Johnson |
Karin Johnson

We had the opportunity to chat with Karin Johnson, recent Ph.D. graduate in Sociology about her time as a student at UCR. Karin shared her insight, experience, and advice on grad student life. 


1. What did you get your degree in, and what are you doing now?

I received my Ph.D. in Sociology in June 2020. I research how national policies shape incoming skilled migration. For my dissertation, I compared the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia on how their national higher education programs and incentives attract international students. Both countries are emerging destinations for international students, and they were interesting case sites for me because both are non-democracies that are oil-rich (and looking to diversify their economies) and people-poor (both countries rely on migrants to maintain the current population levels). My interest in how countries outside the “Global North” utilize policy as political, economic, and social tools has broadened my comprehension of international education globally and trends in skilled migration.

These interests have also proved to be valuable in engaging the political conversation around international student mobility to the US. Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration announced three immigration restrictions (as of today), which target skilled migrants. I wrote op-eds and a letter to Congressman Takano asking for support for international students and the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program because international education generated $41 billion last year, and California hosts over 150,000 students and employs nearly 10,000 OPT workers.

Doctor Doctor

[Image Description: Multiple people standing in a tent nodding their heads in greeting and say, "Doctor."]

Pictured: You, whenever you see your fellow doctors now that you've finished your program

In my new position, I’ll be working in the federal government. In July 2020, I will begin a new post as Assistant Chief of the Federal Statistical Research and Data Center (RDC) for the US Census Bureau at Texas A&M University. The US Census Bureau has 32 RDCs located around the country; I will be managing one of them! My primary responsibility will be to manage a secure lab where researchers come to analyze (free-to-use!) data. I will also assist researchers and research teams to write and revise their applications to access the data, then review and submit their analyses to the US Census Bureau statisticians for approval. One project that I’m looking forward to working on is rolling out remote data access for universities in locations that are not close to an RDC. As a native El Pasoan, I am excited to help researchers in west Texas and New Mexico get remote access to selected databases.


2. What are the top 2-3 things you did while at UCR that helped you finish your degree (and get a position in your field, if you have)? What was most helpful to you as a student here?

The most important thing I ever did as a graduate student was to participate in GradSuccess programs. GradSuccess truly became my community during my 6 years here. As a first-year student, I was a mentee in the Graduate Student Mentorship Program (GSMP). I later coordinated the program as a fourth-year. One of my favorite things I did as Coordinator was visiting other people’s labs and even observing animals or experiments. As a consequence, I have a network of friends who hail from material and biological engineering, physics, neuroscience, psychology, and education, to name a few.

I also attended workshops, like Beyond Academia Day. In one session, I learned to market your skills, not your research interests. Coupled with my academic research and writing skills, when I applied to jobs, having leadership experience coordinating a program at a large university highlighted what I could do. Just as important to my tangible skills, being interested in others’ research, and having the ability to talk to and understand scholars, scientists, and engineers was paramount in getting my new job. I was explicitly told that the reason I was hired was that I had a demonstrable genuine interest in interdisciplinary topics.


[Image Description: An animated figure holding an oversized magnifying glass looks down at a red question mark. ]

Pictured: A genuine interest in interdisciplinary disciplines 


3. What did you like best about your graduate work? What did you like least?

What I loved best about my graduate work was traveling internationally. I met one of my co-authors (and now a very good friend!) because we shared a taxi from the conference hotel to the Doha, Qatar airport. Another colleague of mine, who I met during a 2015 workshop at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia, became integral to my doctoral field research. In 2018, she invited me to her university in the UAE and, in 2019, her former lab in Russia sponsored me.


[Image Description: An image looking out an airplane window at clouds in the air.]

Pictured: You, on your way to your next international location

The thing I liked the least was Imposter Syndrome and being on the receiving end of negative messages. Thankfully, I had built a supportive community of people I met at GradSuccess. They really kept me going!


4. Is there anything you wish you had done, or regret doing/not doing, while you were a UCR graduate student?

One thing I wish I would have done was to do a Designated Emphasis in Public Policy. This is fairly new and by the time I became aware of it, I was too near finishing my degree to take it on. I did complete the Science to Policy certificate program and loved that and the people I met there.


5. What are you most looking forward to in your new position/post-graduate life?

A 40-hour work week. Publishing, service, and everyday tasks are allotted to that time. I felt like I was always working at a break-neck pace on multiple projects during graduate school. I wonder if I can now research and publish at a “normal pace.” Does that even exist?

I’m also looking forward to hobbies. I’ve heard of them. I’m interested in trying them out. For example, I’d like to read a book <gasp> for fun! I’d also like to continue things that I liked doing here, like yoga, hiking, and stand-up paddleboarding.

The thing I like so far about my job is the team is super friendly and welcoming. As a Texan, I definitely feel like I’m going back to Texas.


[Image Description: A cartoon cowboy leaping up to click the spurs on his boots together as he says, "Howdy Ya'll"]

Pictured: You, receiving a warm welcome 


6. What advice do you have for other graduate students at UCR about finishing their degrees, going on the job market, or life in general?

A few pieces of advice I have are:

(1) Venture out of your department. Connect with various people at UCR—like the librarians, staff, etc.—and people at other universities. Remember, you work here now, but you will not always work here. People beyond these walls can become your strongest advocates.

(2) Market yourself for yourself. I never relied on anyone to introduce me to someone else. Because I know me, my work, and my professional interests the best, when meeting someone new, I could most effectively advertise me.

(3) Be friendly. People definitely remember jerks. Don’t be one.

(4) Ask. I unabashedly asked people for informational interviews so I could learn about their job, what they did on a daily basis, and how interviews went for candidates. This helped me figure out I did not want to do a particular job.

(5) Network. The reason I found my new job is that I asked someone about their work at a federal agency. That led to me interning there. Which then led to a friend referring me to an open position at the federal agency where she works. I now work there, too!

Above all, no matter how stressful and weird grad school can be, remember it is temporary and you’re doing great. You’ve got this.


[Image Description: A cartoon walrus smiling with a text bubble saying, "You're making progress. You've already made a lot of progress. You're doing great and you got this.]

Pictured: Truth from the mouths of sea creatures