PhD Spotlight: Sarah Murray

By Alexis Smith |

Sarah was a Spring 2022 Teaching Assistant Development Program (TADP) Coordinator but has also worked in many other GradSuccess roles over the course of her graduate studies. She has a very cute cat named Little Kitty. 

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

My degree is in Sociology, with specializations in gender and criminology. My research is broadly about women who work in the criminal justice system. And as of August I will be starting as an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Roanoke College. I’m looking forward to this role because Roanoke really values teaching, which is my favorite part of academic life! So as you read this I will be moving my life (and my cat) to Virginia.


[Image Description: The title card of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit appears on a dark background.]

Pictured: Sadly, studying the criminal justice system is not like what you see on TV.

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?

  1. Going to academic conferences. This is a bit of a hot take since I know many people hate conferences but for me they were a great opportunity to be able to meet people in my field outside of UCR and forge my own identity as a scholar. Attending academic conferences also led me to some wonderful informal mentors who helped me while I was on the job market. So I recommend going to conferences if you haven’t and taking advantage of the GSA Travel Grant program.
  2. Working at GradSuccess. I promise they did not pay me to say this! But working at GradSuccess allowed me to flex different muscles than I use TAing or adjuncting. I was also able to take part in many of the events GradSuccess hosts which ended up being helpful both professionally and socially. I strongly suggest grad students check out their events more often – there’s usually free coffee and/or snacks!
  3. Cultivating friendships outside of my department. I found this to be really helpful for two reasons. First, because our disciplines were different enough, we weren’t able to “talk shop” whenever we met, so we had more fun together. Second, we could commiserate and celebrate together because we had similar experiences of being in graduate school while never being in direct competition for anything. I found grad school very socially isolating, so having these friendships were key.

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

Most – The thing I have enjoyed the most is finding a community of supportive women through getting involved in academic societies and attending conferences. I feel really lucky to have found women who work in the same niche area as me who are willing to discuss my research, share their experiences, and give me some insight into life as an academic. These relationships also helped me build confidence and eventually led to me receiving a graduate student scholar award!

Least – If you know me you will not find it surprising to learn that the constant uncertainty was my least favorite part of grad school. I worried about whether my drafts would be accepted for publication or be approved by my committee, I worried about whether I would receive the grants or funding I applied for, I worried most quarters about whether I could find a TA or TA-equivalent job, and for the last two years I have worried about finding a post-grad job.

[Image Description: The Spice Girls dance on a carpeted staircase in their “Wannabe” music video. Text below them reads; “Girl Power.”]

Pictured: Finding community and mentorship in grad school is powerful!

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

Funnily enough, even though I worked in GradSuccess as the Teaching Assistant Development (TADP) Coordinator for more than two years, I never completed the University Teaching Certificate (UTC) program. I applied in 2017, got waitlisted, and then became busy doing other things and never got around to applying again - I regret that!

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

I’m looking forward to a few things.

  • First, getting a consistent paycheck. This one feels self-explanatory, but I’m most excited about being able to afford a vacation that is not part of a conference trip. (Although don’t get me wrong – I do love conference trips.)
  • Second, having more control over my time, research, and teaching. I’m really looking forward to being able to set my own professional priorities (within reason, I hope to make tenure after all!)
  • And lastly splitting my energy between 3 obligations (teaching, research, and service) instead of my current 5ish. In graduate school I had my own research, my on-campus job, my service commitments, and my one or two adjuncting courses per semester - which at one point were at two different universities. I know I won’t have less total work, but having most of my roles concentrated in the same place will really make my life easier. Maybe I can even get down to managing only two email accounts.

[Image Description: A dog in a top hat sits at a table with a coffee mug on it, surrounding the dog the room is engulfed in flames. The dog says: “This is fine.”]

Pictured: Learn from me dear reader; don’t agree to adjunct two different courses at two different universities on the same day!

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

  • This is perhaps unorthodox advice about finishing your degree, but seeing a therapist was a life changer for me and helped me get through the process of writing my dissertation and getting a job. I personally think everyone could benefit from counseling, but I found grad school uniquely challenging in how competitive and isolating it was and how much it made me doubt myself and my own skills. As a grad student, you can access therapy through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Shout out to my therapist Allyce – you’re the best!
  • Now for some more conventional advice: if you are a person looking for a teaching role or a tenure-track role at a community college, SLAC, or CSU, start getting your teaching experience immediately! While I was on the market, I encountered several job calls that listed one or more years of instructor-of-record teaching as a minimum requirement. So if your department allows graduate students to teach courses during the summer – do it! I also adjuncted for five years during my graduate work, and in most job interviews the panel commented on how unique this was for someone just finishing their PhD. Adjuncting also gave me the opportunity to build a teaching portfolio of different syllabi, sample assignments, and a selection of teaching evaluations as an instructor. UCR is the perfect place to do this because there are so many colleges and universities looking for adjuncts within driving distance of campus.
  • Also, a final plug for the teaching resources offered by GradSuccess - TADP workshops, the UTC program (learn from my regrets), Teaching Careers Week - they all helped me develop my pedagogy.

Good luck out there!

[Image Description: Maya Rudolph sits in front of a painting, she dances while seated complete with celebratory hand gestures.]

Pictured: You can do this!