Kimberly Lucas PhD’20: Sociology, Professor of the Practice in Public Policy and Economic Justice, Northeastern University
Can you describe your career path and how it has led to your current work?
Figuring out what I wanted to get out of my PhD coincided with my work in the field. I did not give up my part-time job while earning my PhD. One reason was money--a grad school budget wasn’t going to cut it! A second reason was so that I could stay relevant on the ground. I knew I wanted a dissertation that wouldn’t just sit on the shelf, so in order to make it relevant, I needed to be on the ground and in the field--not just reading papers. The third reason for continuing to work while earning my PhD was so that I could avoid a gap in employment. Thus, I was continuing to learn in the field, continuing to grow my salary, and continuing to build my network.
Because I was working simultaneously as I earned my degree, I was constantly assessing how my dissertation work fit in the field. I worked at the Education Development Center as a Research Associate, and later was a Senior Research Associate at an early childhood organization called Nurtury. I also worked in the Mayor’s Office at the City of Boston doing a number of public policy, civic research, and civic data projects. These positions gave me opportunities to bring my research skills into the field that I wanted to work in.
Today, I am a Professor of the Practice in Public Policy and Economic Justice at Northeastern University. Professor of the Practice positions are specifically for people with external, real-world experience, beyond the ivory tower institutional expertise. The goal of this position is to facilitate a real-world experience culture on campus where, traditionally, students have had plenty of examples of people in tenure track and non-tenure track positions. But this position provides students with an example of people, such as myself, with experience working out in the world who are now in academia. Having this experience completely changes the requirements for faculty. In this position, “service” that is often focused inward, such as sitting on university committees or mentoring and advising students, can also mean sitting local boards for city government or non-profits. We are encouraged to be a part of that wider range.
In addition, while the University still relies on me publishing my work, it is not solely focused on the more traditional academic journals and in the peer-review format. Instead, white papers, speaking engagements, blog posts, and podcasts all count as demonstrations of me doing my job. This wider range of publication formats means I can partner with nonprofits and city institutions without being confined to a traditional research project. This flips the whole dynamic of being a professor: while I have teaching obligations, I am also free to pursue the civic research projects--projects that are driven by real, local need--that I have typically pursued as part of my work in non-academic jobs, such as when I worked for the City of Boston or my work with MetroLab Network. Traditional academic training is valuable; however, we need people culturally competent in both academic and in practitioner perspectives.
What services and/or resources did you use while at Brandeis for your career search?
I worked under the radar during grad school, so I didn’t feel like there might be support for someone like me. I also wouldn’t have had the time to seek out any support if there were any! One thing I knew coming into my program at The Heller School was that many people who had previously worked on things I was interested in, such as Jack Shonkoff, had moved on to other universities. Knowing this before I arrived, I was prepared to seek out my own networks. Having a foot in the field still was helpful because I was able to go out and just find people, so maybe I’m not the greatest person to give advice about navigating these issues!
One thing that I definitely took advantage of while I was at Brandeis is its membership to the Boston-Area Consortia that allows for cross-registration at other local colleges and universities. I took advantage of exposing myself to other professors, campuses, students, and cultures. I always tell students to take advantage of the consortium if they can.In addition, having resources like pathways to meet alumni and being able to network early were very helpful.
What outcomes from your Brandeis degree have you found valuable in your current work?
I wrote a three paper dissertation. Two of the papers turned into real policies and programs. In the first, I wrote about family child care providers' use of space in the city and the home and proposed rethinking housing in order to build spaces designed for family child care providers and other in-home caregivers. The Boston Housing Authority was in the middle of redoing some of their developments and they were considering the recommendations I made in my paper before the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the process.
My second paper shifted thinking about early child care providers from just caregivers to small business owners. Without the right business skills, a hardship like the COVID-19 pandemic could see many of these businesses fail. In 2019, my recommendations were taken up by the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement at the City of Boston as part of their Child Care Entrepreneur Fund, providing basic business skills and capital for family child care providers. The pilot program had 20 available spots, but received over 200 applications, showing just how needed these resources were. In 2020, the City of Boston continued the program, and it got a lot of family child care providers through that time in the pandemic.
My insights and findings aren’t really exciting or innovative in the sense that they came directly from people in the field and were just solutions that people saw as addressing their direct needs and concerns. I functioned as a translator of these needs--into language that both academics and policymakers understood--and, because of the networks I was part of, happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was able to use my skill set as a qualitative sociologist to repeat and amplify the things people have known on the ground for decades. That’s what I brought to the table.
What advice do you have for current students as they embark on their job search?
Applied research is often seen as a lesser form of research, but as a qualitative researcher, I am a firm believer that being embedded in the day-to-day is key to producing both insights that are novel to academia and solutions to real-world problems. When in the field, I would encourage students to practice a culture of humility that says, “I am smart in this way; you are smart in that way. I don’t have that knowledge, experience, or ability, but you do.” This is what allowed me to ask questions and find answers that other people wouldn’t have access to. Getting a job working on the things or with the people you’re researching is also great because you are getting paid while learning, gaining experience, and growing your networks. This means that as a participant in an organization, you are there listening and learning instead of collecting data. But if you are listening well, those opportunities will show themselves to you.
I would pair this with this advice I got from many people over the course of my long grad program experience: a good dissertation is a done dissertation. My first adviser at The Heller School told me, “We don’t expect you to do your best work here; we expect you to graduate so you can do your best work out in the real world.” As I reflect on my dissertation now, I realize that the paper that helped shape the Child Care Entrepreneur Fund program wasn’t based on earth-shattering research. It had an impact because it showed the right people the right research and data at the right time. And, by the way, the “right research and data” in this case was just information that had not reached the Mayor’s Office yet, from the experience of those who live the work day-to-day. Go out and get it done, and if you want your work to have real-world impact and meaning, just make sure that you’re bringing what you learn to the right folx--and that you’re bringing the people you learned it from along with you.