Elizabeth Ela, a sociology graduate student, won the 2016-2017 Outstanding Graduate Student Mentor award. Those who nominated her emphasis her supportive and helpful nature. Ela is quick to offer assistance in a multitude of subjects with warmth and dedication. “What is best about Liz Ela, and why she is particularly well suited for the Graduate Student Mentor Award, is that she is friend to many and mentor to all. Without a doubt, Liz is willing to speak with and advise anyone who is need of a confidante. ...Michigan Sociology, as a whole, is stronger because we have Liz Ela in our department," said a nominator. The Sociology Department dug deeper into Ela’s research and involvement in mentoring in the Q&A below.
What prompted you to become a Graduate Student Mentor?
I’ve been a statistics GSI for two cohorts of sociology grad students, so I’ve had proximity to newer students that I might not otherwise have as a more advanced student. After a semester, we’re all pretty comfortable with each other and these conversations happen organically. I don’t really distinguish between moments when I’m “mentoring” and moments when I’m just chatting with a colleague. I do have a bit of a camp counselor personality, but I am one of many graduate student mentors in this department. We have a strong culture of students helping one another, and I’ve always appreciated that about Michigan. I think it’s worth investing in these relationships, and I owe a lot to the more advanced students who went out of their way to be helpful when I was a new student.
What has been the most enjoyable part of being a mentor and what has been the most trying?
It’s rewarding to see my junior colleagues find their way and thrive in the program, and to feel like I had some small part in that.
At the same time, good mentoring sometimes involves vulnerability—being open about the difficulties of grad school and this career path in general. The first year of a doctoral program is incredibly challenging. When new students struggle they tend to attribute that to some personal deficiency, instead of the inherent difficulty of doing research. We’re literally trying to create new knowledge, and in order to do that, we have to spend a lot of time stumbling around in the dark. It’s important for newer students to hear that from someone, but it’s not always easy to be the person to say it!
Would you recommend mentoring to others in your field at your level?
I think it’s always worth investing in relationships with your colleagues. I think that’s all mentoring really is. It’s not necessarily a formal thing, and some of the best mentoring relationships are mutual.
Can you tell us a little about your dissertation?
I’m studying health numeracy, risk perception, and contraceptive behavior among young women in the U.S. I use survey data to look at women’s estimations of their pregnancy risk over time and their relationship to women’s contraceptive use.
Your research focuses on fertility, contraceptive behavior, and population health. What interested you in these topics?
I find these topics interesting because they seem so personal, but are so extensively shaped by the social environment: the diffusion of health information, the accessibility of contraception and healthcare more generally, the way your social position affects your exposure to certain health hazards. I also find this research personally rewarding because these topics directly affect the quality of people’s lives.
You received your master's degree from Michigan and are currently working towards your next degree. What prompted you to attend the University of Michigan?
I wanted to join a department with a strong demography program, and from there it was just a question of fit. I visited the department and knew almost immediately that this is where I wanted to be. I talked to some potential faculty mentors and current students and learned about the research projects going on here and it felt right.
You have participated in a few conferences. Can you speak to how these events could help other students who are pursuing Sociology?
I do think some kind of exposure to the research process is important for undergrads who are considering studying sociology at the graduate level. Pursuing a doctorate is a serious investment, and it’s important for prospective students to know what they’re getting themselves into! That could mean attending a conference to hear researchers present their work, but it can happen a lot of ways. As an undergrad at Bowling Green State University, I worked at the National Center for Family & Marriage Research. That was a great opportunity for me to participate in social science research and see whether I liked the work before applying to graduate school.