Alumna Spotlight: Youngmin Yi, Ph.D.

Youngmin Yi

June 15, 2020

Youngmin Yi, Ph.D. ’20 is a recent alumna of the sociology program at Cornell from which she holds a Ph.D. Having earned her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College and her doctorate at Cornell, she will be joining the University of Massachusetts Amherst as an assistant professor of sociology.

What is your area of research and why is it important?

I study family inequality in the United States, particularly as it relates to criminal justice, child welfare, and immigration system involvement. While there are many different approaches we can use to study these topics, I use quantitative methods to analyze data collected through surveys or administrative agencies. My current work focus on: (1) detailing how common it is for people to experience the incarceration of a family member or involvement with the child welfare system; (2) how those experiences relate to well-being; and (3) assessing how good existing data are for answering these questions and how to address those limitations.

What are the larger implications of this research?

Although the child welfare, criminal justice, and immigration systems are described as targeting a set of specific social and policy problems—child maltreatment, crime, and migration—they have profound effects on people and communities that were not necessarily the persons and groups intended. These are some of the main mechanisms through which racism, classism, xenophobia, and social immobility and inequality have been institutionalized in U.S. society. Through my research, I hope to inform that dialogue and inform policy and political discourse and decision-making in those areas.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I began my Ph.D. interested in the transition to adulthood and family in the United States. I promptly realized that it was impossible to understand those patterns without studying criminal justice, immigration, and child welfare system involvement, particularly if I was interested in social inequality in that life stage. So, I pivoted to focus on the intersection of family life and those policy institutions. I have a background in economics, but I worked with some incredible sociologists and demographers after my undergraduate education. I wanted to develop those particular tools and perspectives and I also wanted to center mentoring and teaching in that work. That’s what led me here.

What was the process like of adapting your defense to an online platform?

I wanted to be mindful of the fact that my schedule and needs, as well as those of my committee members, had changed, and so I started by confirming with them that they were still available at the previously-scheduled date and time for my Ph.D. defense and that Zoom was the preferred platform. Once I completed the new electronic forms and confirmed my defense with the Graduate School, one of my committee chairs set up and scheduled the Zoom meeting.

For the defense itself, we proceeded as though we were holding the defense in person, with me leaving “the room” and re-entering at appropriate times before and after my dissertation defense presentation. We also scheduled in extra time to talk about my next steps and reflect for a moment on the milestone and my time in graduate school. After the defense, I again used the new electronic form from the Graduate School to submit the results of my B exam, in coordination with my field and my committee members.

The process itself was objectively simple and straightforward, thanks to everyone involved. My committee members were very responsive. The staff and graduate field administrators in my home fields of sociology and policy analysis and management were exceptional and thoughtful in the speed and clarity with which they communicated shifting forms, procedures, and deadlines to graduate students.

How did it feel to pivot to an ultimately successful online defense?

I feel profoundly grateful to have been able to pivot to an online defense and grateful that my advisors are all safe and well and able to do so. It feels a bit surreal to be on the other side of it, post-defense with the Ph.D. officially “in hand”!

However, I also felt (and, quite frankly, still feel) quite sad and a bit in disbelief about it. I am very mindful of what a privilege it is, as well as what privileges have allowed me to successfully pass my defense, but the Ph.D. is a long and trying journey. After such an effort, it feels sad and surreal to wrap up a deeply important stage of a life so unceremoniously and without the chance to thank and be with staff, friends, mentors, and advisors to honor the accomplishment in person.

What are your hobbies or interests outside of your research or scholarship?

Outside of research, I enjoy cooking and baking (or at least trying to bake), yoga, pilates, reading, watching TV, listening to podcasts, and hiking and learning about and foraging edible wild plants, although the last two are on hold in the recent health crisis. I’ve recently been enjoying the podcasts On Being, Radiolab, and The Annex. I’m currently reading Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia and re-reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Grace Lee Bogg’s memoir, Living for Change. I’m currently watching Schitt’s Creek, Chef’s Table, and Grace and Frankie.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?

There are many reasons I chose Cornell – the research infrastructure and resources available, the methodological and intellectual diversity of the social scientists on campus within and outside of my home department, and the beautiful outdoor space in which it is embedded, among other reasons. But ultimately, the people were what made me enthusiastically commit to the decision to pursue my Ph.D. at Cornell. The graduate students I met during my visit were almost intimidating in their intellect, the complexity they wrangled in talking about their research, and the clarity with which they were able to do so, but also incredibly generous, humble, welcoming, and open about their experiences. The faculty treated me with what felt like seriousness and genuine interest as a potential colleague and collaborator rather than as a prospective apprentice or disciple. I remember my conversations with the faculty in the sociology and policy analysis and management fields.  

If you could go back in time to the beginning of your graduate career, what advice would you give yourself?

These are all things that I eventually learned or that someone taught me over the course of my graduate training, but I think they would have saved me a tremendous amount of pain and stress had I truly understood them from the beginning. I would tell myself two things. First, I would make sure that I understood research and social science as an ongoing dialogue rather than as a challenge in which I needed to be the one to have the perfect answer to a particular question or to prove myself. While I was never competitive, the pressure to be correct or to avoid critique made writing, reading, presenting, and learning so much less enjoyable at times than it could have been. Second, I would tell myself to do something each day and do it with intention, whether it was work-related or not. Whether it’s finishing an analysis, taking half the day to go on a long hike, reading a set of papers for a comprehensive exam, or calling a few close friends to catch up, do something, do it with intention, and be content and kind to yourself for having done that.

Now that you have graduated, what are your plans?

Now that I have graduated, I will be joining the University of Massachusetts Amherst as an assistant professor of sociology. I am very excited about this new position and to be part of an intellectual community that I have admired for many years.