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The journey to a PhD: Four graduates of the Consumer Behavior & Family Economics program reflect on their experiences

Spring 2024 commencement celebrated the largest graduating cohort to date of the PhD Human Ecology: Consumer Behavior & Family Economics (CBFE) program. Upon graduating, Somalis Chy, Vivekananda Das, Xiangchen Liu and Yiling Zhang joined a select 1 percent of the U.S. population who have earned a PhD degree.

The PhD program is housed within the UW–Madison School of Human Ecology and broadly aims to understand how humans interact with their lived environments. CBFE graduate students use social science theories to examine how market structures and policy, along with consumer decision-making, impacts the social and economic well-being of individuals and families. This PhD degree aims to prepare students not only for tenure-track academic faculty positions, but also for roles in industry, nonprofits and government.

Somalis Chy stands and smiles in front of a big presentation board with graphs and writing of her research.
Somalis Chy presented her research at the Population Association of America conference. Attending and presenting at conferences around the world is a special experience for CBFE graduate students.

Zhang will join the University of Alabama as a faculty member, and Das will join the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies as a tenure-track assistant professor. Chy recently accepted a postdoctoral research associate position at the Brown School for social work, public health and social policy, part of Washington University in St. Louis. Liu is actively applying for academic, postdoctoral roles.

In the following Q&A, the graduating cohort reflected on how they’ve grown as academic researchers and discussed their experience as Human Ecology graduate students:

How has the CBFE program and the School of Human Ecology prepared you for post-graduation plans?

Headshot of Vivekananda Das in an outdoor setting
Vivekananda Das, PhD in Consumer Behavior & Family Economics ’24

Das: The core courses provided me with a solid foundation of social science theories and methods for investigating issues impacting individual and household well-being. The opportunity to work closely with my advisor J. Michael Collins (Fetzer Family Chair in Consumer and Personal Finance and professor of Consumer Science) and other faculty members in various roles also helped me become an independent thinker.

Liu: Throughout my PhD journey, my advisor Megan Doherty Bea (assistant professor of Consumer Science) has provided tremendous support in my research, inspiring me to continue my work and pursue academic positions. Collaborating with other faculty members, such as Yiwei Zhang (assistant professor of Consumer Science), has enabled me to gain additional research experience and skills. The core courses, such as Family Economic Policy, have equipped me with essential knowledge for conducting my research.

Headshot of Somalis Chy smiling in an outdoor setting
Somalis Chy, PhD in Consumer Behavior & Family Economics ’24 | Photo by Rosie Yang Photography

Chy: I learned that I love doing research that expands my knowledge and engages me in meaningful conversations about personal lives, work and well-being. I also learned how much faculty members and Human Ecology staff care and invest in each student’s journey. Does all of this prepare me for what’s next? I think so! Discovering what you love to do is not easy. This newfound love and the relationships I have built are the things that I will take with me wherever I go.

Zhang: My experience has been pivotal in shaping me into an independent researcher. I have developed essential skills in research methodology, paper drafting for publication and networking within the academic community. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all the faculty members who have supported me throughout my academic journey, especially my advisor Yiwei Zhang, whose guidance and mentorship have been invaluable in shaping my research and professional development.

A group of people sit on colorful chairs on an outdoor terrace. Everyone smiles and poses for the photo.
Somalis Chy and fellow Human Ecology graduate students and faculty enjoy a sunny afternoon at the UW–Madison Union Terrace.

What support did you receive as a Human Ecology graduate student?

A woman smiling, with dark hair pulled back behind her head, wearing a blue striped shirt with a white collar.
Xiangchen Liu, PhD in Consumer Behavior & Family Economics ’24

Liu: I received funding from the school to attend conferences with the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM), the Population Association of America and the Midwest Economics Association. All of them were enjoyable, and I particularly loved APPAM, which is an excellent venue for my research and for meeting people who share similar interests.

Zhang: I received significant support from the Human Ecology staff, particularly in caring about my mental well-being. For instance, Michelle Holland (assistant dean for graduate programs) has consistently been my main source of support during stressful times. The dedication and encouragement of the staff have been instrumental in guiding me through the challenges of my PhD journey, fostering an environment conducive to both academic and personal development.

Chy: The School of Human Ecology has provided me with plenty of opportunities and training in preparation for attending conferences, from giving presentations and elevator pitches to networking. I met and built networks that include students and faculty members from different departments across UW–Madison, other universities, government agencies, social policy think tanks and research institutes.

Das: The opportunity to receive funding to attend conferences helped me share my research findings with the wider academic community. I received constructive criticism from my peers, which helped me become more critical of my work. Also, I won the Certified Financial Planner Board’s American Council of Consumer Interests (ACCI) Financial Planning Paper Award in 2023 and the Consumer Movement Archives Applied Consumer Economics Award in 2024!

Three people pose together on stage next to a podium. The man in the center holds a framed award certificate.
Vivekananda Das (center) at the 2023 ACCI Annual Conference where he won the Certified Financial Planner ACCI Financial Planning Paper Award.

What have you taken away from learning opportunities, like the Human Ecology Professional Development Seminar?

A woman smiling with her head resting on her hand, with long, dark hair, wearing large wire frame glasses and a peach-colored blazer.
Yiling Zhang, PhD in Consumer Behavior & Family Economics ’24

Zhang: The Human Ecology Professional Development Seminar offered practical training, such as effective job negotiation strategies provided by Dean Soyeon Shim (Elizabeth Holloway Schar Dean of the School of Human Ecology and Ted Kellner Bascom Professor of Consumer Science). I successfully applied these strategies to secure additional startup funds.

Das: The professional development seminar was where I learned about things I wouldn’t have learned in a traditional classroom environment. In particular, Dean Shim’s Job Negotiation Workshop was extremely helpful in learning how to negotiate job offers. Knowing more about the dean’s roles and expectations in the academic hiring process helped me communicate more confidently and effectively with the deans of the colleges who invited me for on-campus visits.

Chy: Cadin Tonković-Ćapin (graduate program specialist) was an amazing leader for putting together the professional development seminar series, filled with useful information. Michelle Holland was also impactful in providing guidance on strategically asking and answering questions during the job search, application and interview processes. I appreciate all of their efforts!

What advice would you give yourself when you were starting the program?

Chy: I would say to have more trust in myself, my abilities and this journey, because I was on the right track.

Das: Throughout the journey, perhaps I focused too much on perfecting each step, often forgetting where the destination was. If I could do it all over again, I would probably learn to begin with the end in mind. But, of course, it is easier said than done!

Zhang: I would emphasize the importance of proactive communication with faculty and the exploration of theory-based seminar courses. These actions would have allowed me to discover my research interests more efficiently and inspire innovative dissertation ideas from the outset.

Liu: Earning a PhD is a long journey. You will encounter many difficulties in both research and life. However, you will also meet smart and fantastic people, and you can learn so much from them. Not everyone has the opportunity to experience this, so enjoy it!