May 27, 2003

Rubinson a relaxing guide for students

By Michael Terrazas

When asked, Rick Rubinson is hard-pressed to describe how he mentors students and junior faculty. His colleagues, however, have no trouble finding the words.

“For the graduate students, it is hardly too much to say that Professor Rubinson is the very soul of the program,” said John Boli, professor and chair of sociology. “Students turn to him with any and every sort of issue or problem, and they leave his office feeling encouraged, inspired, better focused, relieved or simply consoled.”

For Rubinson, professor of sociology and winner of the 2003 George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring, it’s all about remembering what life was like when he was the one struggling to get through school.

“For a lot of faculty, it’s easy to forget [what graduate school is like], especially as we get older, and think, ‘Well, these students aren’t what we were like,’” said Rubinson, who serves as director of graduate studies for the department. “But in fact, we weren’t what we think we were like.

“Graduate student life is very different from undergraduate student life,” he continued. “Even though the program has a structure, to a large extent you’re making your own time, and you’re responsible for creating your self-organization and finding your own way through. Graduate students very easily can get lost or depressed.”

To be sure, Rubinson helps students deal with these issues individually, but he’s also created programs that provide the background and support structures to prepare graduate students for what’s coming and help them lean on each other. He runs the department’s Pro-Seminar for first-year graduate students, which introduces them not only to the world of professional sociology but also to the infrastructure at Emory to help them simply figure out how things work in the post-graduate world.

Once the students near the end of the program—and Rubinson is sociology’s most productive faculty member, Boli said, when it comes to shepherding doctoral students and guiding master’s students through to their thesis defense—Rubinson also leads a job seminar to help them take the next step.

“His mentoring is a major factor behind the great success we have had in placing students,” Boli said. “Virtually all of our newly minted PhDs get jobs at the kinds of academic or research institutions they prefer,

And it’s not just graduate students. Each year Rubinson teaches at least one section of introductory sociology, a course that prompts many students to declare their majors in the field and request Rubinson as their advisor. “Even during the years he chaired the department, Professor Rubinson went the extra mile for undergraduates by running our internship program for several years, in addition to his regular teaching load,” Boli said.

Rubinson credits his own life experience—and his own children—for giving him the compassion and empathy to help students get by. “There’s nothing that makes you more sensitive to your students than thinking about your own kids being students,” he said.

“One of the things I see is that students now are much more anxious than they used to be,” Rubinson said. “They all come in with a set idea of what they want to do, and of course—luckily—they change their mind. But sometimes they see that as failing or not living up to their expectations or their parents’ expectations. I just try to explain to them, ‘This is fine, this is what should happen in college.’ I just try to get them to relax.”