Shelley Correll

Professor of Sociology

Location: Stanford, CA

"Deciding to take a chance, to put myself in a space where I felt so out of place, was clearly the right move."

I was living in Houston, teaching honors high school chemistry to a group of highly motivated students and coaching the Academic Decathlon team. I enjoyed the students and my job. Yet, deep down, I knew this was not my lifetime career. In my free time, I was taking master’s levels classes in sociology at the University of Houston. These courses were truly just a hobby. I was fascinated with what I was learning, but I would no more have thought of sociology as a career than I would have thought to quit my job to pursue a career playing golf or watching baseball (two of my other hobbies).

After completing a class, one of my professors caught me off guard when she commented, “You should get a PhD in sociology.” Doubts raced through my mind. I had only taken three sociology classes in my life. Social science PhDs are unlikely to get jobs. I would have to move across the country. I could not afford to go back to school.

As it turned out, I discovered that if you get into a top graduate program, they cover the cost of tuition and provide you with a stipend for living expenses. That was news to me, but still I wondered, could I do this? I loved sociology, but where would this move lead?

I decided to take a chance. I applied to top programs, reasoning that unless I attended the best, I would never be able to get a job. I did not think these programs would admit me. Then I got into Stanford, which presented me with a whole new set of worries. I had never attended an elite private university—would I be able to handle it? With my partner’s encouragement and with absolutely no conviction that I was doing the right thing, I finally decided to take a chance on myself. What helped me take this leap was the reassurance that I could always go back to my former life (or so I thought).

My first quarter was hard. Looking back, I did well, but I did not know that at the time. I felt very out of place amongst the other students who came from the kind of backgrounds that make Stanford feel normal. But as time went on, my work went well and my confidence grew. I began to love the environment, which was full of new ideas and energy. Much to my surprise, the place suited me.

I graduated from Stanford with a faculty position at one of the top sociology programs in the country. Seven years later, I was back at Stanford and on the faculty of the place that once had intimidated me. As I look back, deciding to take a chance, to put myself in a space where I felt so out of place, was clearly the right move.