A Conversation with Emily Su Ni Thoman

Hannah Teoh Outreach Manager
The pathway to a PhD may be tough, but Emily Su Ni Thoman wants to help students interested in academia and who are already in academia navigate their postgraduate journeys. I was able to speak with Emily to get more insight about her experience with academia, the work she does, and some advice she has to offer. 

Introduce yourself!

Hi everyone! My name is Emily and I’m a grad student and a young professional in the greater Boston area. I was born in ChangSha, China, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, did a gap year and worked in Seattle, WA before moving to Boston, so “home” is many places for me. I did traditional Chinese dance and played sports when I was younger, and am always trying to find new hobbies. Currently, I enjoy watching YouTube videos (specifically tech reviews, commentary channels, and vlogs) and have recently been watching a lot of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Studio Ghibli films.   

Share a little bit more on your academic background! What did you study and what are your areas of focus in the postgraduate level?

In undergrad, I double majored in Political Science and History and minored in Education. I received my Master’s in Criminal Justice and am working on my PhD now! While I am still narrowing my research interests, they fall into the buckets of cross-cultural solidarity, strategic communication, and examining the Model Minority Myth through a Critical Race Theory (CRT) lens. I credit Black feminist scholars such as Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Angela Davis, and Audre Lorde for significantly shaping my research identity and the way I’ve come to understand knowledge. I always try to include, if not center, their framework in any topic I’m exploring.    

Why did you choose to pursue a PhD in Social Policy, Economic and Racial Equity?

One of the primary reasons I chose Social Policy was its interdisciplinary and human centered nature. My interests are varied and I didn’t want to be in a field that forced me to narrow too much, because I enjoy exploring topics from different disciplines. Social Policy and Brandeis’ program also allow me to be more practical with my research. While I definitely appreciate theory, my pragmatic nature tends to push me towards policy more. In terms of the concentration, Economic and Racial Equity fit with my research interests the best. Given my own lived experience and identity, I believe race and racism are crucial components in any discussion, but especially when talking about economics and Social Policy as a whole. 

How has your identity and cultural background influenced the way you’ve perceived academia? Do you think you’ve afforded privileges that others do not have or do you think you’ve encountered roadblocks based on your identity?

As a lighter skinned, able bodied, petite Chinese woman, I do not necessarily think many people find my presence in academia surprising. I’ve benefited from many privileges, including my skin color, citizenship, class, family background and social capital, language skills, body size, and hair texture to name a few. This is not to say I haven’t experienced racism, xenophobia, or sexism within the academy and the world in general. But the more common way I’ve experienced roadblocks in academia have been more around erasure and invisibility.

Asian Americans are often not included in many studies or research, or the data that is there glosses over nuance. Asian Americans are not a monolith, but we are often treated as such.
Getting folks to listen and see us as real, individual people who matter often feels like half the battle. 

Do you think academia is an exclusive space? Why or why not?

In short, yes. And that is by design, not because it is a flawed system — though that is also true. Many of the oppressive systems such as racism, classism, etc. are reproduced in academia due to the nature of its construction and the application process to gain access to this space. The people whose knowledge and theory is valued and deemed credible are often white, Western, wealthy, able bodied, neurotypical, cis men. While there may be a slight shift and more of an effort to adjust this in recent years, it is still really challenging if you deviate from those categories in any way. And reinforcing those categories is often rewarded.  

What are some realities about graduate school that are different from common expectations? 

I thought the environment of grad school would be more cutthroat. I can only speak from my own experience, but so far most of my classmates have been super nice and willing to help. I also thought that every project that got proposed would pan out, but this is not true. Plenty of projects don’t work out and never come to fruition. Finally, I thought I’d have to read and take copious notes on everything. But almost no one reads every article or book all the way through. Releasing myself of that expectation has helped a lot.   

Share a bit more about your blog and Instagram page, @phiguringitout. What do you share on those pages and what was the inspiration behind it?

My blog  and Instagram are ways for me to share my journey, advice, and connect with other people. I decided to start them because I wanted to provide more perspective on what a Chinese American scholar looks like and does. While there have been some shifts in the narrative, I still feel like many people see me, hear that I’m in a PhD program, and automatically think I’m in a STEM field. I was also tired of feeling like my narrative was being written for me. Adoptee experiences are typically left out of wider discussions because no one really knows where to place us. Our stories are often co-opted and misunderstood, so I wanted to try and take some of that agency back by writing about my own experiences. While I haven’t shared as much writing on my adoption experience specifically, I hope to do so at some point. 

Why do you think social media is such an impactful tool to spread information and help empower others, especially those interested in entering academia?

While there are certain required resources that not everyone has (e.g. a device, internet connection, electricity) and we could definitely get into a wider discussion about censorship and bias within algorithms, there is no other platform I can think of where information can be shared so widely so quickly. 

I also think a lot of its power for academics is because it’s traditionally not been a place where academia has been popular so now more folks are breaking into the network. Many people still view social media and academia in this strict dichotomy of fun and serious.

As our understanding of academia and research starts to change, social media is a great resource to use to disseminate research in a new way.

It also helps humanize the folks doing research and that can help make academia feel a bit more accessible. It’s definitely a double edged sword, though. 

As someone who has been in academia until the postgraduate level, what has been your favorite thing about your journey so far?

Without a doubt, the new connections I’ve made. I feel fortunate to have found a community of individuals both offline and online I would’ve never met if I weren’t on this journey. Being able to get paid to learn and grow as a scholar (and as a person) is a close second. I always strive to learn more and I do that best in a structured space. It’s a win-win! 

What is a piece of advice you want to give to others who are looking into entering academia?

I would say make sure to find something that grounds you. Academia can be a challenging space. You simultaneously experience the elitism, racism, sexism, ableism, etc. of the institution while also inevitably becoming a part of it to some extent. Remembering who you are outside of academia and reminding yourself that academia is not the end all be all has been crucial for me

If you are wanting advice on how to enter academia specifically, I’d say find a mentor in an academic space that you connect with and who will show up for you. They can help you navigate the process. And also look to spaces like the internet for help. There’s so much free information out there!    


Fun Rapid-Fire Questions!

Favorite Asian dish:

This is really hard given the diversity within Asian cuisine! I guess as a general category, I’d say dumplings. I (semi) recently had some Nepalese dumplings that were amazing and I love how many different ways you can make them. So many cultures have some version of them too, which I think is pretty cool. For Chinese cuisine specifically, I’d say 粽子 (zongzi) or 麻婆豆腐 (mapo tofu). Anything with spice.   

Favorite class you have ever taken:

US Mexico Border Relations my junior year of undergrad (2016). I learned a lot and the class was extremely transformative for me both academically and personally during that time. More recently, however, is the Applied Design and Analysis class I took last Spring. It was a quant class that sparked my interest in Mixed Methods research.  

Favorite season of the year:

Fall. Most likely because I love the start of school and the beginning of cooler weather since moving to Boston!

Emily 蘇妮 Thoman is a second year Social Policy PhD student in the Economic and Racial Equity concentration at Brandeis University. She received her MS in Criminal Justice with a sub-concentration in Strategic Management and her BA in Political Science and History with a minor in Education, both from Boston University. Prior to her doctoral studies, Emily worked as a college advisor with College Advising Corps at Charlestown High School in Charlestown, MA and as a server at a tapas restaurant. She currently works as a Project Coordinator for the Second Chance Act (SCA) Grant with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (MA DYS) and as a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) at the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity (IERE). Emily is a Future Education Leaders Network (FELN) Fellow with the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. In her free time, Emily enjoys hanging out with friends and trying new food.

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