Emily Vontsolos Furman University Logo

Emily Vontsolos '15

— Research Assistant

Professional development is simply about saying yes and putting yourself out there.


Personal/Professional Journey

How did you find your way to where you are today? Share a little about your professional journey.

As a research assistant at a nonprofit research institute, I spend the majority of my time doing quantitative research support for education research projects. In many ways, this desk job is very unexpected, but it is exactly what I wanted.

I am passionate about improving lives and saw myself as an activist or nonprofit worker. However, as I developed a passion for research, I saw how good research must inform the policy and philanthropy aimed at improving systems or life outcomes. As I spoke to professors and Furman alumni, I also learned this type of research would enable me to develop skills transferable to numerous other career paths I am interested in (local government, nonprofit work, etc).

This has been a great first step towards whatever is next. My professional journey has been short, but I feel excited and ready for future opportunities because of what I learned at Furman and all the skills I have developed in my first job.
What motivations fueled your career path?

Careers are multidimensional, and mine is definitely still in its infancy. I am passionate about enhancing systems in order to improve lives and I believe research is crucial to ensuring policies (or philanthropic work) are evidence-based and effective. I also volunteer for a domestic violence prevention and crisis center, which I consider just as much a part of my career as my full time job. I am passionate about their work and have found it to be incredible fulfilling. Some aspects of my career path have been, and will be, shaped by my location in San Francisco. The city's history and culture fascinated me and I knew I wanted to experience life in such an artistic and tumultuous city. In this way, I moved because I wanted to – and am happy I did!

Within the field

When providing advice for professional development, what are some tools or resources one should consider?

For career advice, I found my economics department professors and classmates my best resources. They encouraged me and affirmed my skills and passions. Professional development is simply about saying yes and putting yourself out there. I learned from a few of my classmates the importance of forming a professional network and gaining knowledge from those already within the career you are pursuing. Whether that be working for the Federal Reserve, running a soup kitchen, owning a bakery, or being an artist, speaking to those already successful in your field is crucial. These role models are the best resource available. Learn about what it takes to succeed and then decide if that is what you want to do.

As far as personal development, which is inextricably linked to professional development, I have found Myers Briggs, the Enneagram, and Strengths Finder incredibly helpful. Understanding myself, how I see myself in the world, what gives me energy and helps me rest, and what I do not enjoy has been helpful in considering careers and life styles.

How would you recommend someone interested in the same career/vocation pursue a similar path?

Social Policy Research is an exciting and diverse field – anyone interested in a career in the in this area will have a different path based on the facets that interest them. Quantitative research involves programming skills, statistics, and critical thinking skills that can all be nurtured at Furman and beyond. Qualitative research involves a greater understanding of coding and compiling qualitative data, along with synthesizing numerous ideas and topics. No matter the type of research, I would recommend an investment in some statistical courses at Furman, along with courses in the content areas that interest them. The best researchers have in-depth content knowledge, so if someone is interested in violence prevention or the environment or poverty– pursue courses focused on those themes in addition to research courses.
How have mentors impacted your professional development? How did you develop those relationship?

My mentors have been paramount to getting me where I am now and continue to advise me. They encouraged me to consider research, assisted me throughout the application process, and kept me sane after writing dozens of cover letters. My mentors, many of whom are professors at Furman, also connected me to other researchers and other future mentors. Most importantly, my mentors are dear friends who inspire me and challenge me. These relationships are simply a result of forming relationships with people I really respected. As with any relationship, these take some effort to nurture and are unquestionably worth it.

For someone just getting started

What do you wish you would have known getting started in your field?

I wish I knew more about the overall research landscape when I first started – the main players, typical job responsibilities, and skills I could have developed before taking a job. I wish I would have known how important statistics, data analytics, and programming are within quantitative research – I think even one more statistics course at Furman would have been really helpful. I am now able to see differences and specialties among the various research institutions, but I wish I would have known this before. I think this could be avoided by simply knowing to ask these questions during informational interviews with researchers.
What additional education or certification is required/recommended?

In order to advance in research, a master's or Ph.D. is required. However, the research assistant position is for those with undergraduate degree who may want to pursue research or other careers. It is a good step to explore research before making decisions about post graduate studies. Online courses on programming (Stata, R, etc.) are accessible and can be really helpful with quantitative research. These skills will prepare you for quantitative work, help you advance quickly, and save you time.

Furman University

How has your liberal arts background shaped your career path or supported your success?

My liberal arts background is the reason I am who I am – both personally and professionally. We live in an incredibly complicated and interconnected world and it is no longer adequate to understand one slice without seeing more of the connections between our disciplines. I studied economics, Spanish, philosophy, women's studies, sociology, and poverty studies and found the connections between the disciplines just as important as the actual content material.

In many ways, learning the value of this interdisciplinary study has been important as I continue to pursue learning in lots of different fields. In my job, I often use my Spanish and have utilized the content I learned in departments across campus. And perhaps most importantly, all of these courses developed my critical thinking skills and the ability to consider numerous perspectives at once. This is absolutely invaluable in today's complex world.
Any final advice for students or recent grads?

It is important to explore many options and be open to different types of "first jobs," even if they are similar or different from the jobs your peers are exploring. Look into anything that interests you and after gathering information, do not be too afraid to just make a decision. I was pretty anxious about this first step, but it was just one step. No one knows exactly what they want to do, we are all taking one step at a time and you can adjust your path as you go.


Were there particular courses within the economics department that were especially useful in helping you identify your career or that ended up helping you to be successful in your career (maybe unexpectedly)?

Econometrics, specifically my Stata skills, have been incredibly helpful in my job and set me apart from many coworkers. However, all of my economics courses helped me to develop critical thinking skills and the discipline and organization skills needed to succeed in any job. I think macro and micro, specifically, demand a lot of students and being challenged in those courses gave me the skills and confidence to overcome other challenges in the workplace.

Were there particular projects or activities from any of your economics courses that were especially useful?

I loved the econometric project because I was able to choose a topic that interested me and I gained Stata skills. I was also able to talk about this research and my methods in almost all of my interviews and several researchers were impressed. I would have loved to continue research in an "Econometrics 2.0" and I think this would have put me leagues ahead of economics students from other schools. I also loved my growth and development research, mostly because it was fascinating.
Were there particular "engaged learning" experiences (e.g. internships, study away, research opportunities) that were especially useful?

My study away experience in Chile was invaluable. My internships were all helpful for me to figure out my path and they were diverse. I worked in nonprofits, lived in an intentional community (planning a neighborhood farmer's market), worked in a progressive advocacy organization in DC, and interned at an immigrant law office in Greenville. These were all helpful and I am glad I was able to explore so many options in order to learn the aspects of each that energized me.

Any other "highlights" from your experience in economics?

The best part of my experience in the economics department was the relationships I formed with professors and other economics students. My classmates and professors became my best friends, almost all of whom continue to inspire and advise me. This community is incredibly rare and absolutely invaluable. I cannot say enough about how I learned more, matured more, and laughed more as a result of these relationships. I still call Jordan Sanders for interview tips, so I basically have life-long career counselors. Thanks Furman!

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