P. H. D.
Three little letters. On their own, they don’t look all that impressive. Once you learn a little about their significance, though, you find that those three little letters mean a great deal. A Ph.D. is the highest academic degree. As such, it takes years of intensive study to earn one. With an introduction like that, you might get the impression that I wrote this blog post to brag about the prestige of a Ph.D. That’s not at all what this is about, as you’ll see below.
I am a new tenure-track faculty member in the Department of Political Science at UWGB (currently in year two of teaching), but before I became a faculty member, I was a Ph.D. student, and before I was a Ph.D. student, I was an undergraduate student at UWGB.
When I came to UWGB in 2003—fresh out of high school—I was shy, I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in myself or my abilities, and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to major in or what I wanted to do after college. I also didn’t start out my undergraduate career with the goal of going on to earn a Ph.D. (heck, I barely knew what a Ph.D. was at that point in time!). Like many college students, I started my college career by taking a wide range of general education courses. I took a few science courses, a humanities class, and a couple of political science courses. After a few semesters, I figured out that I really enjoyed political science. So, I declared a major in it.
During my undergraduate career, a few faculty members in my department took an interest in me. One asked me to serve as a teaching assistant for an American government class. One complimented my writing style. One encouraged me to do a research project based on a course paper I had written. A few—noticing my interests in research and writing—encouraged me to think about attending graduate school. Just to be clear, prior coming to college, graduate school was not something that was on my radar. To me, graduate school was something that “super smart” people did. It was for other people. I wasn’t the “kind of person” who went to graduate school.
The faculty members who mentored me while I was at UWGB continually encouraged me to think about graduate school. They told me that I could do it—helping to boost my confidence. They talked to me about the skills that were needed to excel in graduate school and they showed me how my skills could help me succeed. I vividly remember one faculty member telling me that with my research skills, I wouldn’t have any problems succeeding in grad school. They helped me figure out what I was interested in. They encouraged me to study the things that I was passionate about. They helped me become more confident in my abilities and myself. They helped me see that graduate school wasn’t just for other people; that it was something I could do if I was willing to work hard. In short, the faculty members in my department transformed my life and the way that I thought about myself. They helped set me on a course that would shape the rest of my life.
When I came across a recent New York Times article on mentoring in universities, I wasn’t all that surprised that “Graduates who told Gallup that they had a professor or professors who cared about them as a person — or had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams and/or had an internship where they applied what they were learning — were twice as likely to be engaged with their work and thriving in their overall well-being.” Mentorship can be a powerful thing.
After I graduated from UWGB in 2007, I entered a graduate program in political science. In 2013, I graduated with a Ph.D. and was lucky enough to return to UWGB as an assistant professor that same year. Never in a million years did I think I’d earn a Ph.D. and become a college professor. It is amazing what a little encouragement from faculty members can do. A few days ago, I was talking with a colleague about a student who clearly has the skills necessary to flourish in graduate school (and is interested in attending) but who has expressed concern about her ability to succeed. I was instantly reminded of the experiences that I had while I was a student here.
I can honestly say that without the encouragement from UWGB faculty members, it’s very unlikely that I would have considered graduate school. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that faculty members should encourage all students to attend graduate school. Graduate school is not for everyone. What I am suggesting, though, is that faculty members can have tremendous impacts on the way students see themselves and what they think is possible. For me, getting a Ph.D. didn’t seem possible until faculty members helped me see that it was. For someone else, a little encouragement from a faculty member might get them to see that it is possible to get a job working on a social issue that they care about. For another student, a little encouragement from a faculty member might help them see that it is possible to start their own business. For another, a little encouragement from a faculty member might help them see that it is possible to become a social worker.
It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of academic life—things can get quite busy around here. But, I think it’s important that every once and a while we stop and think about the power of what we do. Isn’t it amazing that a faculty member—sometimes just by sitting down and chatting with a student a few times—can show them that something they once thought was impossible is actually a possibility after all? That’s a powerful (and beautiful) thing, if you ask me.
*I would like to dedicate this blog post to Terri Johnson, a mentor of mine when I was a student at UWGB. I recently learned that she has been diagnosed with cancer and want to wish her a speedy recovery. Terri taught me about the value and importance of mentoring and I try to replicate her example every day.
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