Urmimala talks with Dr. J.D. Thomas, Rutgers’ Assistant Dean for Project Management, Communications, and Special Projects about the development of his career in higher education administration.
- Let’s begin with your early career: where did you go to school for your undergraduate studies and what was your field?
I attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas, from 2000-2004, double majoring in English and History with a particular interest in American literature and religious culture.
- Please tell us about your graduate career: where did you go to graduate school and what did you work on? What was your motivation behind going to graduate school?
Toward the end of my undergraduate career, I didn’t really know if I wanted to pursue a PhD, so I applied to a few master’s programs and eventually enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s graduate program in English. To make a long story short, I completed my master’s degree in 2006 and decided to take a year off from graduate school before pursuing a PhD. I was hired as the Assistant Director of USC’s Writing Center during that time, and I spent the year working with writing instructors, preparing my graduate school application materials, and finalizing a few papers for publication. I then applied and was accepted into Rutgers’ graduate program in English, beginning my doctoral work in the fall of 2007. In the years that followed, I turned my attention to early American literature and religious studies, writing a dissertation that explored the ways that children’s books shaped (and were shaped by) eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Protestant devotional culture.
- Please describe your current job at Rutgers. What are your duties and how do you manage them?
I work at the Graduate School-New Brunswick as the Assistant Dean for Project Management, Communications, and Special Projects, and I’m currently involved in a wide range of projects. This past year, I collaborated with one of our Associate Deans and a web application developer to create a new Awards Portal that students can use to apply for Conference Travel Awards. I worked with graduate program directors and administrative assistants across 70+ graduate program to ensure that all graduate program information was up-to-date and readily accessible. I re-activated old, dormant social media accounts so as to create new communication channels between our school, the Rutgers community, and the general public, and working closely with one of our Senior Administrative Assistants, I organized several faculty and staff awards committees. I am currently working with my graduate school colleagues and a team from the firm Ologie to develop a new website for the new School of Graduate Studies—a new administrative unit formed out of the merger of the Graduate School-New Brunswick and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences—and I’ve just finished interviewing applicants for a student photographer position.
Simply put, like so many administrators here at Rutgers, I wear many different hats week in and week out, which means that management—of projects, time, resources, etc.—is an important part of my day-to-day work.
- Please tell us how you happened to choose your current career path? How did you transition to this job?
This is a difficult question to answer succinctly. To put it as simply as possible, my priorities evolved as I made my way through graduate school here at Rutgers. I entered with a single goal in mind—a tenure-track professorship at an American university. But I changed over the years, and my priorities did as well. Several years ago, I was hired as a part-time graduate administrator by a unit affiliated with Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and I realized that I was well-suited to the position. A few months after my dissertation defense, I was hired as the Lead Administrator at a Rutgers humanities center, which helped me develop my skill set and prepared me to transition into my current position. Of course, this is a gross simplification of my professional journey. The actual transition from graduate school to university administration was much messier (as it is with most job searches), characterized by highs and lows, successes and mistakes.
- What were some of the major hindrances you face in your current job?
When I look back on where I was two to four years ago—and where I might have been today had I made a few different decisions along the way—I am so fortunate to be where I am because I could have easily ended up in a number of different, less satisfying work environments. My current position challenges me on a weekly basis, and this has led me to develop new skill sets to meet those challenges, which I find personally gratifying. In terms of hindrances, I can’t think of any. Except maybe Cornerstone (because I don’t understand Cornerstone). Lucky for me, two amazing business specialists work right down the hall from my office.
- What is a major caveat, in your opinion, of graduate education today? What is your parting advice to graduate students interested in non-academic jobs in university setting?
Looking at the current state of world affairs, I believe more than ever in the importance of graduate education and the value of cutting-edge research across the disciplines. Even though there is a great demand across this country for professionals with advanced degrees, the academic labor market is not what it used to be. I would encourage current and incoming graduate students to avoid professional blinders. I’m referring specifically to students who have committed so much of their mental and emotional energy to a single, overriding pursuit—in this case, the coveted tenure-track position—that they lose sight of the many exciting career opportunities that exist outside that single track. In a perfect world, graduate students (especially incoming students) would think of academia as merely one track among many, and they would prepare themselves for a wide range of career opportunities as they moved toward the completion of their graduate degrees.
What I learned in my own job search was the invaluable role of professional experience when it came to non-academic job searches. I’m sometimes amazed at how influential that first, part-time administrative position was for my professional career. Many students have excellent academic credentials, but their resumes sometimes lack the kinds of professional experiences that employers are searching for and expecting. I would encourage students to gain skill sets that are relevant to several different fields. That way, they will prepare themselves to pursue not one career track but many.
7. Recently GSNB organized the ‘Science Matters’ video shoot. Tell us about the motivation behind such an endeavor, your experience shooting it and the response that you got for the video.
I first learned about the video shoot from a colleague at University Communications and Marketing. To complement Earth Day, and in response to current events taking place at the national level, her office was hoping to produce a video that emphasized Rutgers’ continued commitment to scientific research. We were on a tight schedule, but I reached out to a number of colleagues across Busch campus and asked them for assistance. With their help, I coordinated the video shoot and worked alongside the university’s videographer. Initially, the question “Why does science matter?” surprised a few of the interviewees, but it helped to spark conversations about a wide variety of interesting, important research projects that our students are involved in.
8. What is your view of the iJOBS program running at Rutgers?
For the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure to work alongside Dr. Janet Alder and her colleagues, and I’m thrilled at the programs they have in place for iJOBS participants, from workshop to site visits to alumni panels. Compared to our partner institutions, they’re really at the forefront when it comes to graduate student professional development initiatives. I’m excited about the work they’re doing and think that iJOBS provides a model for the creation of future programs aimed at professionalizing students across the disciplines.