Redefining the "Ideal" Academic Position: Why I Chose to Become a LINC Project Manager

By Jessica Bock (Mechanical Engineering Graduate Student)

I started graduate school because I thought I wanted to pursue a career in academia. After completing my undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering at a small bachelor’s-granting institution (private, liberal arts), beginning graduate school at a large (public) R-1 university was a bit of a culture shock. Seeing both sides of the academic spectrum helped cultivate my appreciation for the differences in experiences and opportunities available at different campus environments. I enjoy the vast resources and variety of courses that a large institution can offer, and I value the small class sizes and emphasis on teaching at a small institution.

In an R-1 institution, it can be easy to overlook and undervalue teaching; however, I have sought opportunities to engage in teaching, mentorship, and outreach throughout my academic training. I found out about the LINC program through a colleague and, while I didn’t know much about LINC when they began advertising project manager (PM) openings, I could see that this would be a valuable experience. So I applied to become a PM, and the rest is history!

One reason that I was interested in the LINC Project Manager position was because of the number of design projects that I completed as an undergrad. As an undergrad, I was required to enroll in a course with a design project every spring semester (or join one of the Senior Design project teams). It was an opportunity to do “hands on” engineering and gain experience with planning, managing, documenting, and completing a project. If I were to become a faculty member at a similar institution, it would be helpful to have experience managing similar project-based courses. The LINC PM position provided a different opportunity than the typical Teaching Assistant experience, and would allow me to showcase some breadth in my teaching experience and advising abilities.

My experience as a PM wasn’t always easy, but the challenge was exciting and rewarding. It was reassuring to have the support of the entire LINC team and to be able to share successes and challenges with PMs from other sections. There were valuable lessons about pedagogy and best practices for effective teaching that not only improved my teaching but also translated to knowledgeable conversations about education. I expanded my repertoire of classroom assessment techniques and learned how to better solicit and incorporate useful feedback from my students to improve the classroom experience.

Because of LINC, I had the opportunity to:

·         manage a full course with no prior TA experience

·         develop my own lesson plans and course materials

·         learn about pedagogy and effective teaching skills

·         gain experience teaching a project-based course

(which could be related to advising senior design teams)

·         teach an interdisciplinary course with a diverse enrollment

·         practice and improve classroom management and conflict resolution skills

·         facilitate independent student learning outside the classroom

·         participate in discussions with other Project Managers

·         help solve current problems and meet the needs of community partners

and I could do it all with the support of the entire LINC team and a co-PM.

In a research institution, it can be easy to forget that there are academic jobs—valuable academic jobs—beyond the coveted R-1 tenured professorship. Research and scholarship are not limited to the lab. My experience with LINC served as an introduction to pedagogical research and practice, leading me to complete certificates offered through the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning (CITL) and a graduate minor in College Teaching. I have discovered that there is a whole body of literature (even PhD programs) on research in engineering education. According to some of the literature, improved classroom experiences could lead to higher numbers of underrepresented students entering and persisting in STEM majors—which is important to me, a female student in STEM. In order to continue recruiting and producing exceptional and diverse students, a program should continue to improve teaching methods and find ways to be innovative in the classroom. Those innovations and improvements can be realized by applying the research skills gained in graduate school to teaching.

I started graduate school because I wanted to pursue a career in academia. That hasn’t changed. I have, however, refined my definition of the “ideal” academic position. My experience as a LINC PM is closely aligned with my career goals, giving me valuable experience and talking points for cover letters and interviews. It will also be an advantage in the job market, showcasing experiences that go above and beyond the typical TA position. I highly recommend it for anyone considering a career in academia, management, or consulting. It is also a unique opportunity to get the immediate gratification of seeing suggestions from your project being implemented by the community partner.

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