Dr. Mary Dixson is a professor and the Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas, and she loves her job!
As the Dean, Mary manages a service-learning program and related outreach activities, oversees distance learning programs, directs faculty development, writes grants, manages an Honors program, develops learning community programs for new students, and a whole lot more. Oh, and she teaches classes, too!
Prior to becoming Dean, Mary was the Executive Director of the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation, the Associate Director of the UT Austin Annette Strauss Institute, a Visiting Professor at Trinity University, Adjunct Faculty at UT San Antonio, a Recruiter for Manpower and an Account Executive with Spherion Staffing Services.
I had the chance to visit with Mary recently and got some insight into why she loves her job so much.
As a child, what did want to be when you grew up?
Believe it or not, I knew when I was four years old that I wanted to be a teacher.
I knew at 13 that I wanted to be a college professor, and by the time I was in my Master’s program I realized that I needed to make some more money before I became a professor (because graduate school is expensive!). So I took three years off from graduate school and went into the recruiting and staffing business. When I went back to school, I also taught in the evenings as an adjunct faculty member at local colleges and universities. Eventually, I moved into university project director and internship coordinator roles which ultimately led me to where I am today.
Now I get to live my childhood dream of being a teacher and use the skills I gained along the way in management and administration, budgeting, writing and communication, and personnel management (hiring, training, managing and mentoring staff). It’s great!
Mine has been a fairly linear path with a number of small side journeys along the way. I have always known I wanted to work in education, but my path to getting there has had a few very valuable detours.
Take me on the journey that has been your career path
I graduated into a lousy economy in 1993 with a Bachelor’s in Communication and went straight into a Master’s program in Communication. I fell in love with a Texas A&M “Aggie” and followed him to San Antonio. That is where I got into the staffing industry. Three years later I resigned from my job to enter the Doctoral program at UT Austin. While a Doctoral student, I was a teaching assistant for one year and an assistant instructor/internship coordinator for 2.5 years. I then became a project manager for a grant while working on my dissertation. I did that for a year, and then was a visiting professor at Trinity for one year. After that, I went back to UT Austin to become assistant director and then associate director of the UT Strauss Center. My husband and I decided that, with a young family, the commute to Austin from San Antonio was getting to be too much, so I took a job as the first Executive Director of the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation. After helping that organization get started, I moved into my current position with Northwest Vista College
Why did you choose to go into the recruiting and staffing business?
I was 22 years old. I needed a job and they were opening a new office in San Antonio. Honestly, I got lucky.
I frequently tell my students: Your first job out of college will probably not be central to your career, but might provide a side route that teaches you some very interesting things about yourself and your work that will be really beneficial as your career progresses.
After consulting with my Master’s program graduate adviser, we both agreed that I would be best served by taking some time off from my studies and working for a few years. I had originally applied to be a recruiter, but about 20 minutes into the interview they began asking me about my interest in a sales role, and it turned out to be a great fit.
I learned more in those three years than I have learned anywhere else, because I was meeting so many different people. My job was to listen to their needs and see if we could meet their needs with our services. I learned how to interview, hire and manage people. I learned a lot about the business community in San Antonio, and I learned a lot about corporate culture.
When I returned to graduate school, my work experience proved very valuable. Professors wanted me to do work for them because I had skills, experience and knowledge they needed. I also asked for work; I didn’t wait for people to ask me. As a result, I stayed consistently employed throughout graduate school while many of my peers struggled to find part-time jobs, teaching assistantships or research positions.
I got lucky, but I worked very hard, too – both in my jobs and in graduate school. The money I made in sales made it possible for me to take on the low-paid assistant positions available to graduate students without taking on a bunch of student loans.
I have a lot of fond memories from my days in staffing, and I still have a lot of friends from that part of my career.
What has surprised you during your career? What could you not have predicted?
I never would have predicted the career path I ended up taking.
When I was in my early 20s and in the Master’s program, my career plan had me working toward a faculty position at a Tier 1 research university, doing communication research, teaching students and writing books and articles for scholarly journals like the Quarterly Journal for Speech.
What changed your plans?
Three things: One, I fell in love, got married at a fairly early age, and recognized that you have to work hard to find balance between work and family. Two, I had a faculty mentor during my Doctoral studies who helped me develop a broader and more comprehensive understanding of research; that it’s not all about writing for scholarly journals. And Three, my time in the staffing industry helped me realize that I have a lot of other skills sets that I wanted to use in my academic career; skills in management and administration that I wouldn’t be able to use to a great extent as a traditional academic focusing so much on research.
I don’t regret the path I have taken at all; I just never would have predicted it. I am really proud of what I do at Northwest Vista. It is just as important as the work faculty do at research universities – it’s just different work.
What are some of the aspects of your job that you don’t love?
When I was in the staffing business, I hated having to fire people. I had to let one guy go while he was on his way to work. The company called me and said “we don’t need his services anymore.” I had to call and tell him. Telling someone they no longer have a job is not fun under any circumstances, and I had to do that over and over again. I never got used to that.
I also didn’t like cold calling very much. It is the hardest part of being in sales, but I knew it was necessary. I had to force myself to make cold calls, and I’m glad I did because they got results.
As a professor and dean – I guess it’s the external things that we have to react to that aren’t as directly focused on our students. Having to deal with budget crises is a great example.
What advice do you have for college students?
You need to be willing to do the jobs no one else wants to do, and you need to be willing to ask for work. The person who asks for work is going to get the most work. You can’t sit around waiting for someone to find you. You have to take the initiative.
At the undergraduate level: Get the education you want to get and then figure out what you are going to do with that degree while you are getting it. Three years after you graduate, no one is going to ask you what your undergraduate major was, so study something that interests you and use it to learn how to learn and how to love learning.
Of course, if you know you want to be, for example, an engineer or an accountant, you major at the undergraduate level does matter. Just realize that standard doesn’t apply across the board.
At the graduate level it’s a whole different story. You major DOES matter. There are far too many people in graduate school who don’t really know why they are in graduate school or what they are going to do with their graduate degree when they finish.
What skills should every student develop while they are in college?
Writing and research.
Every course I took at AugustanaCollege had a writing component, and this was great because it taught me how to research topics thoroughly, analyze the information I had gathered and write articulate and well-reasoned reports.
Being able to fundamentally research a topic and write, for example, a one-page white paper on your findings and observations, is a critically important skill that everyone needs but far too few people possess.
Honestly, that is what a cover letter is – a one-page persuasive statement intended to convince your target audience to consider you for a job.
Let’s talk about the job market for college professors
The job market for professors has changed – it’s gotten a lot tougher over the past 10-15 years.
Traditional, tenure-track positions aren’t gone, but they are harder and harder to find. There are a lot more lecture and adjunct faculty positions, and the tenure track positions are becoming more and more demanding.
If you want to become a college professor these days, you had better develop a diverse set of teaching and research skills and expertise. The more versatile you are, the more options you will have.
If you specialize in something really obscure or in a low-demand field, it will be hard to find a job and chances are you will have to move around a lot.
For example, if you get a PhD while focusing on Middle Eastern Antiquities, Feminist Film Analysis, or even History for that matter, you will spend a lot of time money getting a PhD, you will have a hard time finding a job, and that job probably won’t pay very well. Know that going in!
If you knew then what you know now . . .
I am not a fan of regrets, so I really don’t think I would have changed much.
That said, if I had it to do all over again, I probably would have taken more graduate courses outside of my principle field. Had I done that I would be able to teach in multiple disciplines beyond communication. I would like be even more versatile.
In terms of general advice . . .
Get a mentor. Get advice from people doing what you think you want to do. Want to be professor? Talk to professors to find out what it’s really like. Want to work in sales? Talk to a sales professional. Ask questions. Ask for opportunities. Don’t wait for someone else do it for you. Own your career journey and actively manage it.