Scholar Spotlight: Dr. Gina Garcia (Part I)

The Ebony Tower’s Daphne Penn had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Gina Garcia, Assistant Professor of Administrative and Policy Studies at University of Pittsburgh, for the Scholar Spotlight. In addition to her position as a tenure-track professor at Pitt, Dr. Garcia is also a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and a Spencer/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellow.

The conversation with Dr. Garcia was so insightful and so chock-full of advice about navigating graduate school and the academic job market that we had to break it down into two parts. Part I of the Spotlight, below, will focus on Dr. Garcia’s somewhat delayed/reluctant path to academia and feature insight and advice for advance graduate students who are considering going on the academic job market. 

 Daphne: Tell me about your background. What led you to the academic path?

Dr. Garcia: I will say that I’ve always been somewhat, I guess, nerdy. I’ve always been very much in love with school. Never wanted to miss school – even when I was sick. I guess that it was always in my path that I would do something very academic, something that would allow me to read, and write, and think all the time, which is basically my job as a faculty member, right? We get to just think.

But, I guess for me it came later because, when I was an undergrad, I didn’t really think much about being a faculty member or being a scholar. I know for some people it starts that early, but it didn’t for me.  

It’s interesting because, now that I think about it – I study institutions of higher education- the type of institution you go to matters [in regard to walking the academic path]. If you attend a research institution, you’re probably more likely to be exposed to research through undergraduate research programs, and those programs have been shown to improve the path to the professoriate for people of color.

I wasn’t exposed to any of those things. I was in a very practical major – business. I wanted to be a CEO, and I wanted to have money! (laughs) I was a business major, mostly because of my father, that’s what he wanted me to do. That’s all he really knew, you can be a doctor or a teacher or you can go into business and then you can have money. And if you go into business you can have money and that’s great, right? That’s all he knew, he didn’t know much else; he didn’t know anything about a discipline or becoming a professor.

After I graduated I went to go work for the toy company called Mattel. Everybody thought that was a dream job and I hated it. They were like, “Oh my God, you work for Barbie!” and I’m like, “Yeah, it’s not really all it’s cracked up to be.” I didn’t love it. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there, I just didn’t know where I was supposed to be.

Daphne: So how did you go from future CEO to Assistant Professor?

I spent two years trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. A friend of mine encouraged me to apply to be a resident director at the University of California at Riverside. I went in for the interview and I got the job on the spot; they hired me that day. I accepted immediately, and I was like, “Yes! Absolutely, this is what I want to do.”

At that point, I thought I was going to be a college administrator; I wanted to support undergraduates. A year after starting the job, I began a master’s program [in college student personnel] and although I was exposed to research, I didn’t think much about scholarship. But, I had faculty there who saw something in me and encouraged me to do a master’s thesis. I did a thesis and I enjoyed it, but then I went out and I got a job [as a retention coordinator].

In the back of my head, I always knew that I eventually would pursue a PhD, but I didn’t know what that actually meant. I stayed at my job for 4 years and then I went to go get a PhD, finally. When I entered [school] again I didn’t think I was going to be a professor. Well, in the back of my head, I thought, “maybe I could be a faculty member, but it’s really hard. How do you get a faculty job?” I studied higher education, I knew the statistics, and very few people get faculty jobs. I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high and not get the job; I’ve seen people be crushed in that way. So I just kind of figured, “It’s okay if I don’t get the faculty job.”

I never thought to commit to it until the end of my third year when I kind of start thinking, “its now or never, right?” I had one more year and I had to decide. I knew to go all in; I knew I needed to be fully in the job market — on the job market for faculty jobs or not, but that I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t apply for administrative jobs and faculty jobs because I just didn’t have the energy to do it. I had two kids and one was just born – a baby, one month old. There was no way I could be on multiple job markets.

Daphne: Given how adamant you were about being a college administrator, what made you decide on the academic job market?

I was writing a proposal for a grant at the time and I just remember sitting in the library as I was writing it and thinking, “I love this; this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” It was like a puzzle trying to figure out how to write it; how to write for the funding source; what I was going to do [study], and what kinds of data was I going to use. That’s what I wanted to do. I really truly felt that I loved it and I wanted to be on the tenure track. At that moment I decided I would pursue the faculty job and I would go on the market and I did. I said, “I’m here on the market.”

Daphne: In terms of when you were navigating the job market, given that you did not have a specific discipline, did you made your job market experience more challenging or did it provide you more options in terms of where you could go?

I think it limited me. I think when I was on the job market I didn’t even think about any other types of job besides higher education programs. That was it. My degree is in higher education and organizational change, which is a very specific area. There are some people, even from my program, who graduate and go on the job market more broadly because — maybe they’ve done something like getting a secondary field or based on maybe what their master’s field.

Two years prior to me being on the job market, things were really dry; there were very few jobs in our field. The year I went on, there were a ton. I don’t know why, they just all came down the pipeline at the same exact time. There were probably 30-40 jobs. I might be exaggerating a little bit, but not that much. I know this because I have a cohort; we call ourselves the faculty of color cohort, a cohort of faculty of color in higher education programs. There are 19 of us, and that’s faculty of color only. I’m sure white graduate students got jobs too that year.

But there were a bunch of jobs, and that obviously made it a little bit better. Where as if I went on the job market three years earlier, nobody got jobs because there weren’t any jobs. It just depends on what’s available at the different times.

Daphne One of the things that I notice when we first started exchanging emails is that not only did you have the title Assistant Professor but you had also earned the Ford Foundation and Spencer Post-doctoral Fellowships. You clearly figured something out. What I wanted to know what are some tips and strategies that you can share with advanced doctoral students about navigating life as an advance student with applying for fellowships or navigating the job market.

Dr. Garcia: I’m not really sure how I got to this place. Getting two postdocs was amazing; I didn’t think I’d even get one and then I got both. I was like, “What in the world?” I’ve had a lot of success, obviously, in the job market and in the fellowship realm and whatnot. There are so many different recommendations I have. I guess for people who are advanced in their studies I think the number one thing is to recognize what is legitimized in higher education, which is research and publications in top-tier journals.

As much as I study institutions of higher education and want to disrupt what is normalized, because I think normalized also means white and hetero normative, the reality is that those structures are very much ingrained in our system. Even if you want to disrupt those normative ways of thinking in higher education, we have to learn also how to function within them. I’m getting to a place now where I’m getting enough publications in those top tier journals and doing things that my white, male, older colleagues value. They think it’s great because I get published in these areas, and I get fellowships. Once I do that then I’m able to do a little more of the work I want to do, which is work with the community and work with doctoral students of color. I also want to go work in my kids’ school and have that be part of my scholarship. Those things are more important to me than publishing in the top tier journals, which legitimizes me as a scholar, but it’s not the most important thing to me as a person. With that said, I think number one we have to know how function with the system, and I hate saying that but it’s true. You have to focus on that first and foremost.

Daphne: I think sometimes that is really hard to hear because I think we all want immediate change, but it’s a reality of the profession.

 Dr. Garcia: We’re getting better and better at it. I know a lot of faculty who did all the things that are valued, but once they got tenure, they started disrupting things. They’re leading the path for all of us.

I feel like faculty of color a generation ahead of us did the important work of paving a way because they were non-existent. They had to legitimize themselves and say, “Hey, we’re actually legitimate scholars and we deserve to be here.” They broke down the initial walls and now those of us coming in the next round, we get to do something more because they’ve already broken down the walls. “Okay, you’ve broken down the walls and we get to actually shake stuff up,” while still falling in those lines of what you’ve got to do, you know, the legitimate stuff first – it’s what we’ve got to do. (laughter) Academia is all kinds of interesting.

 Daphne: Any strategies on how to accomplish the tasks most valued within the academy?

I think that the best way to do that as a grad student and as an aspiring scholar is to work with other people. I don’t think that this is something I could ever have done on my own. I work with, not only my peers, but also different faculty, post-docs, and anybody who is willing to work with me and teach me. It wasn’t always the most well known of scholars. Other doc students were better about networking, meeting superstar scholars, and trying to figure out how to work with them. I’m not good at that. I was like, “Well, I’m just going to what I can do.” Which for me was publishing with my peers. I have a group of 3 other peers I went to school with and they all got tenure track jobs, but we helped each other. I think that that’s important because we don’t all have access to the most well-known, famous scholars to publish with, but that’s okay. You can publish with your peers and still become known and get legitimized by doing that sort of work.

 Daphne: One of our editors at the Ebony Tower she’s about to go on the job market, she’s about to defend her dissertation. She’s particularly interested in how you managed the stress of the interview process.

I am a big fan of Myers Briggs personality indicators, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but just in general knowing yourself. One of the important indicators for Myers-Briggs is related to introversion versus extroversion – where you get your energy. I think it’s really important for people to know and be true to themselves. During the interview, you typically start with breakfast with the Dean, a Chair or, somebody important and then you give talks all day and meet with doctoral students and all those sort of things. I’m okay with that full day because I’m an extrovert- although it doesn’t mean I’m not going to be exhausted by the end of the day – but I think people who are a little more introverted and who get there energy from taking a step back and being quiet for a little while need to value that and respect that. It’s important to know yourself, what is good for you, and what you need; if you need that break time or whatever it might be, ask for it.

Daphne: That makes complete sense. I am definitely the type of person that would need a break…

Dr. Garcia: I’m going to give you an example, which is kind of a little bit different but it could be good and it could be relevant to people: When I was on the job market I was actually nursing and I needed time to pump. This was something I have to do and it takes time to pump, it takes at least 30 minutes. I needed a space, I needed to sit down, and I needed quiet. I had to be very open and honest about that with the person who was coordinating my visits, and be like, “Hey, I need a break and preferably around this time period.” That break was sort of non-negotiable for me because I would have been very uncomfortable if I didn’t get the chance to pump.

Everybody respected that. Obviously they could get a discrimination law suit if they didn’t, and some people were a little uncomfortable with it – males in particular were like, “I’m going to have you work with my doc student who’s a female and she’s going to help you figure out where to pump and all those sort of things.” They made it happen and they made time in my schedule to let me pump. It was a one-hour break in a lot of cases because I asked for at least 30 minutes so they would give me a good amount of time.

You’re allowed to do those sort of things when you’re on the job market if you need them. You’re not going to be like, “Hey, I need an hour just so I can watch TV.” It’s okay to let the person coordinating your visit know if you need a break to get ready, even to get ready for your talk, because they don’t always give it.

Daphne I’m actually happy that you shared that story. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of articles about women who are kind of afraid or kind of anxious about pursuing academia as well as pursuing their dreams of motherhood.

The year I started at my institution, I don’t know how many people got jobs that year across the school, but there are me and 4 others that I can think of who started that same year and we all have children under 10. All of us. Most of us have at least 2 children under 10. That was really cool to see. When I thought about that, everybody hired the same year as me all had children; most were partnered and had children. Again I [credit] the generation before us that had broken down the walls, because I know a lot of women faculty, senior scholars, people who were my mentors, who never got married, who never had kids. I wonder, I’ve never asked them, but I don’t know if they made that decision to not do those things or is it because the felt like they couldn’t. [But I do think] we’re starting to see a really big shift.

In some fields it’s easier than others, honestly. I also know scientists that have to be in a lab for 12 hour days, that’s hard. I’m a social scientist, I do my work right here in my home. I can work from the home and I can have a child and manage my childcare while working. I recognize that there are differences by field, but I hope that we’re seeing a big shift in the culture.

Daphne: In closing up the market questions: Is there anything in particular that you feel like graduate students going on the job market should really pay attention to as they are visiting departments or as they are applying?

I think it’s going to vary a lot by discipline, which has a lot to do with my recommendation. You have to be aware of the differences based on your field and what people in your field are looking for and are interested in. Going back to this idea of what’s valued –in [the field of] education, peer-reviewed journal articles are valued – in the tenure process as well. I’ve been advised not to write a book because books aren’t valued any more than a journal article. In other fields you need to have a book before you’re tenured. Different things are valued in different ways, and I think you have to really know your field, know what is valued, and build your CV based on those sorts of things.

I think also attending different types of workshops for emerging faculty — people who are applying on the job market in the next 2 years. I would say start to attend those. I have one [doctoral] student who is going on the market next year and just jumps right into networking and conferences and other opportunities; I also have one [doctoral student] who is a little more introverted and doesn’t. I almost want to push her and be like, “Do these things.” I think it’s important to do those sorts of things. That’s how you get to know the field, that’s how you get to know what’s going to be expected on the job market when you go to those talks and when you go to those workshops. I would definitely encourage folks to do those.

Take all those opportunities, especially for students of color in every field. Those sorts of things are starting to pop up because we realize there aren’t very many of us. There’s a lot of training and mentoring and different things going on for people of color because we realize we have to do that – [you know], training and mentoring and developing those workshops so we can make sure that there’s more of us in tenure type jobs who stay and get promoted. The numbers are horrific actually – for the number of faculty of color who actually get tenure track jobs and will actually get promoted — actually get tenure.

I would encourage people to do those things and take advantage of as many of those opportunities as you can pre-job market. I would say at least the last 2 years of the doctoral program to start really taking advantage of those emerging scholar workshops and events.

Stay tuned for Part II, which will focus on her research on Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), her thoughts on the role of universities in serving minoritized populations, and her approaches to using research to create change within institutions of higher education.

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