February 2023

An Interview Series - Professors teaser image

An Interview Series - Professors

Abigail Graves


Learning is not attained by chance; it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence. – Abigail Adams

Countless university students across the world struggle with difficult professors every semester. Whether the workload is too rigorous, the expectations too vague, or the course too disorganized, we have all had professors who seemed to make life more challenging than necessary. If you have ever struggled to speak with, relate to, or request help from a professor, we hope that these three interviews can offer insight, advice, and reassurance… as well as a gentle reminder that professors are people, too.

Name: Zivko Nikolov
Place of Birth: Trnovo, Bulgaria
Education: B. S. Food Engineering, Serbia; PhD Chemical Engineering, Iowa State University (1987)
Occupation: Professor (Iowa State University, Texas A&M University)

1. Why did you decide to become a professor?
I primarily became a professor because I was interested in doing research. I was excited about the research, and at the time I started my PhD in the 80s, biotechnology, recombinant DNA, and enzymes were exciting areas. So, the driver for me was that academic research provided me with a sufficient amount of freedom to execute my own ideas rather than going to the corporate world where people are told what the priorities of a particular company are in the areas of research and development.

I also like to train graduate students in research. Teaching undergraduate students is fun now, but when professors start tenure, there is a lot of pressure on publishing research and getting grants. But, I do like the research and ideas, and I’m still excited about going to the labs. Seeing the students, discussing the project, and analyzing the results still excite me to this day.

Another thing that excites me is teaching my class on wastewater treatment. It’s a new class for me and not my area of expertise, but I know enough. The biological and agricultural engineering department is focused on future water quality and water recycling, so learning the issues with water and water recycling are exciting to me. I’m excited to be putting the class together and teaching it to my students.

2. What are some of the common mistakes you see students make?
An issue I see with students is they’re not being prepared from lecture to lecture and their coming to class assuming that the information they are going to learn from me, the lecture, or the slides is  sufficient and does not warrant any further reviewing of the textbook or other lectures. Students will  also ask questions in class where I’m not quite sure they understood the material well enough, but then they do not express an interest in seeking help from their advisor or from the professor teaching the class.

Specifically with undergraduate students, I get the feeling that they are less committed and dedicated to really learning the material, and they are under the notion that all of this information is available elsewhere – “If I need it, I’ll find it.” They think they can send a text to their colleagues or use the internet and get all the information they need, so there is no need to go in depth and try to understand the material better.

3. As a professor, what impresses you about particular students? What sets them apart?
I’m impressed by any student who shows inquisitiveness and who is honest with how much they know or don’t know about a specific topic. I think that a student with honesty and an understanding of their own deficiencies is something all professors enjoy seeing, because that is why we are here, to cover the gaps in deficiencies. I really appreciate the students who are well-organized and inquisitive, critical thinkers who are specific enough to come and say, “Here is what I’m getting, and this result doesn’t make sense. I would like to better understand this, so would you please share with me?” At the graduate level, I appreciate a researcher making a plan and saying, “This is what I’m going to do.”

Critical thinking and analysis are important. If a student stumbles with a particular problem, I appreciate when they admit they don’t understand it but still try to find the answer and have a plan for getting to the solution. That also specifically applies to research. Even though graduate students have some background and understanding, it is still a challenge to find new venues and solutions to a particular problem. Students may be bumping into walls left and right, but not giving up is what distinguishes a good, inquisitive student from the others who only want a degree to get better employment.

4. What general advice for academic success do you have for students?
Be broadly interested. The world is not just knowing chemistry or physics or engineering. Especially nowadays, all of the sciences and technologies are interconnected, so you need to be broadly educated and informed. Speaking from personal experience, I thought the most important thing was being excellent in a particular subject of research or teaching or whatever I ended up doing. However, nothing we do exists in a vacuum.

Consider the way we get the news. Nowadays, we complain about all these things that are happening and about how we have never lived in such a difficult time, whether it be regarding governments or economics or natural disasters. In the past, it took time to get news, so it would get diluted, but today, we are hearing these things the moment they happen. We have so much information about the specifics and all this other information about everything else, so you have to keep up to date because all of these events, one way or another, may impact your career, your well-being, or your happiness. Therefore, you have to understand all the interconnectivity in order to balance your life adequately throughout your education and later on professionally.

Because of the things that are happening right now, students are busy panicking and thinking that this is the end of the road, and this creates anxiety. However, being informed and knowing that these things have happened in the past can reduce that anxiety. For example, I’ve been reading these discussions about the COVID impact on students. When the pandemic started, I obviously knew there would be impacts, but I didn’t expect them to be as great as they have been. Many students do have anxiety and come tell us that they are having a difficult time coping with the material. But remember, I am older and have lived through similar events, so in some cases, I’m concerned that students are using COVID as an excuse. I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out. But, it would be nice to pose these questions to students for personal reflection: “Is your struggle with understanding the material and studying for the exams causing you to subconsciously use these world events as a way to be given leeway?”

Name: Yulan Guan
Place of Birth: Heilongjiang Province, China
Education: Accounting, China University of Petroleum (1966)
Occupation: Accounting Professor/Lab Instructor (China University of Petroleum)

1. Why did you become a lab instructor?
I didn’t choose to work as an instructor. Shortly after I graduated, my school merged with other schools to combine into one university. When that happened, there was an open position in the labs, and I was assigned there and worked there for 28 years. My job was to work with students on their organic chemistry research-based projects in the labs.

However, I had gotten an accounting degree and was supposed to be teaching accounting at the university. I had actually started teaching accounting, but when my school merged into the one university, there were no more accounting students. Therefore, my job was changed from accounting professor to lab instructor, and I started teaching organic chemistry instead.

In China, at that time, you were assigned to a position and didn’t have any other choices. While I did enjoy it, I had to work there until I retired because I didn’t have any other options. In fact, a lot of people stayed in the same jobs their whole lives until they retired. Our lives were designed by the government. They assigned work to you, your pay would be guaranteed, and no one would ever fire you. It was a totally different economic environment than what is seen in western countries today.

2. What are some of the common mistakes you saw students make?
In the labs, the students would synthesize products, and for the course, it was required for students to follow the procedure and create the desired product. So, some students were well prepared for the class while others were not. Also, some students just weren’t careful in reading and following the procedure, and this resulted in poor yields.

3. What impressed you about particular students? What set them apart?
I had some students who really understood the background of the labs and knew how everything worked. There were also students who had a real passion for the material and had a distinct hands-on feel for the experiments. The theory behind the processes really clicked for these students, and they were really excited to see the results. The passionate students were my best students.

4. What general advice for academic success do you have for students?
You have to understand the theory of what you are studying and learn how to apply it. Make sure to combine the theory with the application well. For example, in Chinese medicines, this applies to the way people learn acupuncture. You have to first learn about the theory of acupuncture and gain an understanding of the nerves and where the vital organs are. And then, you practice with the needles, which is important because some areas of the body are very dangerous. Depending on the location, the needle angle has to change, so sometimes it’s perpendicular while other times it’s oblique. So, while knowing the locations and knowing the right angles is the theory of acupuncture, the hands-on part is just as important. You have to memorize and practice. Practice, practice, practice.

Name: Garrett Vande Kamp
Place of Birth: Ruston, Louisiana
Education: B. A. Political Science, Samford (2014); PhD Political Science, Texas A&M University (2019)
Occupation: Lecturer (Texas A&M University), Assistant Professor (University of Georgia)

* Denotes heavy sarcasm and/or frivolity; not to be taken verbatim

1. Why did you decide to become a professor?
I always knew that I wanted to be an educator. Even in high school, I tutored younger students and was called on by teachers to explain difficult concepts. I was also always really good at school and enjoyed the school environment, so why not? However, my aunt works as a high school teacher, and she told me, “Garrett, no. I don’t want this for you. Teaching high school sucks.” So, I told her I’d take that into
consideration.

While I was getting my undergraduate degree, I was doing well in classes, and my professors told me that I needed some sort of post-bachelor’s degree that would be the best use of my talents. Law school was floated because I majored in political science, and that’s a natural route for many people in that field. However, I didn’t want to work in a big corporate firm where I would be told what to do and be working for clients. I don’t like being told what to do.

But then, I took a research design class, and it kind of spoke to me. Quantifying human behavior and then using statistics to describe and explain human behavior… I found it fascinating, and it was persuasive in a way that a lot of political science literature that I’d read up until that point hadn’t been. The political philosophy literature and the qualitative literature… I just didn’t find persuasive them at all. So basically, I was really intrigued by the subject matter, had professors encouraging me, and I knew I liked to teach. It all sort of coalesced into my desire to start my PhD.

2. What are some of the common mistakes you see students make?
Well, the first mistake was enrolling in graduate school. Graduate students simply make poor life choices, and that’s why they’re still in school instead of like… making money. So, right off the bat, they just need to stop going to graduate school*. But, I suppose if they are committed to the idea of getting a graduate degree, there are a few common mistakes that graduate students make.

These common mistakes fall onto a spectrum of reactions to graduate school, the place where professors start treating students seriously. In undergraduate classes, professors are forced to simplify what we know to a significant extent so that we can communicate with these people who have just finished high school. So, there are students who may have gone through undergraduate school acing their classes, but then they get to graduate school and are suddenly no longer nailing the material. And, it takes a huge emotional toll which results in two very different reactions.

First, there’s the depression-style reaction which is when students start thinking they’re not good enough, start feeling like they’re dumber than everybody else, start wondering if they have always been this stupid, and start believing that they can’t finish. And the other response we typically see is the defiant-type response which is when students see something isn’t right, start thinking that there is an issue with the program, and start pointing the finger outside themselves.

I think a lot of this stems from how we structure undergraduate degree programs versus how we structure graduate degree programs. Undergraduate students are not all research-level material, but most of the jobs that they are getting don’t require them to be geniuses. Therefore, professors focus on teaching them employable skills rather than teaching what is at the limits of human knowledge. However, whenever students get to graduate school, professors start treating them as an equal. Yes, they are still beginners, but they are treated more seriously. Because of that expectation, some students implode since they didn’t expect graduate school to be so heavy.

So, number one, the problem is the students. Their knowledge just isn’t up to professional standards yet because they haven’t been exposed to true academic rigor until now. However, it is good for students to recognize their current limitations doesn’t define their trajectory or where they will end up in the future. Like me, what I always had to tell myself was, “Trust the process. Trust the program. Trust my professors because they keep telling me I’m going to do well at some point even if I’m not doing well right now.”

And, that’s just the truth. Students, when they start off, are not where professors want them to be, but after years of having professors invest in them, they can be. Therefore, students can’t give up prematurely. They have to understand that when a faculty member takes the time to criticize them, that feedback comes from a place of love. We only give that criticism because we believe students can learn from it, do better the next time, and eventually become like us. That’s why we spend so much time criticizing and grading harshly… to help make students better. To professors, students are a golden nugget that we are mining from the depths of Mount Moria to be refined into a beautiful golden ring. However, that process involves burning off a lot of impurities. The process isn’t fun, but nonetheless, we believe in students’ capacities to get there. So, when a faculty member is investing a ton of time into a student, it can seem all negative, but it is actually the greatest form of respect that we can show them. Time is very limited, so if we choose to spend it on a particular student, it speaks to how much we think they are capable of doing great things in this world.

Part of everybody’s professional journey in graduate school is learning how to decouple their current career performance from their future career performance and trusting the process that they will get better over time. It’s also learning to decouple their careers in general from their personal identity, because the only way to grow as a person is to learn to separate skills from self-worth. If a student were to take all of our criticism personally, they would explode, but if they can take a step back and look at things objectively, they would see that they will get there eventually.

3. As a professor, what impresses you about particular students? What sets them apart?
There are a few things I look for in terms of students I really like and enjoy having in classes. I like when students can ask me questions to show they’re taking the material seriously. They’ll start asking questions that show they not only understand the material but that they are also thinking about how today’s lecture applies to previous lectures or applies to their other classes. They basically start piecing it all together. They even start asking questions that are very relevant but hadn’t occurred to me before and/or point to the weaknesses in our scholarly understanding of the topic. Whenever that happens, it’s always super fascinating to me.

I also like when graduate students work together. I teach the statistics-heavy courses in the social sciences department, so naturally, those classes are quite hard for our students. Therefore, I like it when students work together for assignments and studying and basically have a “High School Musical” mentality for graduate school – “We’re all in this together.” I think that’s a fantastic approach for two reasons. One, students who are really struggling have someone they feel comfortable talking to, and two, the students who aren’t struggling start to really understand what is going on because people don’t really start to understand a topic until they attempt to teach it to someone else. So, everybody really benefits from that approach.

Additionally, I like when my students get to know me. I don’t think I’ve ever had a student that I really liked who didn’t get to know me on a personal level. It was challenging for me when I started graduate school because I had never held a full-time job before and had basically only interacted with my peers for my entire life. I had never hung out with people who were significantly older than me, and I was super awkward about it with my professors. So, I always enjoy it when my students ask me questions about my personal life, my interests, or my undergraduate experience… topics that are not related to the material or even their careers. I obviously don’t give them all the personal details of my life, but I do enjoy getting to know my students.

Lastly, I like when my students stay in touch, when they send me periodic emails about what is going on in their lives and what they are accomplishing. It’s typically in the form of, “Hey, I’d like your advice on this particular topic,” but I also like it when they tell me, “Hey, I got married.” And, I’m like, “Oh! That’s a cool thing! Yay! Congratulations!” It’s fun to see our students not only grow as professionals but also to grow as people. And, that is super-duper rewarding.

4. What general advice for academic success do you have for students?
Academic success is only relevant in terms of someone’s broader career. You have to consider if the skills you are learning right now are going to be useful for you moving forward in your life. I can think of times where I took classes because I was good at a subject material, but I eventually realized that even if I kept doing this, it wasn’t going to really matter to my career, make a big scholarly impact, or just simply wasn’t going to make me happy. If that’s the case for you, you shouldn’t keep taking those classes.

One of the best pieces of advice I received as a new professor is that you are told to work hard to get tenure so that you can teach for a lifetime, but if you hate your job now, you’re probably going to hate it over the course of a lifetime. Therefore, you should just find a different job, and that’s true in graduate school as well. Think about what makes you happy and what will make you achieve the life goals you have for yourself. It’s perfectly okay look at your program and realize this isn’t the career that you want and move on to something else. It really is a tremendous thing because life isn’t about titles so much as it is about the work you are doing and the life that you are leading. Even if you don’t get a job in a very specific career path, that doesn’t mean you can’t be happy. Just allowing yourself the flexibility to say “oops” and pivot a little bit to move on to something else is perfectly fine. It’s something that I had to do a lot, too.

Also, when it comes to academic success, having a non-academic life is important. If you focus solely on your career, that will make you unhappy. There are lots of cases of student burnout, and that even happened to me. So, making sure you are investing in your non-career life because that will give you the energy you need to go back and fight the good fight.

I think about all the things I did in graduate school, and I was a huge screw up. It was tremendous. So, if I were to go back and do it all over again, would I do the same things? Overall, I am glad with how things went. Recognizing that the professor life was good for my interests upfront was important. So, doing the long-term planning early on was super useful, which goes for everything in life.

Remember that we all have felt like we are not doing as well as we should be. Sometimes you are performing really well but just don’t realize it, and sometimes you’re performing really poorly, but you need to keep working at it and not give up. That is common to every faculty member; we have all been right where you are. Finding the motivation to keep going… that’s the trick. It’s going to be different for everybody, so you just need to find your motivation. That’s the good stuff.

Lastly, students should get their Aggie rings. It’s important. It’s tradition. Spend the money; you won’t regret it. Get your Aggie ring, and then if you’re feeling lucky, you can dunk it.
 

About the Author

image of author Abigail Graves

Abigail Graves

Originally from small beer-town Shiner, TX, Abigail is currently a master’s student in Chemical Engineering with an emphasis in water resources. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Texas A&M, yet chemistry is still her least favorite science. She works fulltime at an engineering consulting firm specializing in wastewater treatment plant design. She is married, has five dogs and loves anything nerdy, but will break some ankles on the basketball court if needed.

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