Vanessa Doriott Anderson is Senior Director of Professional Development Programming in the Graduate School at North Carolina State University. She received her B.A. in French from Macalester College and her M.A. in French from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She received her Ph.D. in Romance Studies (French) from Duke University in 2012 before starting a tenure-track faculty position at Wartburg College where she directed the major and minor programs in French. Since 2017, she has worked at the Graduate School at North Carolina State University with a specific focus on teaching and communication.
Tell me about your current role.
I am part of a team of four people, and we all have areas of responsibility working directly with graduate students and postdocs to help them with their professional, academic, and career development. I am in a team lead role so I do a lot of logistics for the entire team, plan data collection, review all of the programming that we offer, syllabus review, and help plan the schedule. We all report to the assistant dean for professional development and external relations. My specific focus is teaching and communication—not just classroom teaching, but teaching really broadly defined as conveying specialist information to non-specialist audiences.
Did you imagine this as your future when you were a graduate student at Duke?
No, I didn’t. I thought I would be a tenured professor. That’s why I went to graduate school.
You held a faculty position at a small liberal arts college before moving into your current field. What can you tell me about that journey?
It was not a great place for me. I thought it could work because I’m from the Midwest, I’m from a small town, I’m a first-generation college student, and it’s not like tenure track jobs are growing on trees. I learned so much about how important fit is in any position that you take on.
In that role, I learned a lot about the financial side of higher ed and the inner workings of institutional politics. My husband, who does historic restoration, was traveling back to North Carolina to continue working for clients here. You think you don’t need much money in that part of Iowa, but if you wanted to leave it was a massive financial burden.
In my faculty role, I was really focused on the title, but what I needed to focus on were my actual strengths and what I wanted to do. I love teaching. I love research, too, but it’s not my driver. My driver is helping people achieve more than what they thought they could achieve—teaching.
When I decided to leave my faculty position, it was one of the weirder leaps of faith I have taken in my life. I said, “We are going back to North Carolina, I don’t have a job lined up, but nothing will improve here. There are opportunities in North Carolina.”
Could you talk about your trajectory at NC State and your changing responsibilities over time?
I joined the team when it was formed, and I have seen the rest of the team turn over. I have enjoyed taking on more of a leadership role and become more comfortable. I have a lot of campus partnerships. It is kind of opaque how large state institutions work and I have knowledge I didn’t have when I came in that I’m able to use to inform our practice and decision making. I made a new model for a teaching certificate and we have used that to launch new programming including a new writing certificate. Having my leadership role formalized with a new title [Senior Director] was nice. My annual performance review was a good time to raise the question, “If I’ve taken on extra levels of responsibility, what are ways we can acknowledge that?”
What experiences and people at Duke helped prepare you for the role you are in?
I had lunch with Melissa Bostrom (Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Professional Development) when I was totally adrift. When I first talked to her I was still in Iowa, and her first piece of advice was to make a LinkedIn profile. She’s really been good about giving me concrete steps to follow. Hugh Crumley (Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs) has been really good about networking. Hugh wanted me to be involved with Preparing Future Faculty, so he brought me in as Assistant Director. It was a way that I could engage with this group and figure out the next step. I met our current Dean of the Graduate School at NC State, Dr. Peter Harries, networking through Preparing Future Faculty. I thought he was easy to talk to. It happened to be when the Graduate School was building a new team. I got in contact with the hiring manager, and got to talk about my experience and why I wanted to work with graduate students. I went through the whole formal interview process, but networking helps you uncover opportunities when they come up.
I want to add my advisor, because people don’t always think your academic advisor helps you train for alternative academic or non-academic roles. Dr. Alice Kaplan has inspired me since before I ever met her. French autobiography has everything to do with graduate professional development. I am convinced that there is a direct line between the work I do helping people prepare their cover letters and job documents and my training with her reading hundreds of autobiographies. I understand both from experience and theoretically why somebody’s personal narrative is not working. Why is this not compelling? What is making it compelling and how can we maximize this person’s talent in a specific area? What’s just generic and where is insecurity coming out? How can we eliminate that and showcase somebody’s independent contribution and strengths? I can read something and I can say in a very kind way, “This is what everyone says, but what can only you say?”
Do you have advice for current Duke graduate students?
Ask questions. I was a first-generation college student, and I really felt like at Duke I had to pretend I belonged here in the beginning. Inside I had impostor syndrome: “I don’t belong here and don’t have same background.” Pretending I knew everything I needed to know really got in my way. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I love being asked for advice. It’s not an imposition. I’m not an expert on everything but I think people are happy to share their experience.
Figure out who your potential allies could be. Your adviser is an important person and you obviously need to nurture that relationship. But don’t underestimate the power of the disinterested professionals in a place like The Graduate School—and when I say disinterested, I mean they have no personal stake in whether you go into academia or industry. It’s about how you can best serve your own talents and achieve success and satisfaction in your career. When I really felt like a failure on the tenure track, I needed someone I could talk to who would not be overwhelmed by my sense of failure or invested in finding me something better in the same line. I contacted Hugh and Melissa and I said, “I don’t know what to do.” I’ve spent my whole life pretending I knew what to do. I did what they said.
Finally, remember that what you have to offer as a professional isn’t an abstract concept. It depends on what the hiring committee needs. Like any good autobiographical narrative, your success has as much to do with the connections you establish with your audience as it does with who you are.
Ph.D. candidate, Psychology and Neuroscience
Eric Juarez is a Ph.D. candidate in the psychology and neuroscience department where he studies how people across the lifespan use memory strategies to make decisions. This year, Eric is a Preparing Future Faculty fellow and a Re-imagining Doctoral Education (RIDE) intern. To learn more, visit his academic website.
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