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Learning & Listening: A Conversation With NYU Tandon's Dean

On being a leader and an engineer in an evolving field.

February 16, 2020
 
 

Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

The 2019-20 academic year is my fourth year as a Ph.D. student. As I’ve started to plan for conferences, write papers and think about how to wrap up my projects, I haven’t stopped thinking about what’s to come next. Academia? Industry? Advocacy?

I thought one of the best people to ask was Jelena Kovačević, our current dean of engineering at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering. Kovačević came to NYU in 2018 after spending time in both industry and academia. Before arriving at NYU, she was the head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon. Going in, I planned to ask her about what her career transitions were like and what the job entailed. Did she have a typical workday? How did she manage so many moving parts in a school as big as NYU? What were her favorite parts of the job? I imagined a short, day-in-the-life conversation.

But when I met Monday morning to talk, we talked about what it meant to be a strong leader and engineer in today’s world.

1. No matter your role, be a good listener.

“Being dean is like being the CEO of a company -- I represent Tandon wherever I go.” Her role, just like any other, requires her to manage relationships within her administration, with students and with communities from other institutions.

“Every institution and workplace is different,” she said. “The No. 1 thing to do in any position is to listen.”

When I sat with her for the interview, she asked me about my background, my goals and my time at NYU. She asked me why I requested the interview, and even with the questions I’d planned for on hand, I told her candidly that I’d never really spoken to a dean before about their job; most of the time if I’d seen a dean it was at a large university event. I’d never met a dean of engineering who was a woman; in Tandon’s history, she’s our first. At Tandon, though, I’d seen her often; in creating their vision for the school, her team had set up meetings with almost every faculty member. She’d arranged for monthly office hours with students, and she’d scheduled regular times to talk with leaders of student government. Her openness inspired me to see higher education administration in a more tangible way than I had before. As a “CEO,” I’d imagined the dean as someone working invisibly -- but as a leader, she’s been accessible to the NYU community.

2. Stick to your priorities, which may change over the course of your career.

It’s a taxing job, but the dean says she sees the rewards in the students. To manage her time, she also tries to spend one day at home a week to read her notes and plan.

To my surprise, the week that we met, on top of her meetings, she told me she had to return to Pittsburgh for a student’s thesis defense. Right now, with her schedule, she generally spends about 10 percent of her time on research.

I was surprised to learn she had time for research at all. I asked her if she missed it, if at 10 percent of her time, she felt she was doing enough as a researcher. I’d asked because my biggest source of indecision careerwise is how to balance my interests, particularly between research and working with students.

“There are two things to consider,” she said. “It’s about priorities. There’s not one way to be a scientist or engineer.”

Her openness about how she spends her time outside her job hammers this point home. It’s a point that’s been harder for me to absorb the longer I’ve been in academia -- when she asked me what’s important to me, I told her how I’ve always felt halfway between research and teaching all the time. I admitted how guilty this made me feel sometimes -- because eventually I’d have to choose, or maybe because I felt that I enjoyed both, I wasn’t very good or invested in either.

3. Adapt to changes and find your niche.

“It used to be that the worlds of the humanities, politics, science, technology … everything was very separated, but it’s different now,” she said. “With this changing, we have to change as engineers, too.”

In response, the dean told me it’s simply about finding the right place to use my skills -- talk to people in different roles, experiment with my interests -- to find mentors with goals that align with mine. Some people like to be in the lab; some people are more interested in math; some people like teaching. She used her time as a department head as an example, when she’d have to ask faculty to participate on different committees to tackle department issues. It’s one of the entry points to administration that faculty can participate in, and often it allows them to address issues that are important to them aside from research. Each institution also handles the balance between research and teaching differently, from primarily undergraduate institutions to R-1 institutions.

“The thing to realize is that there’s a place for everyone in engineering.”

And while I’m still figuring out where exactly that place is for me, I’ll be going back to this conversation as a place to start.

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