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Ronnie Mack is the director of undergraduate research at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Ronnie graciously agreed to answer my questions about his role, his career and advice for those pursuing a nontraditional academic career.

Ronnie Mack, a dark-skinned man with a beard but no hair on his head, wearing glasses and a blue suit.

Q: Ronnie, tell us about your role at Embry-Riddle. What do you do all day?

A: My role at Embry-Riddle is the director of undergraduate research. The mission of the Office of Undergraduate Research is “to provide an inclusive and diverse set of opportunities for all undergraduate students to enhance their intellectual and personal development through engagement in research, inquiry, innovation and/or other scholarly projects to prepare for their professional careers.”

That said, I would not be able to function in my role without the keen intellect and skill of my team members. My main function is to support my team as we engage undergraduate students in research opportunities. Undergraduate research is a valuable opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience in the research process, develop their critical thinking skills and contribute to the institution’s research enterprise.

Our office supports students in the following ways: training and mentorship, research communication, research funding, grant management, and faculty development. Many of our partners know us for our institutional grants, but we are expanding our expertise in other realms of campus. Another function is to steward over the vision of the office and to ensure we are properly aligned with the university’s goals. Our vision is that every student on campus has a research experience that propels them to their desired goals.

My daily functions focus on promoting the overall brand of the office. I interface with our faculty, community stakeholders and industry partners to create research experience for our students. In addition, I connect with faculty to understand the research experiences they are developing within their classrooms, labs or industry projects. Lastly, I help organize and market our two annual large-scale events that showcase the research excellence of our students.

Here is a high-level review of my typical week:

  • Grabbing coffee with a faculty member or academic leader to understand their research agenda this year and build connection
  • Engaging our philanthropy team to help promote a research funding program that involves student presentations to alumni
  • Visiting a local high school to invite their students to a research event on our campus to encourage their passion for STEM
  • Develop an integration plan with academic partners to increase the number of undergraduate researchers within their department
  • Review internal research grant applications with our team and disburse funding to various student projects

I definitely love the work I do, even though I may not engage many students on a daily basis. I have a hand in creating programming and generating access to resources that will further develop them as researchers. I am always excited to share the stories of our student researchers’ successes, whether they are happening in the lab or in the field.

Q: What was your educational and career path that brought you to your current university leadership role?

A: I thank God for my career path, even though it was not always clearly planned out. I started with an undergraduate degree in logistics and marketing, with the intention of working in the corporate space. However, I did not plan effectively for my postgraduate experience. I was not excited about the prospect of working in the corporate world, but I was unsure of what else I wanted to do. A mentor encouraged me to go to graduate school in higher education administration, which opened my eyes to a new field that I was passionate about. I had no idea that people went to school to learn how to support college. This aligned well with my student experience, which provided leadership as a resident assistant, community volunteer and a member of Greek life.

My professional journey started as a graduate assistant in the Dean of Students’ Office at Georgia Southern University. My first job outside of graduate school was at Bethune-Cookman University, where I gained experience in housing, advising, orientation, community engagement, retention, teaching and first-year transition. My time at this HBCU truly developed me as a professional and helped me to broaden my perspectives on student development in education. My doctoral research focused on the intersection of orientation programs and retention efforts within the HBCU space.

After that, I transitioned to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where I created orientation programming for the Department of Student Engagement and Student Union. I initially felt high levels of impostor syndrome because I had no prior experience in the aviation space. However, thanks to a wonderful team and gracious students, I was able to integrate myself well into the campus culture. My position in orientation allowed me to connect with various partners (internal and external to campus), including all the academic departments. I was also able to network with the previous director of undergraduate research, who also came over from the student affairs space. When a position opened within the office, I was able to transition over to the office. The rest is history.

Q: What advice might you have for someone thinking about how to navigate a nontraditional academic career? What sort of career coaching and mentorship advice for alternative academics can you share?

A: I think the first realization is to understand that you can impact students in nontraditional ways. When I started in the field, I thought I had to work in housing, student activities or the dean’s office to make a real impact. But if you have the heart to support, you can create impact wherever your journey takes you. I served many years in the student affairs space before coming to the academic side. I have also spent time in the education-technology space. You have to expose yourself to different career paths inside and outside the campus.

My next piece of advice may be typical but can’t be understated. You have to network. I would add you need to focus on relationship building and your network will naturally expand. Be sure to utilize LinkedIn, conferences or local community organizations to build your network. I love taking people to get coffee and asking them, “So, what do you do?” and “What is your why?” Your curiosity will open the door to opportunity.

Another point, if you are not currently in the academic space but want to be, find ways to get involved. Find committees that incorporate faculty and staff (i.e., hiring committees, community service committees, summer bridge programs, academic integrity committees, etc.). This will help create relationships across the aisle that can lead to academic employment. You have to learn the language of academia. You have skills that are amazing that would translate over to the academic side of the house. If in doubt, reach out to a faculty colleague and share your experiences.

Lastly, start small with a vision to grow bigger. This may mean acting as an adjunct for a period of time with the goal of being a full-time professor. That may mean connecting an academic office with your program to create opportunities for collaboration in the future. That could mean talking with other professionals who have made the jump to the academic side. I am personally open to having conversations with anyone who wants to work in the academic sector.

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