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In the year that Zofia Gajdos has been my colleague at Dartmouth, she has become one of my favorite people. Yes, Zofia is scary smart, super productive, and deeply knowledgeable about all things online learning. But what I admire most about Zofia is how calm, positive, energy-giving and wise she is. It is Zofia who taught me “not to borrow worry from the future,” a saying that I did not know before and has since changed how I think about my work in online education. Zofia has a lot going on right now, which is why I am grateful that she took some time to answer my questions.

Q: Tell us about your job as a director of online education at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. What are the big projects that you are working on?

A: The biggest project that I am working on is launching Dartmouth’s Online Master of Engineering in Computer Engineering, which we’re offering in partnership with Coursera. Our first cohort of students will start taking classes in Dartmouth’s spring term in late March. This is Dartmouth’s first fully online degree, so I’ve been working with colleagues across Thayer, Dartmouth more broadly and our partners at Coursera to make sure everything goes smoothly with this launch.

We’ve designed this degree program specifically for our online students—we’re not just taking on-campus courses, sticking a camera in the back of a classroom, and hitting “record.” It’s very important to us that our courses feel like they’re part of a coherent whole. So I work with our learning designers, content developers and the faculty to ensure that the courses connect to and build on one another.

Another priority is to make sure that our online students feel as much a part of the Dartmouth and Thayer communities as those who attend classes in Hanover. They’re our students, even if they never set foot on campus (although we’d love to have them visit, and certainly attend Commencement and Investiture when the time comes)! We want them to feel that. And, early reports are promising—incoming students are already reaching out to the online education team at Thayer to talk about how welcomed they feel.

I’m also thinking about other possible online degree programs that we may want to pursue, and keeping an eye on our MOOC offerings on both the Coursera and edX platforms.

Q: You have a Ph.D. in Genetics from Harvard. How did you end up as director of online education? Take us through your career path, maybe pausing along the way to share some lessons learned.

A: It definitely wasn’t a direct path, for sure! I’ve always enjoyed teaching in some capacity. As far back as high school, I ran informal study sessions for my AP biology class and taught swimming as my summer job, but I wasn’t really sure then what I wanted to do or that I wanted to pursue teaching. I did really fall in love with biology in high school, thanks to a fantastic teacher, and went on to major in biology at MIT.

Honestly, I went to graduate school, in part, because it was an easy next step—I wasn’t really ready for the “real world,” and it was a way to put that off for a while to study some cool stuff at the same time. My path through my Ph.D. program wasn’t smooth—I had to change labs late in grad school when my adviser didn’t get tenure, but I was really determined to finish my degree and was very persistent in finding a new lab. In retrospect, changing labs was actually the best thing that could have happened—the human genetics lab I switched into was a much better fit for me both in terms of the research focus and the overall environment, and it was a really supportive place to finish out my graduate studies.

I knew I didn’t want to stay in research, though, and at the recommendation of my adviser, I pursued a policy fellowship in D.C. and worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a year. The AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship was a wonderful experience—I highly recommend exploring it for any STEM PhDs who are at all interested in science policy—and provided great professional development. While I gained so much from my experience at the NIH, I realized I missed being in a more academic environment with more person-to-person interactions. I went back to Boston as a curriculum fellow at Harvard, which enabled me to get more teaching experience and also to think more about how to help improve the student experience and training for graduate students in STEM, because not all Ph.D. students are going to go on to run academic labs.

During my time as a curriculum fellow, edX was established by Harvard and MIT. The idea of bringing high-quality online education to people around the world captivated me, and. at the onset, I knew that was what I wanted my next career move to be. But I also knew that the first step was to build the platform, and for that they needed software engineers, not content experts and education specialists like me. Once that time came, I moved to the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard to work with faculty to make massive open online courses (MOOCs) in a variety of disciplines. I had the opportunity to create some really great courses and series there and to work with a number of wonderful colleagues in a series of positions of increasing responsibility.

When the pandemic hit, we transitioned to working remotely and, eventually, our positions went permanently hybrid. I’d always wanted to live closer to the mountains for skiing, rock climbing and hiking, so we decided to take the plunge and move to Vermont from the Boston area. In what almost seems like fate, the Thayer Director of Online Education position was posted mere months after we moved. While I miss working with all my Harvard colleagues, the transition to Dartmouth has been wonderful. Thayer is a great place to work, and over the past year, I’ve really enjoyed getting our new MEng [Master of Engineering] program up and running. We are thrilled with the response so far and are eager to see how the program grows and develops!

Q: What advice do you have for traditional, discipline-trained academics (such as yourself) who are thinking of pursuing a nontraditional academic career path?

A: The thing I always tell students is to keep an open mind about nontraditional academic career paths and to be willing to follow or try out things that sound interesting. Your career trajectory doesn’t need to be linear, and you don’t have to have everything all planned out from now until you retire.

Figure out what sounds interesting and go do that for a while—and if something new comes along and leads you in a different direction, be open to seeing where that path takes you. The description of my career path should illustrate this! If you had asked me in college or graduate school what I would be doing, I sincerely doubt that I would have described where I am now.

In addition to keeping yourself open, remember that there’s always more to learn—stay curious and look for ways to improve your skills so that when those new opportunities come along, you’re well-positioned to take advantage of them!

Finally, a key piece is to look for good colleagues—none of the work I’ve done throughout my career has been in isolation, and one of the most rewarding and fulfilling parts of all my jobs has been working in collaboration with some really fantastic teams. So, seek out people you enjoy working with, because they will make whatever you end up doing better.

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