An Interview with the Dean of The Graduate School

Dr. Linda Thomas

SUMMARY: Dr. Linda Thomas, an engineer, a construction manager, a lawyer, a faculty member, and now the Dean of the Graduate School at JMU, discusses her journey from undergraduate student to Dean of the Graduate School at James Madison University, and her message to all students.

by Mohamed Serry, Adult Education & Human Resource Development graduate student and GA for The Graduate School

Dr. Thomas’s Journey

Dr. Thomas’s career journey demonstrates that, at any moment, you don’t have to decide what you will do for the rest of your life.  You just have to decide what you want to do next, and then do what’s necessary to achieve your that goal.

“I grew up as a “military-brat” living in the US and abroad. We settled in Washington DC when my father retired from the Army. With an energetic and creative big sister and loving parents who allowed me to break things and put on imaginary productions; I was never pressured to follow any one path. My father was a pioneer in software engineering and my mother, who majored in Math in college, ended up at the Department of State advising foreign service officers how navigate the new Civil Rights laws. One major factor in my attempting engineering in the late ‘70’s was attending an all-girls high school. There I learned women can do anything. Depending on the day of the week, I wanted to be anything from an astronaut to a photographer.

My college career began with undergraduate and master’s degrees in civil engineering. After college, I worked in the US Navy Civil Engineer Corps as a Civil Engineering Corps Officer, which was unusual, and not the normal course for an African American woman. While serving in the Navy, I loved solving problems beyond engineering and decided to become an attorney. I left the military and enrolled in law school at the University of Miami. After receiving my degree, I worked as an attorney in Atlanta for a few years---until the 1996 Olympic Games was awarded to the city of Atlanta, Georgia.

As planning began for the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, one of my friends suggested that I might be able to apply my military construction management background to this huge event.  I considered volunteering but ended up employed as the construction manager for all the temporary buildings in Georgia Tech’s athlete’s village.

While I was working for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, I taught a class at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Architecture School focusing on the Olympic Village project.  This enabled interested students to work with us as junior project managers.  I had a great relationship with the dean of the College of Architecture who suggested that I consider becoming a professor, an idea that never occurred to me. 

To pursue this new dream, I enrolled and completed my Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where I studied buildings and the mental, psychological, and physical impacts of buildings on the occupants. After graduation, I was hired as a tenure-track professor at Georgia Tech and for the next 13 years I learned how to succeed as a researcher and a teacher in higher education, eventually becoming the Associate Chair of the School of Building Construction.  In 2010 I was recruited to a small Architecture School in California where I started undergraduate and post graduate construction management programs. After this, I took a position at the Stevens Institute of Technology starting masters and PhD programs.

In 2018 I moved to JMU to serve as the head of the School of Integrated Sciences where I worked with the most incredible faculty who were interested in interdisciplinary pursuits like myself. I missed graduate school and graduate students so when this position became available, I applied for it assumed the role of the dean of the Graduate School, June 1st 2021.” 

What a great and varied journey! About this new challenge, what is your vision for the future of the graduate school of JMU?

“The world is changing, especially after the pandemic. Yet even before COVID-19 I thought graduate education should be more inclusive of not only different types of students, but different types of experiences for graduate students. One of the greatest exports of the US is higher education.  Besides knowledge for the sake of knowledge, higher education is a way to economic mobility and for new knowledge and ideas to be exchanged. We also need to bring graduate education to students who never saw themselves as scholars. This includes both domestic and international students. 

I believe JMU should consider more STEM programs at the graduate level. JMU’s brand of excellent teaching can make STEM education more approachable.  JMU faculty are rightly proud and passionate about being good teachers and good teachers are the basis of any great learning experience. Often, this isn’t what happens at universities that prioritize research over teaching. With JMU’s teaching focus, we can bring STEM programs to students employing a student-centered, experiential approach.  We can prepare students to achieve beyond their own expectations. Additionally, we should be prioritizing careers that cannot be fully automated by the computer---“human-centered” fields of study are in great demand. 

Many people think that graduate education is only for those interested in academic careers.  Some surveys show that almost 80% of graduate-school graduates work for the government, non-profits and industry. Also, many employees now change careers five times during their lifetime.  We need to prepare graduate students for these challenges and a world beyond what currently exists.

I also want to develop a graduate student research laboratory.  This would be a virtual lab or a hub for faculty to come and propose various scholarship opportunities. This laboratory could identify graduate students who can help with the technical, non-technical, and administrative aspects of the study, such as proposal and report writing, research, and research dissemination.

The laboratory would also have the mission to develop our graduate students’ skills for work at universities and in industry where new ideas are developed and implemented. We could help students learn how conduct excellent research and to present their ideas in ways that appeal to the general public.”

If you had the opportunity to speak to our graduate students now, what do you want to tell them?

“First, I would like to apologize to them, because of the pandemic I cannot meet with them like I usually would prefer.  When things settle down, my goal is to have regular meetings with different groups of students, masters, professional doctoral and Ph.D. students.  I would like to spend more time in the graduate lounge, just to be around the students.

During my experience as a graduate student, almost all of my support came from my graduate advisors. To be successful, students need more support than that.  I want graduate students to have many sources of support.  Individuals in the office of The Graduate School and across campus should be available to our students. We need to always be there when students are confused or have questions, or when they just want support.  We need to hear their concerns and help them until they graduate.  We also need to create opportunities for our various students to learn from each other.”

What about the undergraduate students thinking about their future, what is your message for them?

“Despite my 2.3 GPA as an undergraduate student, I was able to enter graduate school even though this was not my original plan. As an undergraduate student, I had the opportunity to take one of my senior classes with graduate students. The teachers placed us in groups for problem solving. In my undergraduate group work I remember approaching problems with checklists and flowcharts.  But the graduate students taught me to step back, look at the main issues, the fundamental problems, and what we ultimately want to achieve. I was fascinated with the way that they thought, and I wanted to learn how to solve problems with this more sophisticated approach.

My undergraduate advisor recommended that I take some classes as a post-bachelorette student to see how graduate school works. I took three classes, and was surprised that, while time consuming, graduate classes seemed more straightforward than my undergraduate classes---to me they seemed easier. I think it was because I was taking only the classes that interested me.

I earned a 4.0 in those classes and that was the beginning of my never-ending journey to discover new knowledge. In graduate school, I had the opportunity to focus on what I wanted, rather than what I had to choose as a 17-year-old graduating from high school. It gave me purpose, and I because I chose the program that interested me, I graduated with high honors.

Some students are certain about their future plans, but that is not the case for everyone. Sometimes people discover their passions after they start their undergraduate studies.  Some graduate and are still not sure about what to do. In these cases, graduate school can be a great option.

Graduate school gives you the opportunity to discover your passion on your own for yourself. It can be a tailored experience.  Assignments and papers can be based on your own perspectives and reasoned opinions. I always tell undergraduate students to think about when a specific college class or assignment was exciting.  Graduate school can be just like this. You explore what you are passionate, motivated, excited about.  And this experience prepares you for your life’s path not just a career.”

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Published: Monday, December 6, 2021

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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