By: Mary Kate Watkins, M.Ed. ’19

“We each have painful experiences in our lives, especially when we’re young, that capture our attention. They become a preoccupation. We try to turn those early life preoccupations into a later life occupation to make a social contribution.”

In the first half of the interview, Dean Niles shared about his own career in education and gave some advice for current and future students.

As we talked, Dean Niles shared personal experiences, leadership perspectives, and valuable insight on applied theory in his animated descriptions of how he came to be in the position he currently sits. Speaking with Dean Niles, I was captured by his exciting, motivating, and inspiring perspectives on career development and student participation. Enjoy this peek into the path that led Dean Niles to the School of Education, and read carefully for pieces of career advice from a true expert in the field.

How did you get started in education?

I think this is often the case in education, I come from a long line of teachers. My parents, my grandmother, my sisters, my aunts and uncles – were all teachers. It was sort of like the family business. My Mom was a high school Spanish and English teacher, and I grew up around stories of some of the things that she would do as a teacher that seemed cool. I tried different majors as an undergraduate student, but I was always volunteering to work with kids in one capacity or another. I really enjoyed it and seemed to be good at it, so that led me to education. Then I got introduced to the idea and the option of counseling and decided to go in that direction.

What kind of impactful experiences did you have along the way that helped you guide and shift that career path?

There’s a saying based in Adlerian psychology that addresses factors influencing career pathways, and the phrase is “we’re each trying to actively master what we at one time passively suffered.” We each have experiences in our lives, especially when we’re young, that capture our attention. They become a preoccupation. We try to turn those early life preoccupations into a later life occupation to make a social contribution. The experiences that tend to capture our attention the most tend to be painful ones. So, like everybody I have my story in terms of that.

Another related Adlerian phrase connected to actively mastering what you passively suffered is that “we each seek to move from a felt minus to a perceived plus.” One way we do that is by identifying particular people as role models, heroes or heroines.  In this process, we have selective attention and identify models that seem to offer ways out of our predicaments in life. We are drawn toward people whom we perceive as having actively mastering what we have passively suffered.

 I never saw myself as an academic at all. In my first semester during my doctoral program, my advisor, who was a major figure in the counseling field, shared that he had been invited to author a manuscript for a journal, and invited join in on this with him. I thought, ‘you can’t be talking to me!’ I remember feeling really anxious, and I told him, “I’d like to but I don’t really know how to do that.” His response to me was “that’s okay – it’s a developmental skill and I can teach you.” That statement was made to me forty-three years ago, and I can remember it like it was yesterday because it changed the course of my life. I didn’t believe it when he said it, but I figured he knows a lot more about this stuff than I do. So, if he believes it, I guess I’ll trust him for now.

He was the first professor in the College of Education at Penn State to be named a distinguished professor, which is a title limited to ten percent of the faculty at Penn State. So, many years later when I was named a distinguished professor at Penn State, the first person I called was him. I told him that none of this would have happened if it weren’t for his mentorship. And I totally meant that. It’s really important to have somebody who believes in you, somebody who you respect and admire, and communicates that to you.

It was these processes that led me to education and counseling and wanting to help others actively master what they had passively suffered in their lives.  My specific focus in that work has been in the area of vocational and career development.  I view career development as the way that people make sense out of their experiences in life and then translate that meaning into an occupational direction. In that process, what really becomes important is not the job title, which is the ultimate objectification of any career, but the more subjective experience of the you’re work you’re doing and whether that work provides the opportunity to focus on the particular purpose you express through your work.  Put another way, whether that work provides you with the opportunity to continue actively mastering what you at one time passively suffered.  

You have a strong background in Career Development, what advice would you offer to education students as they begin their career paths?

I’ll use an analogy here. It’s similar to when you’re working out and you develop your little routine in terms of that what you do when you go to the gym. But then suddenly a trainer starts working with you. And that opportunity is a real boost to your workout routine. It adds a whole new dimension to your workouts. You are more fit, and you can do things physically that you couldn’t do before you started working with a trainer. There are some parallels in terms of what I think about the things that boosted my career like a trainer might boost a workout. At the start of my career, the opportunity to work with more senior scholars taught me so much about scholarship, research, and writing for publication.  Our faculty are eager to help their students develop their scholarly capacity.  I know personally, I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever said no to a student who has asked to participate in my research.  I think that is true of our faculty in general.

There are a lot of opportunities here [at William & Mary’s School of Education] for students. Our faculty are committed to our students’ careers and being helpful in ways that we can be. Sometimes that means engaging in research and other activities professional activities that make you stand out. The academic curriculum in most programs is probably very similar across universities in terms of the courses students take. So, it is the things you do outside of the curriculum like research with a faculty member or participation in a national conference or organization, those are the things that add value to your program of study. They may not be required, but they begin to distinguish one person from another when it comes time to find a job. I encourage students to take full advantage of those opportunities while they are here.

____________________________________________________________________________  Mary Kate Watkins is an Editorial Assistant for Wren’s Nest and a M.Ed. ’19 student in the Educational Policy, Planning, & Leadership program at William & Mary.

Image: Joshua Chung