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Q&A with PhD Student Mark Willoughby

Mark Willoughby is no stranger to Rocky Top. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Haslam College of Business and has been working full time for the college since 2007.

He is currently the Director of Student Engagement for the Haslam College of Business. After contemplating a PhD for several years, he enrolled in CCI’s program because the communication studies emphasis is a strong combination of his previous experiences in marketing and HR.

What made you choose to get your PhD in Communication Studies?

For the past couple of years, I have been contemplating the pursuit of a doctoral degree. Working in higher education, I had considered programs that might be specific to my current position, but also wanted to look at other opportunities. I became interested in the communication role that my position assumed for the Haslam College of Business with undergraduate students. In speaking with a few mentors, they encouraged me to look at programs within the College of Communication & Information. Communication Studies was a great combination of my previous studies in marketing and human resource management. When I looked at the research interests of the faculty, I got excited about the mentorship and work that was being done by the faculty.

How does your coursework and research aid you in your job here on campus as the Director of Student Engagement in the Haslam College of Business?

I started the program with an interest in considering how colleges communicate with undergraduate students, something that falls within the responsibility area of my office. However, during the application process and over the summer before classes started, I became involved in an athletics’ committee on name, image, and likeness. An emerging field, NIL became something that I was extremely interested in and saw as an opportunity that I wanted to pursue. I spent some time meeting with faculty in Communication Studies to discuss how to marry this interest with my studies. During the fall and spring semester, I immersed myself in this topic and wrote numerous papers on different aspects. Now, I am using the information that I have learned and researched to share with other members of the Haslam College of Business NIL curriculum committee as the University creates a course on NIL (a joint venture between the Department of Athletics, the College of Communication & Information, and the Haslam College of Business) for student-athletes and non-student-athletes to launch in Fall 2021.

On that note, how do you balance having a full-time job while pursuing a PhD?

Working with undergraduate students, I talk a lot about time management and strategies that might help them be successful in college. I tell them, just when you think you have time management figured out, you graduate and transition to a new stage of life – employment. You have to figure time management out all over again. That has definitely been my journey this past year.

Starting a PhD program during Covid had its advantages. My commute was from one side of the kitchen table to the other. My biggest challenge was setting boundaries for myself. I had to turn off my email when I was studying or writing papers. Using my calendar and blocking off work time, reading, and paper writing helped me keep focused. My boss has been extremely supportive of my pursuit, so that has really helped.

Transitioning back to in person this fall will be a true test of managing full-time employment and my academic pursuits.

What has been your favorite part of the PhD experience?

I have truly enjoyed getting to interact with the faculty and my cohort. I have probably been the problem PhD student, changing my research focus and struggling to narrow my topic area. The faculty have been great at helping me explore areas of interest, keeping me focused, and challenging me to dive deeper. Dr. Paskewitz met with me numerous times to talk about my research interests and how I might focus in on certain topics. I have had a couple of brainstorming sessions with her to propose research ideas and potential studies. Dr. P, like many of the other faculty, invested in me during my first year and made me feel part of the community.

Our cohort is special. While we mostly know each other from behind a mask or on a screen, we bonded. We have broad research interests, and I learned a lot from everyone – different perspectives, ways of thinking, and approaches.

What do you plan to do once you obtain your PhD?

I have worked in higher education administration for the past 15 years. The pursuit of a PhD is an opportunity for me to take the next step in my career and transition to research and teaching.

What would you say to someone on the fence about getting their PhD?

When I was considering a terminal degree, I met with numerous people in my network. Everyone always asked me “why do you want to pursue your doctorate?” and at first, I would say, “Isn’t that my next step?” One administrator challenged me and said, “what is your next step?” and “how will this help you get there?” Others asked, “do you see yourself in a faculty role?” A PhD requires dedication, drive, independence, and resilience. Days are hard, and others are rewarding. I have learned so much about myself throughout this process, and I have just completed my first year.

To someone on the fence, I would ask the same question, “why do you want to do this?” and “what is your next step?”