Ph.D. Candidate Q&A: Jessica McDermott


Jessica is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education from Sterling, Virginia. Jessica also earned her M.Ed. in Higher Education from the Curry School, and she's now studying how to create and maintain student-centered policy in college and university environments.

Q: How did you first become interested in your field of study?

A: After college, I taught middle and high school Spanish and coached softball for three years. During my third year of teaching I admitted to myself how exhausted I was after teaching five classes a day, coaching, grading, lesson planning, and sponsoring multiple school clubs. I give K-12 teachers a lot of credit for the difficult and important work they do, but I realized teaching at this level was not for me. I thought about my strengths and interests in trying to find a career in which I could make a difference and thrive. Over and over, I was reminded of the college professors, staff, and administrators that shaped my undergraduate experience as I got involved on campus. One example of this is how my advisor, the dean of students, and the dean of academic affairs all helped me to accept myself when I struggled with coming out as a lesbian (whether they realized it or not!). My experiences made me realize that professors and administrators play a tremendous role in supporting students at an exciting and scary time in their lives. I knew I wanted to be a part of something so special, so I applied to Curry’s M.Ed. program in Higher Education and I loved every part of the program.

Q: What are your primary research interests?

A: My research interests are:

  • Increasing student success and retention in STEM majors
  • Creating and maintaining an environment in which all students (including underrepresented, LGBTQ, first generation, international, veterans, online learners, non-traditional, students with disabilities, etc.) can thrive
  • Appreciative Advising and Appreciative Administration
  • Increasing resilience and self-care in college students, faculty, staff, and administrators

Q: What made you decide to attend UVA for your Ph.D.?

A: I worked as an academic advisor for five years after earning my M.Ed. from UVA, and was then promoted to a director position in a first-year academic advising office at a STEM-focused university. Supervising academic advisors and leading an office that played an instrumental role in the lives of first-year students was by far my favorite job that I have ever had. The longer I served in this role, though, the more I understood the degree to which many college students take on debt to pursue their dreams of attending college, and the number of obstacles that might prevent a student from graduating. I want to learn as much as possible about how colleges can empower and retain the students they admit, challenging and supporting them as they progress toward graduation. The M.Ed. program had prepared me to ask the right questions and understand the complex issues that are at play in higher education, but I wanted to challenge myself to learn more in a Ph.D. program as rigorous as UVA’s.

Q: What are your ultimate career goals?

A: I would like to become a senior academic administrator who collaborates with faculty and influences policy at the university level. Whenever possible, I would like to advocate for student-centered policy. Being student-centered does not water down or take away from the high standards that universities have in place for their students. If anything, I believe that students are more likely to meet high standards and grow as individuals when they feel that administrators and faculty care for them.

Q: What advice would you give to students applying to Ph.D. programs?

A: Research the faculty in any program to which you want to apply. If a particular professor is engaged in research or teaching in an area about which you’re passionate, reach out to them. Make a strong first impression by asking informed questions, and sharing your goals and interests. Be prepared to work harder than you ever have in a Ph.D. program. Challenging yourself to grow and explore new ideas will strengthen you as an individual, as a professional, and as a researcher.