San Diego State provost visits ASU, offers career-building tips to future professoriate

San Diego State provost visits ASU, offers career-building tips to future professoriate


On Dec. 2, Salvador Hector Ochoa, provost of San Diego State University, visited Arizona State University as the Graduate College Distinguished Lecture keynote speaker. He discussed ways that underrepresented students can prepare for a job in an academic setting and how universities and educators can help them attain a graduate degree.

Each year, the Graduate College Distinguished Lecture series brings a leading scholar to engage the ASU community to discuss the advancement of graduate education as a public good. Speakers examine how to attract, nurture and inspire future generations of learners who will foster opportunity and well-being in their communities.

“With the Distinguished Lecture series, the Graduate College convenes discussions about how to create equitable outcomes for all graduate students,” said Dean and Vice Provost of the Graduate College, Elizabeth Wentz. “Dr. Ochoa’s personal story and professional trajectory are inspiring. As a first-generation college student who achieved tenure and is now a provost, he has valuable advice to share with our students,” said Wentz.

Ochoa's research focuses on bilingual psychoeducational assessment and educational programming issues of Latino students, on which he has offered input at the state and national levels.

At the lecture and during an interview with the Graduate College, Ochoa offered advice on mentorship, resume dos and don'ts, determining if an institution is right for you, and career development in academia.

Graduate College: Welcome Dr. Ochoa! Can you tell us why you chose to speak at ASU?

Salvador Hector Ochoa: Well, having been in academia for 33 years, I’ve watched the trajectory of ASU and how it's grown and achieved national prominence. The university has done a lot. My colleagues in higher education always want to see what's going on at ASU. So, I was pleased to speak to students who might want to enter higher ed. I think they're at a very exciting place.

Can you tell us some projects or goals related to Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) that you have for 2023?

At San Diego State, we are on a trajectory to becoming an R1 institution. We are providing research infrastructures to reach that goal, and we want to be a different kind of Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI); we want to focus on HSI in research. Recently, we had a cluster hire in Hispanic health. We hired 9 of the 11 faculty in the following areas: cancer disparities, environmental health, and nutrition and obesity within the Hispanic culture. It provides an opportunity for faculty with expertise to work as a team.

Along with programs that benefit SDSU’s Latino population - another goal is to create a diverse set of students who pursue graduate school who will then enter the professoriate. In response to this objective, the university has focused on graduation rates and equity gaps between first-generation students and those with a family history of college degrees. SDSU has a huge responsibility…we ask ‘what are we going to do to narrow graduation equity gaps?’ ‘What is the difference in graduation rates between Pell students versus non-Pell students, and students from underrepresented backgrounds versus represented backgrounds?’ I believe, if you admit students: you are responsible for them.

So, you figure out why people do not graduate - then the clusters work on addressing the issue?

Latino students see faculty doing research with their community at the undergraduate level, and they become engaged. Students will want to work with professors who are engaged and do research with Latinx community. Moreover, they will increase the probability that they will come to SDSU. When I selected my doctoral program, I chose the one that focused on preparing school psychologists to work with bilingual Hispanic students that are at-risk and disabled. This was important to me when I made my choice of where to pursue my doctoral studies.

What is something during your professional or academic journey that surprised you or changed your perspective? 

I appreciate the importance of mentorship of young faculty and the impacts it has on them being successful in their career trajectory. As an administrator, I have learned that Deans, provosts, chairs, and senior faculty have a level of responsibility to facilitate the success of people entering the professoriate.

Mentorship helps retain faculty. When I started as a faculty member, I thought, “I just need to get tenure,” now, I realize that mentorship is crucial. As dean, I wanted to be held responsible for the percentage of faculty that were successful in earning tenure. It says a lot about the institution and its commitment to its faculty.

You talked about how faculty can facilitate student success as they pursue a career in academia. What are some steps they can take to encourage students?

I have found that when working with undergraduate and masters students you have to pull them aside when you see potential and tell them they can [do something]. Someone has to encourage them along the way.

Also, we need to change the pipeline of doctoral education. It is imperative that we start doing the work at the undergraduate level. Often, students of color, Pell recipients, and those from community college, struggle to transition to a university. It’s not that they don’t have the ability - there needs to be increased communication between 4-year institutions, community colleges, and K-12 schools. When [administrators and staff] talk to each other, you have an alignment of the curriculum which can increase educational outcomes of our students.

Poor communication can be a hindrance to success. What else did you notice?

We need to be proactive in our efforts to increase student success.  So, we used analytics to understand why students were not being successful, and have been ready to intervene once they come to the university. 

What can doctoral students do, specifically, to maximize their chances of a career in higher ed?

First, find a mentor that fits both professionally and personally. Also I would advise to be careful when picking your dissertation committee; make sure that all parties can work with their chair. Next, get as many teaching opportunities as possible. It looks very good to have a successful record of teaching when looking for your first academic job. Also, if there is coursework available in college teaching - take those courses and get the certificate. I see students with solid research records but little or no teaching experience, which is very high-risk. Simultaneously, do as much research as possible; it’s hard to get an academic position when there is little productivity in this area.

If you are working on getting published, it is important to have an emerging research agenda. I would rather see research in a few areas than several areas that are disconnected. Also, if I could do it all again - I would do a postdoc. I would have also submitted my dissertation to my organization's dissertation award competition.

There is a vast amount of insight here, but if there is one takeaway - what would it be?

In terms of your career, never underestimate what is possible. You will achieve things you never thought were possible when you first started. You have to be open to different opportunities and possibilities in life.

Ochoa went on to cover more tips for students and those who have reached tenure track. He gave additional advice on interpersonal skills, building a solid, well-researched dossier and best practices when negotiating a salary package.

Watch the full lecture on the Graduate College’s YouTube channel.


Marjani Hawkins