Meet Dr. Mary Farmer-Kaiser, who started teaching at UL Lafayette in 2000 and became Dean of the UL Lafayette Graduate School in 2014 after serving as Interim Dean for a year. She is UL Lafayette’s biggest advocate for graduate students and graduate studies, and she’s working tirelessly to move forward graduate education at UL Lafayette.
Through expanding resources for recruitment and retention, new program creation, and a commitment to professional development for all graduate students, Dr. Farmer-Kaiser is making sure that more and more students find opportunities for success, from application to admission to graduation.
Tell us about yourself.
I am a historian and I love being a historian. I grew up in Kansas and came to Louisiana in January 2000 by way of South Carolina and Ohio. I am a proud product of public state institutions—Kansas State University, Clemson University, and Bowling Green State University—and I believe in the immense power and obligation of public institutions to advance research and create knowledge that can improve our world.
As an undergraduate student, I pursued history with the expectation that I’d end up in law school or DC working in politics or legislative research. It was when I was a junior that a professor asked me if I was planning to apply to grad school. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t know anyone who had gone to grad school and I certainly didn’t know it was an option for me. But it was. And I’ve never looked back. I’ve spent my career as a historian working to broaden our understandings of freedom, law and the legal system, and the experiences of women in the United States.
How did you end up at UL Lafayette?
My path to UL Lafayette was, well, not typical. I was very fortunate to be in a Ph.D. program that took placing its graduates seriously. Each year, it sent out a placement brochure with its finishing students’ CVs to history departments nationwide. The head of the history department here happened to receive one and called me to ask if I was interested in a job. That’s not how finding a job in academia happens! But, of course, neither was my response. I initially said, “No.” I had one more semester of a non-service dissertation completion fellowship and I wasn’t about to give it up.
Long story short, I ended up saying that if the history department was interested in me starting in January rather than August, then let’s talk. Next thing I knew, I was visiting campus in October and moving to Lafayette in January.
How is your role as Dean of the UL Lafayette Graduate School different from your role as a professor?
These days, I spend way more time in meetings, looking at spreadsheets of application and enrollment numbers, trying to make budgets stretch, and doing “crisis” management. I miss being in the classroom, mentoring history students, and spending time in the archives and courthouses doing research, but this is where I belong right now.
And I am still teaching. I’m just teaching in different ways and to people who probably wouldn’t consider themselves students. Instead of teaching history, I’m now teaching others about graduate education and the experiences and needs of graduate students.
What do you like best about being the Dean of the UL Lafayette grad school?
No question, the best part about my job is getting to be an advocate for graduate students and graduate education. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not astounded by what our grad students and grad faculty are doing here at UL Lafayette. And a truly great day is a day when I’m learning about graduate students’ research, seeing them in the lab or classroom, or facilitating their ability to create change. If I can make it easier for them to do what they do—research, teach, learn, create new knowledge—I’ve been successful.
I also have to admit that I really, really like Commencement. There’s nothing better than seeing the doctoral students being hooded by their major professors, looking at their joyful (and, yes, thoroughly exhausted) faces as their degrees are conferred, and talking with them and their families about their accomplishments.
What are your goals for the UL Lafayette Graduate School, and what are you doing to make sure we reach those goals?
The University has big plans for graduate education and I’m excited by the growing commitment that we’re seeing to graduate education. UL Lafayette is already a research university with the Carnegie classification of “Doctoral Universities: Higher Research Activity,” but we’re on the move. We’re committed to increasing both the number of graduate students on our campus and the number of doctoral graduates who finish each year—and we’re going to do so without compromising the high quality graduate education that our students receive.
But we’re not just planning. We’re doing. We’re working to make sure more people know about our graduate programs. We’re highlighting the important research and accomplishments of our graduate students and graduate faculty. We’re committing more dollars to graduate student assistantships, fellowships, and scholarships. We’re providing more support to teachers and nurses pursuing graduate degrees. We’re focusing more time, energy, and resources on retention—curbing stop-out and drop-out among grad students—and we’re taking more time to celebrate the important milestones in our graduate students’ careers. And we’re watching with pride as our graduate students walk at Commencement and leave UL Lafayette with post-graduation plans that promise great things.
What would you tell an undergraduate or a professional who is considering going to graduate school?
Do it. People who earn a graduate degree do far more for themselves than raise their earning potential and expand employment prospects. One 2015 report, aptly named “It’s not just the money,” explains that college graduates—and the higher the degree the better—are enjoying healthier, happier, more fulfilled lives. There’s so much to be said for following your passion and making an impact through research and by creating knowledge!
And it’s not just good for the individual. Graduate education, especially that provided by our public institutions, produces ground-breaking research that both transforms and helps us understand our world. It prepares educators, entrepreneurs, artists, and innovators to become the knowledge producers and intellectual leaders that will move us forward. It fuels economic development and innovation. The value and responsibility of graduate education—to our city, our state, our nation, our world—has never been more real, more important.
But be smart. Make sure that you’re ready. Know your passion. Do your research. Find the right program and the right professors. After all, this is more than an investment on your part. You want a graduate program and faculty who are ready to invest in you.
Where is your favorite place to go on vacation?
Vacation?!! What’s that?! No, really, I look forward to time off and especially to travelling with my family. My favorite places to vacation are all in national parks: Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Denali, Bryce Canyon, Acadia, and the list goes on. And I’ve grown ever more fond of the national parks that have no cell phone towers anywhere near them.