Alumna Spotlight: Caitlin Faas
January 27, 2020
Caitlin Faas earned her doctorate in 2013 from the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Virginia Tech. There she specialized in child and adolescent development, with Mark Benson as her advisor. While at Virginia Tech, her research assistantships included working in the Child Development Center for Learning and Research and in Adult Day Services, as well as on other related grants.
Faas started a tenure-track position as the developmental psychology professor at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the same week that she defended her dissertation. She earned tenure in 2019 and became the department chair. Her research has focused on educational attainment in emerging adulthood.
How did you arrive at your current position? Did you always have a goal of working in academia?
From the beginning of my graduate school career, I felt a strong pull toward mentoring students and teaching. I figured I would become a professor. I was also skilled at research and loved analyzing data, so I considered industry research jobs too. Part of getting to my current position was applying and finding the right fit at an institution.
There were many times in my graduate career when I wondered what I should do, where I should go. I took the steps necessary to line myself up for a variety of options. But if you’re feeling unsure, don’t worry — I felt unsure the majority of my days in graduate school. And here I am (still feeling unsure from time to time; it doesn’t go away with success)!
Also, there were days I was sure I wanted to be a professor. Then I’d go guest lecture in someone’s class, feel exhausted afterward, and wonder whether I was on the right path. I was. I just had to build the stamina up for teaching. Don’t doubt yourself just from a handful of experiences. Keep exploring!
Tell me more about your current position.
You know how you’re surrounded by lots of human development people right now? You have engaging conversations about theory. No one bats an eye when you use the term “family resilience.” I went from that world to being the one person on a small college campus who represents all of developmental psychology. I have four colleagues within psychology, but they specialized in completely different disciplines.
So that helps explain the variety of courses I teach, ranging from Lifespan Development to Experimental Cognition with Lab, Cross-Cultural Psychology, Foundations of Psychology, Research Preparation, and more.
If you had told me in graduate school I would be teaching Experimental Cognition, I would have been surprised. I had a lot to learn quickly. But I love that class. My classes range from 11 to 30 undergraduates in a class (30 is an outrageous number at my university). I also mentor senior research projects. I teach three classes a semester.
What is the best part about your job?
Getting to know my students so well. At a small university, many of my students are required to take multiple classes with me. So I feel like I get to watch them grow up — sometimes all the way from freshmen year to senior year. It’s special. I love emerging adulthood and most of my students are in that traditional 18-22 age range. I love hearing about their careers and pathways after they leave. I stay in touch with many of them.
How did Virginia Tech prepare you for your career?
In so many ways! I learned how to teach students, both from actually teaching and watching other teachers. Dr. Rosemary Blieszner taught one of our graduate seminar courses and I was regularly in awe of how she handled the classroom. I studied both the material and my teachers for examples.
I developed extraordinary research skills because I kept showing up and asking questions. I took the time to hone those skills, even when it was frustrating and I just wanted to be at The Rivermill with my boyfriend. It’s such a privilege to be in the same room learning from top-notch professors. You can ask Dr. Tina Savla a question because she’s down the hall? Do it. You won’t always get that opportunity again.
Being at Virginia Tech also prepared me for things I didn’t want. I realized I didn’t want the Research 1 lifestyle. I loved being in it at the time, but I knew I didn’t want it for the rest of my life. That’s not the easiest conversation to navigate when you’re immersed in that world — “Hey, you’re amazing and I’m so appreciative of you, but I don’t want to be you.”
My work in the Child Development Center for Learning and Research and in Adult Day Services offered amazing opportunities, and I still talk about them to this day. But they also helped me realize I don’t like the hands-on, day-to-day life of taking care of people. It drains me. Being surrounded by small children is my worst nightmare. For others, it gives them joy. My joy comes from mentoring students and teaching. I learned that from all of my experiences at Virginia Tech, both the ones I liked and didn’t like.
What advice do you have for current graduate students in human development and family sciences at Virginia Tech?
There are dozens of us that came before you, so you’re not alone on this journey. If you start feeling alone and isolated, it’s going to make it even tougher. Reach out to your peers and to us. Most of us alumni would love to support you because we remember the challenges well. You’re knee deep in your fourth proposal idea and can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel? Yep, we’ve been there. We understand. We’ll listen.
Some graduate students may have a long-term goal of becoming a department head or college dean. Do you have any advice for those students?
Imagine me giving a look of concern right now. Do you really know what being an administrator looks like on a day-to-day basis? I had this in my head too, in graduate school. Like “Oh, and eventually maybe I’ll go into administration, because that seems to make sense.” It’s a clear career ladder for sure. But it’s less glamour and more paperwork than you might imagine.
I lost an arm-wrestling contest, that’s how I ended up being chair for my department. Okay, okay, now your eyebrows are raised. It’s a joke. But that’s how we joke about it — sometimes you volunteer and sometimes you’re voluntold into your position. You get to make the most of it, however you get there.
If you really want to become a college dean, follow one around for the day. See what you learn. You’re always welcome to come to Emmitsburg and follow me around for a day. I’ll take you out to lunch!
What advice do you have for Hokie undergraduates?
If you’re an undergraduate reading this, eager for advice — great. You’ve figured out how to seek advice already. But check in with yourself as the next step. I spent most of my undergraduate and graduate career asking others “What I should do?” and “Who I should become?” without really asking myself that question. I love how Michelle Obama wrote about this issue in her autobiography, Becoming. Sometimes you follow a career path because you’re good at it and everyone tells you to do it. But is it what you really want? Trust that you know what’s best for you.
Interview by Casey McGregor