Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: “Where are they now?”.
Growing up in the rural Midwest, Keith Taylor never thought that he would make a home near the sunny, sandy beaches of California. Keith earned his PhD in Human and Community Development in 2013 and now has his dream job as a Community Economic Development Specialist (another way of saying Extension Professor) at the University of California at Davis. In his position, the community is his classroom, and he works with community economic development stakeholders on research and development.
How is your job different from a typical faculty role in your field? What are some of your responsibilities? What does a typical week look like?
Unlike my traditional professor colleagues, I don’t have a classroom and don’t teach students. I travel across California (don’t feel sorry for me) to deliver content and work with California stakeholders. I also work to connect these stakeholders to knowledge and economic development assets across the University of California, its Cooperative Extension system, and with colleagues in my department of Human Ecology.
Here’s an example of how I connect these communities and the economic development stakeholders to resources. California is grappling with delivering rural broadband to resource constrained communities. I brought an executive with the National Rural Telecommunications Council to Davis, California to meet with a group of policymakers previously not exposed to broadband cooperatives. Through that introduction, we have connected a major community college to a values-aligned industry player who may be kickstarting a new approach to building out rural broadband in California.
A typical week? Overlooking the mundane of every professional job, I field a number of inquiries from individuals looking to enhance their local economy across a number of domains (for example, housing, broadband, electricity, agriculture, food). I have to be a consummate social networker, linking individuals with players in advocacy and industry. If a prospective project begins to look serious, I start to take field trips to given regions and work with stakeholders on implementing their projects.
What made you interested in pursuing a career like the one you are in. What was the transition from graduate school to your postdoc to your current role like?
I am a zealot for public service and community building. I love to co-create positive, community economic development, and see how a simple intervention can alter a community organizer’s or economic developer’s strategic plans. For example, the bulk of economic development—95 percent according to some estimates—focuses on attraction and retention of major firms. But the economic development literature finds such approaches to have minimal impacts (not to mention, should hard hit rural areas really subsidize a cash-flush firm like Amazon to move precarious jobs for a fleeting moment in time?). Instead, I am working on creating a small firms eco-system to help small and independent businesses start up, to grow, and to transition as the ownership looks at alternatives to exit.
My transition? I have to say this is where the services of the University of Illinois really paid off. I wanted to work in a job just like the one I currently have. But the academic job market is a real beast to break in to. I sought career advice from the Graduate College’s Derek Attig, who guided me through that transition. Not only did Derek optimally prepare me for applying for academic positions, but they also served as both counselor and a reality check; Derek had me preparing for a backup plan in case academia didn’t work well for me. It wasn’t easy, but Derek, as a resource provided by Illinois, was absolutely instrumental in getting this position. I definitely won’t forget that!
How did teaching and research at Illinois shape the way you approach your work today? What other experiences during graduate school were invaluable in your path to your current role?
I know it doesn’t seem important, but teaching taught me about the amazing array of services and professional development opportunities available at universities such as Illinois. It made me far more curious, entrepreneurial, and ambitious since it opened my mind up to the potential personal development opportunities afforded me by virtue of being at Illinois. I developed a deep respect for the Extension system in my work and interactions with Assistant Dean Anne Silvis. I saw how Extension is a vital connector to the communities served by the university. That public service orientation had me hooked. And today, I work for the nation’s biggest Extension system in California.
What do you think are the most interesting, rewarding, and/or surprising aspects of your job?
I get to play a role in helping shape one of the biggest economies in the world.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Be very intentional about your career orientation. And use university resources to help you plan accordingly.
This interview was conducted by Emily Wuchner, who is the Associate Director for Student Experience at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys boxing, reading, and knitting and crochet.