By: Diane Stirling
Undergraduate student members of the School of Information Studies (iSchool) organization BeIT recently asked iSchool Dean Elizabeth Liddy to provide her advice for a successful career path.
In an informal lunch meeting, Dean Liddy provided an account of the careers she has undertaken between graduation from college with a baccalaureate degree in English, minoring in linguistics , to her current role as the academic and business leader of one of America’s most prominent information schools. Dean Liddy also described the professional, attitudinal and behavioral tenets that have guided her.
She told the students:
- Really listen to what other people are telling you.
- Have confidence in yourself, and be well prepared if you take a risk.
- Risk is what gives you reward.
- If you ask a lot of people, you need to reward them.
- If your team members take risks and fail, don’t punish them.
- Be diplomatic and open with business associates.
- Work hard at what you love doing; you’ll be surprised at the barriers you can overcome.
- When you’ve made up your mind, act decisively.
- If you’re questioning or discomforted by what you’re doing, don’t pursue it.
- Life is too short not to be happy every day.
BeIT students also asked Dean Liddy to discuss her career progression. She talked to them about her role as a wife and mother after college graduation, and the life-changing day she volunteered to work in her children’s school library. Falling in love with that environment, she enrolled in Syracuse University’s library program the next day. It was a step that guided her along an academic path ever since, and which prompted her to earn second and third college degrees.
Studying part-time, Dean Liddy completed her master’s program in library science and began a job as a librarian at Onondaga Community College. There, she helped college students research and write term papers. Before long, Liddy decided to take a statistics course at S.U. to help validate the metrics of her research project. She decided to continue her studies and became a part-time Ph.D. student. Liddy continued balancing studies, work, and family until she was offered a fellowship, which permitted her to give up her job and focus on the doctorate full-time.
She began doing research with then-PhD Program Director Jeffrey Katzer, and eventually developed a project of her own related to discourse structure in natural language processing. Not only was it her doctoral thesis topic, it also became the focus of her entrepreneurial ventures, her next career steps.
While finishing her Ph.D., Liddy also began to teach. Her research in natural language processing —a very new area at the time —brought significant grants to the school from government intelligence agencies. That research was cutting-edge—especially in the late 1980s, when there were few other means of searching discourse, she said, since there was as yet no Internet, no Google, and no search engines. She chuckled when describing the “unnerving experience” of being a Ph.D. student and teaching the new-at-the-time subject of natural language processing while having four Information School faculty members in her class, all of them eager to learn from her expertise in that new area.
As the daughter of an entrepreneur, and a sibling to three entrepreneurial brothers and a sister who all enjoyed entrepreneurial careers, it seems it was only a matter of time until Dean Liddy followed that path, too. During a family chat, her siblings teased her about being the smartest of the bunch, with the most college degrees, but earning less than those who were in business fields. They also challenged her to commercialize her research.
Soon, Dean Liddy formed TextWise, as its sole employee, and then added two researchers, and eventually growing the company to 50 employees. They worked in a unique environment—within the iSchool. Obtaining an angel investor (a unique funding opportunity then), she continued growing the business, of which her son, John, was CFO & COO. Ultimately, Dean Liddy was the prinicipal inventor on eight patents, some of them of which she was the sole inventor.
Eventually, she decided to leave partnership the company she had founded (which is still going strong today), and developed the Center for Natural Language Processing at the iSchool and continued on the iSchool faculty.
When former Dean Ray Von Dran stepped down, Liddy was asked to serve as interim dean. Though at first she declined, she changed her mind. While the national search for a new dean was underway, she decided to enter into that consideration towards the end of the search, and was chosen to fill the role. Liddy is celebrating her fifth year as Dean this winter.
Dean Liddy said she still has entrepreneurial ideas— “I typically have a new company idea every two weeks, and I keep trying not to do them,” she laughed. However, she noted that what she likes about leading the iSchol is that, “I get really engaged [with its entrepreneurship]. I love to see Startup Weekend, and I love to see the pitches. So it’s kind of vicariously now that I’m able to be involved in entrepreneurship.”
She still loves teaching and student engagement, too. “It’s wonderful to be with students, they’re very inventive and creative. You’re always meeting new students, and as long as we (as professors) can actively interact with you (students), it’s a real refreshing situation to be in, for a faculty member or for me as a dean.”