Kristin Eschenfelder G’96 Ph.D. never sought a career in academic administration, but as the newly named associate director at the recently established School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she certainly has found one.

After earning her undergraduate degree at the College of William and Mary, Eschenfelder began her career in university administration as a secretary at Syracuse University, including a job in the Office of the Dean of Students.

One day, frustrated with “an obnoxious mainframe system” used for payroll, she recalls having an undergraduate student tell her how iSchool students (then called the Information Technology School) were discovering ways to create more user-friendly computer interfaces. This intrigued Eschenfelder and she later decided to take a course at the iSchool. From there, she was accepted into the School’s telecommunications master’s program. Even then, Eschenfelder was thinking of a career in a corporate telecommunications position. Those plans would soon change, when,  on a whim, she applied to the iSchool’s Ph.D. program. She was thrilled to be accepted with a generous financial package. She completed her doctorate in 2000.

The skills she learned through the Ph.D. program were “incredibly important for my career path — a fantastic experience,” Eschenfelder recalls, including a student cohort that consisted of “tremendous people who all learned from each other.”

Among Eschenfelder’s sources of inspiration at Syracuse were faculty and administrator mentorswho provided real-world experience alongside her doctoral studies, she says, referencing her dissertation advisor, retired Associate Professor Robert Heckman; former professor Chuck McClure; and current Ph.D. Program Director Steven Sawyer. She also was inspired by now-Dean Emerita Liz Liddy’s entrepreneurial spirit, particularly in areas of diversity and women’s entrepreneurship in IT, she adds. “[Liz Liddy] was always doing interesting work, continually looking forward and working across boundaries,” Eschenfelder says. “I try to emulate that kind of spirit in my own work today.”

After completing her doctoral program, Eschenfelder joined UW. She has been a faculty member there for 17 years, including six as department chair. That commitment led to her recruitment as the associate director when UW established the School of Computer Data and Information Science in 2019.

Now, Eschenfelder juggles many responsibilities in her new role, including pursuing research in sustainability and cyberinfrastructure, a link back to her Syracuse lineage, where she focused on social informatics and organizational theory. She also enjoys a project on how data repositories are impacted by technological, budgetary, and political change, she says.

Her career in academic administration came naturally, Eschenfelder says. “I never planned this career path. I really just followed the opportunities as they emerged, and one of the best opportunities was earning my Ph.D. at Syracuse University. I didn’t expect this, but, certainly, I’m pleased with where I’ve landed.”

By Caroline Reff