You are here

Taking a Chance on Asphalt

November 17, 2017

Dr. Rita Leahy

The promise of a tenure-track professorship is forever woven into the mythos of the Ph.D. More than 30 years ago, this was the vision that inspired Rita Leahy (’89) to complete her doctorate in civil engineering. But that’s not how her story ends. Leahy’s expertise in asphalt technology, coupled with a sense of openness, took her in directions she never dreamed. She successfully navigated consulting, academe, and industry and along the way forged new paths and mentored many.

Leahy’s story is a reminder that doctoral training is a door to the career of your choice. Over her long and colorful career, Leahy authored 50+ publications on asphalt technology and led multiple multimillion dollar projects from Costa Rica to Florida and California. She often led teams of engineers, geologists, and technicians that supported government and private sector clients. For the construction of the $17 billion Hamad International Airport in Qatar, Leahy served as subject matter expert on the flexible pavement materials, design, and construction. She was the first female president of the Association of Asphalt Paving Technologists (AAPT) in its 80-year history. She was on the faculty at Oregon State University for 6 years, while also working with UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies from time to time. Leahy was also a Senior Staff Engineer with the National Research Council’s Strategic Highway Research Program, where she had oversight of research funding for several projects in the asphalt technology area. And these are only a handful of her contributions.

"Most people that start on the Ph.D. envision academia or research. I think that it is important graduate students see a larger world out there. Fewer open faculty positions coupled with the lack of public funding makes it difficult to accommodate all of the PhDs minted each year," says Leahy. "And even when an academic position does open up, it may not be tenure track," she adds.

Indeed, there has been consistent news about the shrinking academic job market for PhDs in the last few years from Nature, to the Wall Street Journal. The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), the national watchdog on this issue, has been keeping an eye on doctoral demographics and placement since 1957. In 2014, SED published a report, that while universities are awarding more PhDs, the percentage of those with a job or postdoctoral commitment has steadily decreased over 10 years – even in the STEM fields. There is a similar trend overseas.  

This kind of report coupled with internal data, has prompted many institutions to do some soul searching on doctoral training. Aside from discipline-specific skills, universities have been examining the co-curricular competencies that can be embedded in Ph.D. training such that graduates have the flexibility of working in different environments. This kind of institutional self-examination has opened conversation about the legitimacy of the non-academic job track. So these days if you wander on to institutional websites, you will find programming in communication, marketing, project management, supervision, financial planning, diversity and cross-cultural solutions, mentoring, translation, and functioning in industry.

But while formal programming may plant a seed, there are critical non-cognitive (soft) skills in play. Leahy possesses that unique blend of flexibility, gratitude, warmth, thoughtfulness, diligence and integrity – that have allowed her to maneuver, and to build an extensive professional network. "I have had interactions and work in every aspect of my field and I have been able to understand and listen to different perspectives," says Leahy. "Even as a woman, I never felt any different and have been fortunate to have others’ support over the years. I’ve made good friends, met talented people and have taken advantage of opportunities when they came along."

To this day, Leahy's career approach remains free of assumptions and expectations. She appreciates independence and the role of serendipity. Even her focus on asphalt was not as intentional as some might think. After a premed undergraduate degree, she went to work for the Department of Defense in personnel management. She met her husband, Robert, while at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. They moved to South Carolina, where she earned a second undergraduate degree in civil engineering, followed by a master’s. When Robert was stationed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, she applied to Maryland’s doctoral program and was accepted. 

After a nudge from advisor Dr. Charles Schwartz, Leahy applied for the Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program’s Grants for Research Fellowships (GRF) component in 1984. It was (and is) a program that provided a well funded full-time 3- to 12-month research, technology transfer and development project to graduate students. According to Ewa Flom, Program Manager of the Universities and Grants Programs at the Federal Highway Administration, "Dr. Leahy was part of the first awards that were made for the GRF component of the program in 1984. We had 16 recipients (5 Female and 11 Male) that year. It was an exciting time as it operated out of the newly minted Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center."

"I was a woman and a citizen so I applied. When I landed at Turner-Fairbank, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I had a lot of support, resources, and equipment," recalls Leahy. "And I received a ridiculous amount of money to study asphalt, something I didn’t know much about. It was just the right place, the right time and I thought 'why not?' And yes, I worked hard and felt gratified that I could affect people’s quality of life in a positive way through this research."

While good fortune was certainly a factor in her career, Leahy also talks about making the most of opportunities. Through her travels and training she has experienced other cultures. Leahy mentions the simple chance provided by birth. The arbitrary drop into a first-generation Italian family in Southern Illinois that provided her with strong educational opportunities and inspirational female role models. While her parents never had the opportunity for education beyond high school, they gave Leahy the tools to do otherwise, if she chose.

And Leahy flourished. Her internal guide kept her observant, interested and approachable. She put a high value on building relationships with people and listening to trusted mentors. "Good counsel can play a tremendous role in both personal and professional growth. I was blessed with colleagues and friends who, because of their academic and industrial experience, were both excellent examples and genuinely inspirational. They helped me to understand how to engage the 'client,' whether it was a student in an academic setting, agency owner (ie, federal, state or local), or private sector (industry). Additionally, these mentors, through their national and international professional networks, opened many doors that allowed me challenging and rewarding opportunities that I might not otherwise have had," remarks Leahy.

One of these mentors was Dr. Carl Monismith, Professor and Director Emeritus of UC Berkeley’s Pavement Research Center of the Institute of Transportation Studies. They had many successful collaborations over the years. "Rita Leahy has always been very perceptive, and a star at AAPT – which was always a men’s organization. Over the course of her career, she broke ground for other women and mentored countless colleagues and students," says Monismith.

One of these women was Dr. Deborah Goodings, the National Science Foundation’s current Division Director of Civil, Mechanical, and Manufacturing Innovation. Goodings was an assistant professor at Maryland while Leahy was in the program. After she earned her Ph.D., they agreed to peer mentor one another. "One of Rita’s pieces of advice, which I still often repeat to others, was to ask for what you want. In other words, don’t pre-negotiate against yourself in your work. In addition, she set an example by finding satisfaction in trying different jobs, and she encouraged me to find the same stimulation from professional change, which I am happy I have done," says Goodings.

Indeed, if you look at Leahy’s CV, she has exposed herself to every aspect of the work that her field can offer. There is a lesson here and Leahy hopes others agree. "I am always reminded that my work has been less about the 'projects' and more about the 'people.' That is to say, it has been the people component that made the work interesting and enjoyable. I have been all over the world through asphalt, involved in various projects and I would have never thought that would have been possible when I started off on this journey."

Note: Dr. Rita Leahy will be the Keynote Speaker at the Graduate School's first annual Graduate Career Pathways Conference on April 20, 2018.

(By Anna De Cheke Qualls) (Photo credit: Life Touch Photography)

Contact Information

The Graduate School
University of Maryland

2123 Lee Building
7809 Regents Drive
College Park, MD 20742

301-405-3644
gradschool@umd.edu