A Candid Conversation with Sally Phelps

A candid conversation with Sally Phelps about her mission on campus, how she spends her free time, and the challenges of working with Olin students.

I met with Sally Phelps in her office in the lower floor of the library. As always, her schedule was tight, but as always, she was happy to meet with me and speak for a full hour– a clearly prioritized hour of uninterrupted conversation, despite the ringing of phones and the dinging of incoming emails.


Sally originally worked in advertising for Bose, but was convinced by a co-worker to do college recruitment for the company. She found her mission in that role much more meaningful, and furthered that personal mission in coming to Olin. She has been the Olin’s Director of Postgraduate Planning since 2007.

FRANKLY: What is your philosophy for PGP?

PHELPS: When I first came here, I thought, I will help them figure it out. But what I have found is, by and large, our students have figured it out; they just need a little help with the road map.

I think one of the really exciting things about Olin is the different roads students take, and the people doing multiple things: the alum who goes to work for a company, but also has his own side business, and is doing all sorts of volunteering, and also likes to travel. I think that sort of multifaceted direction is one of the things that’s very cool about our young people.

FRANKLY: Is it part of your job to help alumni, too?

PHELPS: Absolutely. They’re a huge part of our story.
One of the things that I’ve been trying to do– you asked how I spend my time, another thing that I’ve been doing a lot is telling our stories. It’s all about students coming in and students going out. What do they do? We have a blog on our website, I try to get two stories a week up there, and there’s no shortage of stories. There are so many great stories, in terms of what are our students doing, what our alumni are doing, in all different walks. If we don’t illustrate what our people are up to, no one will really know what we’re doing here, whether it’s having an impact or how we are different.

FRANKLY: What is your favorite part of your job?

PHELPS: My favorite thing is to sit one-on-one with students and help them: either what am I thinking about, where do I want to go, how do I want to get there; or specifically: how do I write this cover letter, how do I make this resume, how do I negotiate this offer, how do I get companies to notice me? That’s by far my favorite part of this job.

FRANKLY: What is your least favorite part of working here?

PHELPS: One of the challenges I find is when I meet a student who does not show humility. Our students are here because they are very special, but I wish they’d be a little bit more humble. I don’t mean this as harshly as it sounds. But let’s face it, many of you have been told ‘you are special’ all of your lives. And with some of your peers, that ‘I’m pretty special’ attitude comes through loud and clear and it isn’t pretty. I have even had employers say, ‘Olin students think they’re something special.’

Of course, this does not go for all students. But you know who they are, even though they might not know it. If these are your friends, find a way to gently tell them this. Be specific and constructive. Every one of us here at Olin is continuing to build our reputation with every action and conversation with the external world, and it only takes one to turn potential advocates away with the wrong attitude.

FRANKLY: What is one major challenge for PGP?

PHELPS: One of our challenges continues to be finding job leads for materials science and bioengineering, and even mechanical and electrical at times. We just don’t have enough leads in those areas– also international leads, ADE type of leads– those would be the areas that I’d say we’re always looking for innovative companies to bring to our students.

Honestly, when I look at the companies and grad schools that are coming here and the leads they bring, and the huge– the growing interest they have in Olin, I do believe that every student, every first-year, if they try, should be able to get an internship, research experience or job. Every single one of them. The caveat that I would put to that, if someone is looking for something very specific, either in terms of type of job or location, that’s when it might take longer or it might not necessarily happen right away. But there is a lot of interest in our students. That’s why I say to the first-years, if you get organized, if you stay focused, if you continue to just send out a couple of resumes a week, with a cover letter, you will find something.

FRANKLY: What was your first job?

PHELPS: My first job out of school was working for Blue Cross Blue Shield, writing their newsletters, and that was boring. [laughs] Very, very, boring.

I needed a job, I was living at home, and he liked my handshake. I had a good handshake, my dad was in sales. All that helped. Helped me get that very boring job.

FRANKLY: What do you do outside of work?

PHELPS: Two of my three kids are in college, so I do find that I have some extra time. My daughter is a dancer, so I spend a lot of time with her, helping her get where she needs to be and supporting her in competitions.

I do find I have more time than I used to. I like to help young people with career counselling and the college admissions process– people that I know, friends of our family. For a lot of people that’s very overwhelming, so I can help them get organized and make a plan.

I’m very involved in our town library. I know my daughter thinks that’s the most boring thing in the world, but I help in fundraising for them, collecting books, having book sales. And then yoga. I love yoga. As my daughter says, all you talk about is books and yoga, Mom. But it works for me. I just love my local yoga studio, our teachers and our community.

FRANKLY: Why did you choose to come to Olin?

PHELPS: This school is doing important work. We are doing something. We are beginning to make a difference in this space that so badly needs attention. So to be a part of that, in my role, is thrilling.

I love this place, my work and my role here. I’m having a blast, and I feel strongly about the greater mission we all have.

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