Broad Knowledge Prepares for the Unknown Path

Stepping back to look at the bigger picture, Tom Sox sees that the breadth of his graduate school education was more valuable than the depth. The tools and skills he acquired at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill prepared Sox for the variety of jobs he would take throughout his career, ultimately giving him the perfect background to serve on the Graduate Education Advancement Board at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I have opinions of what graduate education should be and what it should achieve,” he says. “I look forward to helping the Board's efforts to better graduate education.”

Tom Sox

Tom Sox

Sox attended UNC-Chapel Hill as a doctoral student two years after graduating from Duke University with a Zoology degree.

He had always planned to go on to graduate education, but Sox graduated in the middle of the Vietnam War. With the pressure of a 1A draft status looming over his head, he didn't anticipate being in America very long after graduation. Luckily, the draft board didn't reach his number that year, and so he was able to pursue his dream of a doctorate in Microbiology at UNC-Chapel Hill.

During the first two years of his program, Sox worked two days a week at Duke Hospital to make ends meet. He would spend Monday through Friday in school at Chapel Hill, and then drive to Durham to pick up a double shift from 4 p.m. Friday through 8 a.m. Saturday. Fortunately, after those first years his department was able to fund him with a grant, allowing Sox more time to work on his research.

Since earning his PhD, Sox has worked in medicine, technology and even law. After graduation he worked for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati for 12 years, doing research on oral microbiology and periodontal disease. At one point during his time at Procter & Gamble, he held the patent for Pepto-Bismol liquid. “It's my little claim to fame,” he says.

From his work in Cincinnati, Sox grew interested in patent work, a field he had never imagined himself going into. He decided to go to night law school for four years to learn more about patent law.

“It was a very regimented lifestyle,” he says. Every morning Sox woke up at 7:30, prepared and packed a dinner to eat on his drive from work to the law school, and then sat through class until 9 p.m. “UNC had prepared me for the hard work. After a PhD program, I felt like I could handle anything.”

After graduating from the law school at Temple University with his juris doctorate, Sox lived the life of a patent attorney for a year before deciding it wasn't the career for him.

Sox enjoyed letting his career path make twists and turns as it went. “In grad school you may foresee a specific path ahead but I think once you get out it's about taking advantage of the opportunities as they come along and following your interests as you change,” he says.

Though Sox worked hard on his dissertation, he says it's the “broader problem solving skills” that proved most valuable over time. After spending 12 years in the field of his doctorate studies, Sox has spent the 20 years since in other fields—mainly patent applications and technology.

Looking back on his time spent at UNC-Chapel Hill, Sox has a different perspective than when he was a student here. He has come to recognize that a doctorate in one subject can lead to a career in many different fields, and that the skills learned in graduate education are more important than specific facts.

“I can tell you in hindsight now why I think graduate education is important. When I was in my mid-20s, I don't think I could even fully conceptualize it. I was very much just accumulating knowledge and I wanted to be a scientist and all that. I wasn't really looking at the big picture of where I was going.”

Sox appreciates the village it takes to bring a doctoral student to his or her graduation, and how important it is for the professors and mentors to balance control and autonomy of the student. He also has a clearer image now of why graduate education is important, and appreciates the knowledge he gained at Carolina more and more each day.

♦ Cindy J. Austin