Grit and Gumption Power a Career | An Interview with Nichola Gutgold

I knew about Nichola before I actually met her. When we finally got together for coffee, our shared passion for writing launched a terrific friendship. As associate professor of communications arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University, Lehigh Valley campus, Nichola D. Gutgold, PhD is a prolific author on the communications styles of influential women in male-dominated fields 

When I learned that Nichola had gone to Washington, D.C. to interview Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor, my first thought was, “How did she become a force who gains access to important women?” So I decided to ask.   

DL: Nichola, here you are, professor and author, on a career roll. How did this all happen? 

NG: Well, it sure isn’t what I ever expected. My father was a coal miner and one of ten children. Though both my mom and dad were supportive of my sisters and me, they didn’t encourage a professional career route.  As a kid, the only images I had of successful career women were TV news broadcasters. 

I was lucky enough to go to college, the first in my family to get a degree. I graduated with a double major in mass communications and English, thinking I would teach. While an undergrad, I worked for a while as a newspaper beat reporter. It was a lot of grunt work and a bad fit for me. 

I didn’t have any specific career goals after I graduated. So I worked briefly for a TV station, a small advertising business, and then in PR for a shopping mall.   

DL: Did these jobs discourage you? 

NG: Not really. I always had a sense that I needed to expand my educational credentials. It wasn’t long before I went for an MA in Speech/Communication at Bloomsburg University. 

While studying for my masters, I got married and helped my husband start his own advertising business. Balancing all this was a bit hairy. Once I completed my degree I became an adjunct professor at a couple local colleges and Penn State. That’s when I realized I needed a doctorate. 

DL: Was getting your PhD your most important career choice? 

NG: Yes, it would make all the difference, but it came with real sacrifice. When I started my PhD, I was thirty years old with a young daughter. The rigors of the degree took everything I had, requiring me to study well into the night while jockeying my family responsibilities (often not too well) and my teaching. It was a time of tremendous stress and guilt. 

I am fortunate to be strong-willed and optimistic. I knew in my heart that I had to give my all to achieve that degree. If I wanted to be taken seriously in my career and have opportunities presented to me, that PhD was the ticket. 

DL: After you got your degree, what made you start writing books about influential women? 

NG: It’s always amazing how one thing leads to another if we’re open to it. I’d seen Elizabeth Dole speak on TV at the Republican National Convention. I was intrigued by her beauty queen look and her willingness to demure to her husband’s political aspirations even though she could have been the presidential candidate. So I decided to do my dissertation on her speech-making style. 

I wrote to Elizabeth when she ran the Red Cross, more or less begging for an interview. It took several letters until one day, her office contacted me to say she was coming to Hershey, PA to speak and had bought me ticket to hear her. I was stunned and thrilled. That’s how it all started. 

DL: I suspect it can feel pretty intimidating to contact these women. What gives you the nerve to do it? 

NG: I’ve come to realize that women like Elizabeth Dole and the Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor have their own stories to tell and few opportunities to tell them. Sure they’re in the news, but you’d be surprised at how little in-depth attention they get personally. 

But it takes perseverance. I often have to write many letters (not e-mails) requesting an interview and then following up. Sometimes I get a quick response and other times I wait. I just don’t give up. 

DL: It still amazes me that they will agree to talk to you. What’s your magic? 

To have Penn State University as my employer is a huge asset. In many ways, I stand on PSU’s shoulders and that opens doors. My academic credentials also have weight. It lets these women know that I am a professional, dedicated to getting things right. 

I also make it clear that my focus is on their speech and communication styles. I don’t critique what they say, just how they say it, specifically the techniques they use to make their points to influence change. 

It doesn’t take magic, just work hard and optimism. A positive spirit and a can-do attitude have the power to make things happen. 

Nichola Gutgold blogs at TalkDoc. Her books include Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton ‘Won’ in 2008 , Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News, and Paving the Way for Madam President. With Molly Wertheimer she co-authored, Elizabeth Hanford Dole: Speaking from the Heart. She is currently writing a book on communications styles of the women Supreme Court Justices.

6 thoughts on “Grit and Gumption Power a Career | An Interview with Nichola Gutgold

  1. Great interview, Dawn! She has a great story. She said that getting her PhD would “make all the difference.” Did she elaborate on that? I’m curious to find out how a more advanced degree put her career over the top. I would imagine that obtaining such a degree has much more intrinsic value than most people imagine. Thanks again for sharing your interview!

    • Thanks for your wonderful comment and questions, Emily. I did ask Nichola whether or not at PhD was essential for her career, since sometimes people believe that more degrees are automatic career advancers. Nichola was very strategic about seeking her doctorate. She knew that being a PSU professor was both a great fit for her interests and the career achievement she wanted. It was clear that a PhD was expected in higher ed in order to be positioned for tenure consideration. In addition, Nichola saw that a PhD was a measure of dedication to study and a valuable credential as an author. As she told me in the interview, it took a while and lots of hard work to assemble all the pieces. It all confirmed that her strategy was exactly right for the career and opportunities she wanted.

      I think it’s so important for people to understand what they really want from a successful career and what they are willing to invest to achieve it. There are no guarantees and it makes no sense to make choices without a plan. I loved the fact that Nichola made smart moves based on what mattered to her.

      Your questions were terrific. I hope this added info is helpful to you in your work. I am very grateful for your comment and kind words. Best, ~Dawn

      • Thanks for the additional insight. Makes complete sense! I’m currently obtaining a Masters in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins, and I totally agree with you in that obtaining a higher degree needs to be strategic to your overall career goals. Otherwise, in my opinion, you’re just paying for a very expensive piece of paper. Thanks again for the piece! Keep up the great work.

        • What an exciting Masters at an top notch school! Lucky you! You are so right about the price tag on degrees, making it so important to have real next-step options in one’s line of sight.

          My M.A. is in English for two reasons: 1.) I loved literature and writing and 2.) I was teaching H.S. and needed it for tenure. Little did I know how important that degree would be in a corporate setting where the ability to turn complex issue discussions into clear written communication was a career differentiator. I earned my initial credibility in a male-dominated, engineering industry because I could write well. When they discovered I could also lead, then things really started to happen!

          Useful writing is the outcome of clear thinking, particularly big picture thinking. We need to consider both the impact and implication of decisions before we move forwrd. Good writers can protect us from ourselves. The world needs you…and now! Thanks again, ~Dawn

  2. Dawn what a great interview. Your questions got write to the heart of what an inquisitive mind wants to know. I learned a lot about Nichola in a short read and was quite inspired. Her determination and knowing what she wanted ended in her obtaining some pretty fascinating interviews. It proves over and over again that you need you eye on the prize to be motivated to take the steps necessary to obtain it. Great read, put things in perspective for me and was another example of what one person can do. Dawn, your the best.

    • Thanks, Lee. I’m so glad you like the interview. I’m endlessly impressed by Nichola’s boundless energy and eagerness to take on new challenges. You’re so right about keeping your “eye on the prize” even when you’re not exactly sure what that prize will turn out to be. A little self-confidence and a vision of the possibilities goes a long way! Great to hear from you and getting that wonderful “atta girl.” ~Dawn

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