From Thunderbird to Eagle

When it comes to running the College of Aeronautics, Dr. Ken Witcher draws upon his military experience to guide him.

Dr. Ken Witcher has served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force before becoming Dean and Associate Professor for Embry-Riddle Worldwide's College of Aeronautics
Dr. Ken Witcher has served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force before becoming dean and associate professor for Embry-Riddle Worldwide's College of Aeronautics (Photo: Dr. Ken Witcher)

After serving 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, including a stint as a member of the prestigious Thunderbirds flight demonstration team, he learned the value of leadership and collaboration while also becoming an expert in the aviation industry.

Beyond that, Dr. Witcher’s military service gave him a technical understanding of learning that enables him to educate students in a way that’s effective for them. His “service attitude” and passion for education is always at the forefront of his teaching.

Dr. Witcher sat down to share insights into his style of leadership and offer advice to prospective students considering a graduate degree:

What industry experience do you bring to Embry-Riddle, and how do you incorporate it into the curriculum? How does it benefit graduate students?

The experience I bring is from serving. Being in the military is understanding that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. You want to give back and make things better. I’ve been able to share that with our programs. These graduate programs aren’t about individual classes; they’re about something bigger. It’s about the outcomes. It’s about what students can take back to make the aviation aerospace industry better.

What makes the faculty at Embry-Riddle unique compared to other grad schools across the country and how does this foster success for students?

What makes us unique is in our name. We’re aviation and aerospace-focused. That’s our niche. This allows us to hire faculty with extensive hands-on experience such as military test pilots with thousands and thousands of hours on platforms or who have operated vehicles in space remotely or have thousands of hours in unmanned systems. Many of our faculty are still working in the industry and bring what’s happening today into the classroom environment, which is a unique opportunity to prepare students to develop solutions for real-world problems.

What types of research opportunities and labs are available for graduate students?

Most of our graduate programs have a research-level track where students can take a thesis option that will guide them towards research. These opportunities are fostered through culminating events in those programs. 

At the Worldwide campus, we’re fortunate because most of our graduate students are working adults, so they’re able to identify real-world, real-time problems where they’re employed. Their instructors can then help them facilitate the research to solve the problems so that there’s confidence and results in their discoveries.

What type of support does your department offer students?

In addition to advising, counseling, financial aid and VA support, we have faculty mentors at the College of Aeronautics. If our graduate students have questions relating to their degree program, they can speak to one of our expert faculty in the student’s field of study for guidance.

What advice would you give to someone considering graduate school?

If you have a highly focused undergraduate degree, go broader for graduate school. For example, if your bachelor’s degree is in Aerospace Engineering, do an aeronautics or space operations master’s degree. If your undergraduate degree was broad, consider a Business, Systems Engineering, Aerospace Engineering, Airworthiness Engineering or Human Factors master’s degree. Ask yourself if you want to go out and work in a particular discipline and promote and advance yourself for those types of jobs.

If you’re using your graduate degree to go onto a Ph.D., you need to be careful of what degree program you choose because you want to make sure it includes graduate-level research methods and statistical analysis that’s going to prepare you to be more successful when you move into a higher level of learning.  

What do you feel is the key to long-term success in graduate school?

  • Picking a program you’ll enjoy and be able to immediately apply knowledge and concepts
  • Having faculty with unique industry experience
  • Having a variety of classmates working in all different types of industries, allowing you to learn from them

Do you have any success stories you’d like to share?

There are currently nine active astronauts that are Embry-Riddle grads and of those nine, seven came out of the College of Aeronautics, and of those seven, five have graduate degrees. However, from a graduate program perspective, you don’t have to dig deep to find students with wonderful success stories.