James Righter had a 20-year career in the Marines before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. When it was all over, he packed up in Quantico, Virginia and headed south for Clemson University, where he is now a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering.

He has deep experience that is rare for a student, even at the doctoral level. Military service took Righter all over the world, including tours in Iraq, Japan and South Carolina’s Parris Island.

James Righter, left, served as a lieutenant colonel before enrolling as a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at Clemson University.

James Righter, left, served as a lieutenant colonel before enrolling as a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at Clemson University.

“I got to work with some of the best people in America, some of the best people in the world,” he said.

Righter began his Ph.D. program in August 2015, just a few weeks after retiring. He now lives in Clemson with his wife, Gretchen, and their two sons, James, 12, Jacob, 8. Righter hopes to finish his program in August 2018 and to find a faculty job.

His advisor, Joshua Summers, said Righter would make a good faculty member.

“He has a love for the students, a passion for teaching,” said Summers, the mechanical engineering graduate program coordinator. “He is very conscientious and very intentional when he works on explaining things. When he speaks, people listen.”

Righter led logistics teams that helped ensure the Marines had what they needed, including transportation, supplies, maintenance, health services and engineering. He had to coordinate with lots of people inside the Marine Corps and with outside agencies, such as USAID.

“I really enjoyed that,” Righter said. “That’s part of what brought me back to grad school, and that’s what led me into the research I’m doing.”

The research is interdisciplinary, focusing on leadership in design teams. Some of the key questions he asks include, “What do leaders do, what can leaders do better and how can we better educate them to do those things?”

Righter is able to draw from his logistics experience.

“Logistics teams solve problems with Marine units,” he said. “You take resources, you match them to requirements, and you come up with a design to fix that. That’s what design teams do. It’s just mechanical products, instead of service products.”

Righter said his family keeps him busy when he isn’t in the classroom or lab. They enjoy going to football games and swim meets. Righter said he likes to run local races “really slowly.”

The transition from lieutenant colonel to Ph.D. student has been a happy one, he said.

“This is busy, but this is fun busy,” Righter said. “You’re always home on the weekends, unless there’s a conference. You’re always in your own bed at night. These are all good, positive things. You always want more time with your family– everyone would say that. But this has been a great time to get back with the kids.”