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Career Profile: Ben Surpless

Ben Surpless
Ben Surpless. Photo courtesy of Ben Surpless and Trinity University.

Trinity University

Trinity is a liberal arts college.

Ben Surpless
is one of the leaders of the 2006 Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences Workshop. Prior to the workshop, we asked each of the leaders to describe their careers, for the benefit of workshop participants, by answering the questions below.

Click on a topic to read Ben Surpless's answer to an individual question, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Educational background and career path * Current job responsibilities * Best part of the job * Challenges and strategies * Qualifications * Balancing work and life * Advice

Briefly describe your educational background and career path.

I received my degree in Geology from Carleton College. My professors at Carleton inspired me to teach - my interaction with them in the classroom and their inspired push for greater depth and breadth of knowledge made the next step an easy decision. I entered the doctoral program at Stanford University, thinking that I would eventually teach, probably on the college/university level. While there I met my wife, Kathy, who also was earning her doctorate in geology at Stanford. I received my doctorate and had a difficult decision to make - should I pursue a position at a college or university and risk a long-term, long-distance relationship with my wife, or should I simply pursue a solid teaching position locally to ensure that we would continue living together? It really wasn't a difficult decision in the end - neither my wife nor I wanted a long-distance relationship, and I, more than anything, wanted to teach. I took a position at an excellent local college preparatory high school, where I taught for 5 years. I loved the classroom interaction I had with students and the enthusiasm of the students for the material, and I was inspired by and learned from the teachers around me.

Kathy then applied for and was awarded a tenure-track position at Trinity University in San Antonio, so we moved to San Antonio where my wife taught at Trinity and I taught at a local high school for one year. Near the end of my first year teaching high school, a long-term visiting professorship position opened at Trinity. The teaching duties for the position were very close to my doctoral research area, and I realized how much I missed pursuing a rigorous research program. The position involved a national search, so I went through the usual hiring procedures expected for a college position, and I was hired to teach starting in Fall of 2005. While I am in the middle of only my first year teaching on the college level, I can't imagine getting to this point in my academic career in any other way - I regret none of the decisions that I've made, and, in fact, I think I am a better teacher today that I would have been had I taught the entire time on the college level.

Briefly describe your current job responsibilities, perhaps by describing a typical day, week, or semester.

This year, I've taught both introductory and upper level courses, and I've redesigned existing labs to better fit the material that I've covered and redesigned major field trips to improve students' first field experiences. At Trinity, there are no Teaching Assistants, so I've actively observed the challenges that the students face in their first lab and field experiences. I have actively participated in all department faculty meetings and was part of the search committee for a recent job search in the department. I presented two talks at GSA this year on new research topics, and I'm planning on presenting at the Cordilleran GSA meeting in Alaska along with 2 Trinity undergraduates in early May. In addition, I'm starting new research in west Texas, with a reconnaissance trip planned for this summer, and I'm advising an undergraduate student in her Keck geology project in Nova Scotia. I plan to visit her in the field this summer and I have been appointed as her thesis research advisor throughout the school year. Although I can't apply for NSF, PRF, or other grant monies in my position, in all other ways, my position is identical to that of a person in a tenure track position at a small, liberal arts college.

What do you like best about your work?

As one might guess, based on my career path, I love the interaction that I have with students in the classroom, in the lab, and in the field.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?

At this point, ramping up my research program is by far the most challenging aspect of my work. Since I can't apply for research monies in my position, I am limited in the scope of projects that I can pursue. To meet this challenge, I've contacted and worked with researchers involved in large-scale projects, so that I can both contribute to the larger goals of the project as well as individually pursue a smaller, more focused part of the project. Communication with colleagues in my field has been a key to jump-starting a new research program.

What qualifications do you think made you competitive in your job search(es)?

My teaching evaluations, both by administration and by students, were exceptional, and I was able to show that I had kept up with recent advances in my field. In addition, I was able to relate my varied experiences in a positive way to the position for which I had applied.

Many of the graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in these workshops are interested in balancing a family and career, in dual career couple issues, and in how other personal choices affect the search for a fulfilling career. Please share information about your situation, your ideas and experiences.

If you truly want to have a fulfilling career as well as a satisfying life outside of work, there will be times that compromises must be made. This has been especially true in my case, as my wife also has pursued a career in geology. While, as I mentioned above, I don't regret decisions that I've made, the number of choices at each step in my career has been limited by family and lifestyle considerations. Since my primary goal has always been to teach, however, the sacrifices haven't been as great as one might assume. By identifying your primary career goals early in your career, later decisions become somewhat easier to make.

What advice do you have for graduate students or post-docs preparing for academic careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career?

Depending on your experiences in graduate school and upon the type of position you are pursuing, I would take every opportunity to teach that is available to you, whether voluntary or paid. By gaining a significant amount of classroom experience, you will be able to better sell yourself to any institution that requires teaching of any kind. It is assumed that you will have a strong research program, will be able to present your research to others and answer questions about it, but you can set yourself apart from many in a job search with demonstrated classroom excellence.

I now realize how important communication and networking can be in advancing your career. At meetings, I preferred poster presentations, thinking that I would have conversations with others in the field that would improve my own research in the long term. However, your national visibility is better ensured by presenting your data orally as often as possible. In addition, striking up conversations with others in your field (or outside of your field) will make you more memorable down the road, when one of those researchers will be on a search committee, making hiring decisions.

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