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Career Profile: Kathleen Surpless

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

Trinity University

Trinity University is a liberal arts college.

Kathleen 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 Kathleen 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 went to a small liberal arts college (Amherst College), majored in Geology, and went directly into a PhD program (Stanford University). I was always planning on a career in academia, and did my best to get teaching experience while still a graduate student. I stayed at Stanford in an unusual "postdoc" for 3 years after receiving my degree -- as Undergraduate Program Coordinator for the GES Department, I taught an intro class, worked with TAs, worked with undergraduate students, and kept up my research.

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

I teach nine contact hours each semester, which translates into three non-lab classes or one non-lab and one lab class. We have no TAs, so much of my week is spent preparing those classes, teaching, and grading. I stacked my classes so that I do not teach on Thursdays -- that is my one day a week entirely devoted to research. I meet with my two undergraduate research students every Thursday morning, and devote the afternoon to related research. I spend several hours per week in meetings or doing committee work, much of which happens on Friday afternoon.

What do you like best about your work?

I love teaching! Working with students, both in and out of the classroom, is amazing. And challenging. And every day is a little different -- there really is nothing predictable.

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

Time management, of course. Teaching could take every minute of my day, and I've learned strategies to reduce that time, but grading, meetings, committee duties, and anything else with immediate deadlines always seem to impinge on my time for research. So I have to actively work at keeping the research moving forward and keeping connected with my field.

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

I think having teaching experience beyond a TA and experience working with undergraduate students on research were both critical to the success of my job search. During my 3 years as Undergrad Program Coordinator, the number of geo majors climbed dramatically (due to numerous factors, most unrelated to me), and I think that probably helped me as well. Finally, degrees from prestigious institutions probably didn't hurt!

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.

I am half of a dual-career couple and we are about to have our first baby. My husband was not set on a career in academia and happily taught high school for several years in CA, but similar job prospects for him in TX turned out to be terrible. After a bad year, he is now back in academia and really enjoying it. I'd say flexibility and partnership are key, as well as a lack of ego -- it's tough to be the "trailing spouse," and both partners need to be understanding about that. The climate for dual-career couples is definitely getting better, and more schools are going out their way to provide help to couples. However, hiring both partners in the same department at the same school is still quite unusual, and we feel like we are currently trying to prove that it can work, and work well.

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?

Get teaching experience! Teach your own class, not just as a TA. Have new research projects in the works already, so that you're not just finishing up Ph.D.-related research and starting new projects cold.

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