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Career Profile: Jeff Marshall

Jeff Marshall. Photo courtesy of Jeff Marshall.

Cal Poly Pomona University

Cal Poly Pomona University is a public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate.
Jeff Marshall
is one of the leaders of the 2010 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 Jeff Marshall '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.

My fascination with geology and landscapes took root as a child exploring the coastlines, mountains, and deserts of southern California. Growing up in San Diego, I spent a lot of time outdoors, in an era when open-space was the dominant paradigm. Earthquakes, storms, and waves captured my imagination, and I became fascinated with how these energetic processes shaped the Earth's surface. In my freshman year at U.C. San Diego, I took an Oceanography course taught by SIO faculty. I discovered that plate tectonics was pretty cool stuff, and so decided to pursue a career in the geosciences. I soon transferred to U.C. Santa Barbara and joined their awesome field-heavy geology program. Despite the temptations of dorm life on the beach, I worked hard, reveled in the fieldwork, and learned a lot about the Earth.

Not yet in the mood for grad school or professional life, I spent several years after college working odd jobs and traveling far and near. I toiled in restaurants in southern California, worked as a farmhand and bartender in Europe, was a ski bum in the Sierras, and volunteered as a geologic field assistant in southeast Alaska. I then joined the Peace Corps, and headed off to Costa Rica, where I worked as a fish-farming advisor in a small mountain village on the edge of the cloud forest. Ready now to engage more directly with my career, I entered graduate school as an M.S. student at U.C. Santa Cruz. To earn my keep, I worked as a T.A. for a variety of courses, and there discovered my love of teaching. My thesis research took me to Costa Rica again, where I studied subduction earthquakes and marine terraces along the Pacific coast. I also worked on a mix of other projects in Santa Cruz investigating coastal processes, earthquake induced landslides, and fault hazards.

With Master's in hand, I worked awhile for several Bay Area consulting firms monitoring landslides along the San Andreas Fault and assessing ground water contamination in Silicon Valley. Tiring of cubicles and billable hours, I soon returned to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in Geosciences at Penn State University. My dissertation examined plate boundary fault kinematics and tectonic geomorphology in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. While completing my Ph.D., I taught undergraduate lab courses and also spent three years as a visiting instructor at Franklin & Marshall College in southeastern Pennsylvania. These teaching experiences were critical in building my skills and enthusiasm for life as a professor.

After earning my doctorate, I returned to southern California and joined the Geological Sciences faculty at Cal Poly Pomona University, where I've spent the past 9 years. We are a small geology department known for hands-on learning and fieldwork. I teach courses in geomorphology, natural disasters, engineering geology, watershed restoration, and Earth science education. I also teach several field courses, and mentor undergraduate students on senior thesis research. Our current projects focus on mountain-front faulting and alluvial fans along southern California's San Gabriel Mountains, and coastal uplift and earthquake hazards on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula (funded by NSF MARGINS). During my time at Cal Poly, I've sunk endless hours serving on faculty committees, working groups, and task forces. I now serve as University Coordinator for Undergraduate Research. I am also a geosciences councilor with the national Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR). This spring, the hard work finally paid off, as I earned early promotion to full Professor.

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

Cal Poly Pomona is one of the 23 campuses of the California State University (CSU) system, the largest public system of higher education in the U.S. Across the CSU, faculty are expected to teach courses, conduct research, and serve the university. While each of these activities is considered important in the tenure and promotion process, teaching takes the lead as our primary responsibility. At Cal Poly Pomona, we teach on the quarter system, and are expected to cover an average of 12 units per regular academic quarter. Depending on the courses (stand-alone lecture, lecture/lab combo, or field module), this means teaching somewhere between 6 and 9 different courses per year. (Yes, indeed, this is a heavy teaching load!) These classes include large GE and service courses, as well as smaller specialty courses for geology majors. In our department, we are also expected to engage undergraduate students in our research, and mentor senior thesis projects. While this is often the most enjoyable aspect of our work, we receive essentially no teaching credit for this time. In addition to teaching and research, we are expected to serve on committees and engage in leadership within our university and profession. A typical day, thus, involves substantial multi-tasking and juggling of priorities. The secret is to always stay several steps ahead of the game, and to know when to politely say, "Sorry, not now, I'm busy."

What do you like best about your work?

  1. Running field trips and teaching outdoors (we are lucky to have many great field areas nearby).
  2. Doing research with undergraduate students.
  3. Traveling for fieldwork and conferences.
  4. Teaching and inspiring future teachers in my Earth Science Education Course.
  5. Walking, slurping coffee, and enjoying the beauty of our campus.

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

Time management: finding a balance between work and family time. The workload at Cal Poly Pomona far exceeds the time available. This is a constant source of stress and requires skillful multi-tasking and a strong sense of patience.

Learning to prioritize daily tasks and accepting that some things will fall through the cracks is very important. Also, learning to say "no" to new requests for your time and involvement is very important for survival. I made the mistake early in my career of thinking that it was a good idea to engage in as many interesting activities as possible. While being praised for my productivity by my Dean during an annual review, he paused and told me "you know, it is okay to say 'no' on occasion" This was a pivotal piece of advise, and has guided my work philosophy ever since... Just say No!

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

  1. Being relaxed, honest, and humble during interviews.
  2. Good letters of recommendation (build strong relationships with your mentors!).
  3. Prior teaching experience as a visiting instructor at a well-known liberal arts college (jump on those sabbatical replacement opportunities!)
  4. Substantial experience in teaching field courses and mentoring undergraduate research (including international projects)
  5. Interdisciplinary research and teaching skills
  6. Degrees from three highly ranked geosciences programs

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.

The most significant challenge in an academic career is balancing the demands of family and work. This is further complicated by any significant life changes such as marriage, birth of a child, moving, economic woes, aging parents, and so on. Good communication with your spouse and family is essential. This is particularly critical if you and your spouse have little shared experience in your career paths. Also, keep in mind that the most challenging and rewarding activity in life is raising children. Children require far more time, energy, skill, and devotion than any aspect of an academic career. Tenure is a breeze, guiding a child through the wonders of life is a piece of work.

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 as much hands-on teaching experience as possible. Grad students and post-docs often become delusional in thinking that research experience alone will land them a good job. This is rarely the case. Most available positions in academia are focused primarily on teaching. The priority of today's universities and colleges is educating the next generation of students. Teaching is the most valuable and difficult skill to learn in an academic career. Research experience is most valuable when employed as a means of teaching. When preparing for a career, think about how to engage undergraduate students in your research, and how you can embed research into your teaching.

Some things I wish I had known when I started my career:

  1. Negotiating for an appropriate salary, start-up funds, and office/research space is a critical step in accepting a new position. This is a skill few of us are taught in graduate school, and one that can have a major impact on your career success and job satisfaction. Be aware of the cost of living in areas you are seeking employment. Educate yourself on the expectations and limitations of the institutions and departments you are applying to.
  2. Personalities and politics within the workplace have huge impacts on your success. Learn to read the signs and be a good team player.
  3. Never place too much trust in your campus administration until you have plenty of experience with them. Be aware that campus initiatives come and go, and that administrators move-on and change jobs more frequently than faculty. Don't build your success on relationships with administrators, but always treat them respectfully.
  4. A career in academia provides very little freedom to choose where you will live out your life. Open positions in a particular discipline are very limited each year. Most employers are seeking young, recent graduates to fill starting positions at low salaries. Once you climb the ladder of experience, tenure, and promotion, opportunities to change jobs and move on to new locations become fewer and far between.

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