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Career Profile: Rachel O'Brien

Rachel O'Brien, teaching geology near the summit of Mauna Kea (elevation 4,205 m), the highest point in Hawai'i. Photo taken by Jack Lindberg.

Allegheny College

Allegheny College is a 4-year private liberal arts college.

Rachel O'Brien
is a convener and leader for the 2013 Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences workshop and was a leader at the 2010, 2011, and 2012 Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences workshops. 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 Rachel O'Brien'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 attended Colgate University for my Bachelors degree. Both my M.S. and Ph.D. are from Washington State University under the same advisor. My educational path was definitely not a linear one: between each of my three degrees I worked in a variety of geoscience jobs--regulatory, research, and teaching--so that I could gain valuable professional experience in the U.S. and abroad.

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

During any given semester the majority of my time is spent working with undergraduates in the classroom, supervising them as research and/or teaching assistants and through academic advising. I teach two lab courses each semester and do all my own grading. Committee work is required at Allegheny and the faculty are very involved in many aspects of the institution. So another sizable chunk of time goes to working with my faculty peers on service: search committees, admissions events, committee work, etc. During the semester I devote a much smaller percentage of my time to research. Presentations at professional meetings, writing grant-proposals, and submitting/revising manuscripts are the three primary research activities I conduct during the academic year--since each of these tasks requires a concentrated effort and many hours of preparation I have to choose them carefully. However in the summer I work nearly full-time on my research.

What do you like best about your work?

I like the diversity of tasks associated with my job and the fact that I spend a good part of each day in motion while working in the classroom, lab, or out in the field. I believe that in order for me to be a good professor and mentor I need to constantly learn more about the subject material and the people I teach. If I approach each of my job responsibilities--even grading--as an opportunity for learning, it's a lot more enjoyable.

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

Trying to balance all of the demands of this job can be incredibly challenging. Since there will always be more work than we have time to complete, I think the challenge is to learn how to let go of some of the anxiety and strategically focus your professional efforts. I also struggle with the demands placed on me to teach a wide range of courses both within my Department and in larger campus-wide programs, such as Freshman Seminars, which can make me feel unfocused at times.

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

I think I was competitive in the job market at a liberal arts college because I had:
  1. Attended a liberal arts school for my undergraduate degree and so I was familiar with the environment and expectations of such an institution.
  2. Experience designing, teaching, and assessing an undergraduate course while I was a graduate student.
  3. A publication track record and some experience with grants.
In addition the search committee commented specifically on the strength of my teaching philosophy statement.

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 think it's important to remember that a career--and the trajectory that it takes--is unique to the individual. We tend to lump academic positions into one bucket when in reality they are all quite different. If you can free yourself from a rigid mold of what you should do, you can then begin to articulate and prioritize your particular professional goals. If you can articulate your goals and are willing to work hard to achieve them, you have the power to craft a fulfilling career that does not preclude a fulfilling personal life.

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?

The fact that you have decided to participate in this workshop is a wise choice. The more you can learn about and prepare for an academic career the more likely are your chances for success. Ultimately I think you need to know yourself well--your goals, your work habits, your needs--and you need to know your prospective career path well--the job, the department, the institution, the geoscience education research community. I wish I had learned more about some of the topics that were not part of my professional training such as:

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