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Career Profile: Mike Phillips

Mike Phillips. Photo courtesy of Mike Phillips.

Illinois Valley Community College

IVCC is a two-year community college.

Mike Phillips
is one of the leaders of the 2007 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 Mike Phillips'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 Bachelors ('86) and Masters ('90) at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. As an undergraduate, I was involved in student orientation for three years and a Resident Assistant in a dorm for two years. As a grad student, I taught 3-4 sections/semester of earth science lab for two years.

I began work as an environmental geologist at a private consulting firm in 1989 and moved to a similar position with the Illinois State Geological Survey in 1992. At the ISGS, I participated in outreach activities at schools and helped lead field trips; in addition, I started teaching night classes at several local community colleges. At Shawnee CC in southern Illinois, I proposed and began teaching a new course in Environmental Geology and I also taught remote sites using a distance-learning video system.

In 1997, I began teaching at Illinois Valley Community College in north-central Illinois. In addition to teaching courses, I started working on the Assessment Committee. After a year at the college, I helped develop a center for excellence in teaching, learning, & assessment and headed the center for five years. I developed new courses in Env. Geology and GIS and an outreach course in local geology. I have worked on the college's strategic plan and facilities plan and have been on selection committees to hire faculty, staff and administrators.

In 2002, I started a voter registration drive. In 2003, I ran for and gained a seat on my local school board. From 2005-2006, I ran for State Representative unsuccessfully.


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

My annual course load includes physical, environmental, and historical geology as well as oceanography, GIS, environmental science, and astronomy. The spring semester starts in early September l when I review the schedule and suggest changes to the Dean of my division. In October, I approve the bookstore's list of texts for the spring. (This year, I noted one text was going into a new edition, and called the book rep. to request a copy.) In late December, I prepare semester plans and syllabi (which include most of my handouts) and submit them to be copied. (This year, I still had not received the new text and learned it would not be available until after break and a key supplemental text would not be available in the new edition. I spent a half-day developing a supplement for students, and delayed submitting my syllabus until I had a copy of the new text. It's always something!) I also update all of my on-line resources. Carefully planning the semester saves a lot of time later on.

The actual semester starts with a day-long in-service with administrative updates and short workshops on educational issues. (This year, in response to the admin. updates, I asked to serve on several teams and began developing a course for the revised honors program.) I download my class lists and put the information into spreadsheet grade books. I pull out the materials for the courses I teach (Physical Geology, Historical Geology, Oceanography, & Environmental Science). Physical and Historical each have lecture, seminar, & lab; the seminar and lab require that I pull materials (maps, rocks, photos, etc.) and put them away each week. Oceanography meets in lecture only. Env. Sci. meets face-to-face once a week, but is primarily an on-line course, I must facilitate the on-line discussion daily and update the web site weekly. I had a total starting enrollment (all sections) of appx. 120 students.

Each week, I spend 14 hours in the classroom and three hours in open lab. I have seven scheduled office hours. I am usually at the college from 8:30 to 5:00. This spring, I led a team to develop a written textbook adoption policy, and I was co-leader of a team exploring the adoption of a minimum reading-level requirement. Each team required several hours a week of research and meetings. I attended two workshops (five days off campus) this spring and wrote a proposal for a GSA session. On campus, I coordinated the voter registration drive, spoke in several colleagues' classes, led part of a workshop for high school students, and led a career day activity for jr. high students. Each week, there is something a little different. In addition to time on campus, I spend between 5 and 15 hours/week working at home (grading, on-line, writing class materials, etc.).

The end of the semester, there is a flood of students checking grades, the union picnic (yea!), final exams, student submissions of all sorts, lots of grading, and grade submission (via computer). After grades are turned in, a few more team meetings, planning for summer semester, a trip to the state capitol to lobby for education, and graduation.

What do you like best about your work?

I love this job. Teaching is a blast. I like the students; it is especially satisfying when they are engaged and I can see things start to click. I like the variety; the college values input and participation. Little of what I do outside of the classes I teach is "required," although it is strongly encouraged and is part of the evaluation process. I can choose to do things that interest me. I enjoy working with faculty from a variety of disciplines (I am the only geologist). I like the small atmosphere; the college employs 250-300 people full-time, and I know almost everyone from the President to maintenance. Most of all, I like the on-going challenge.

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

Teaching is very challenging, and that is why I like it. Every semester, every class, every student is different. To be successful, you have to monitor student knowledge and attitudes constantly. Engaging students in the class with a variety of teaching strategies is key as is assessment (formative & summative). The task I find to be the most tedious is grading papers. I address this somewhat with the structure of assignments, but, sometimes, you just have to focus and get it done.

I view teaching as a science as well as an art. Each semester, I develop a hypothesis that guides my teachings. I collect data on student achievement, monitor the outcomes and modify the hypothesis continually. For someone trained in the sciences, this is a good way to look at teaching and assessment.

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

The combination of "real world" experience, familiarity with Illinois geology, and outreach I gained in my early career was important. However, the key was my teaching experience (as a grad student, part-time faculty, and outreach), which provided a familiarity with the community college system, an understanding of teaching & learning at the freshman-sophomore level, experience with a variety of technologies, and experience working with community outreach education. My classroom teaching experience allowed me to very comfortable during the interview process, and my teaching demonstration was a well-honed part of my repertoire.

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 married with two children. Lisa and I were married in 1990 and had our first child in 1999. We waited on children until we felt we were in as stable a personal, financial, and work situation as possible.

Making two lives work in harmony comes down to open communication, compromise, and constantly working to find the best course. Each time we moved or changed jobs was a difficult decision, but by talking openly and frequently and looking for opportunities we have always made our new situations work. It seems unlikely that any situation would be perfect for both of us; realizing that, we try to work with each other to get the best possible fit. Communication is crucial, we talk every day about everything, no surprises. Nothing is more important than knowing your partner and making sure they know you.


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?

To work at a community college, you must love to teach and work with students. Most of the students are non-majors, so developing a strong classroom presence and learning to engage students is very important. You must learn to adapt constantly. If you do not develop those skills, you can easily burn out. The other key is to get experience by teaching as a grad student and teaching part-time at a community college. My college does not hire faculty without teaching experience. The interview process includes a discussion (written and interview) of teaching philosophy and technique and a teaching demonstration. The tenure-review process includes frequent observation of teaching by administrators and the development of a portfolio.

I learned early on that job choices are often temporary. While working in industry, I was laid off twice and left a third job at the end of a contract. While my current position seems to be very secure, I feel that I am more aware of the capriciousness of any work situation. I have made sure to develop a broad set of skills that will help me get work should I choose to move on or be forced to. I also participate in many activities at the college to have some say in my working conditions and to maintain an awareness of potential hurdles.


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