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Career Profile: Devin Castendyk

Devin Castendyk. Photo courtesy of Devin Castendyk.

State University of New York, College at Oneonta

A public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Devin Castendyk
is one of the leaders of the 2011 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 Devin Castendyk'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.

In 1996, I received a BA in Geology from Hartwick College, a small, private, liberal arts college in Oneonta, New York. My experiences instilled in me a desire to teach geology at a small liberal arts institution. In 1999, I completed an MSc in Geology at the University of Utah, where my research focused on the geochemical evolution of water at abandoned mine sites in southwest Utah. At the conclusion of my degree, I received a U.S. Fulbright Grant to study the water chemistry of an active gold mine in New Zealand. This research morphed into my PhD thesis in Environmental Science, which I completed in 2005. On the recommendation of a friend, I attended the 2004 Cutting Edge workshop, Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences. This experience helped me receive my first tenure-track academic position in 2005 in the Earth Sciences Department at SUNY Oneonta. I have just completed my sixth year on the faculty.

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

I teach three classes in fall semester and two classes in the spring semester. These classes range from lab-based introductory-level geology classes to upper-level class in hydrogeology and geochemistry. On top of my teaching, I advise about 25 undergraduate students and supervise 2 graduate students. My typically week involves teaching, meeting with students during office hours, conducting research with students, and attending various committee meetings. I reserve a few blocks of time each week that I devote to my own research. This has helped me to stay active in my field and to produce one or two publications per year.

What do you like best about your work?

The best part of my job involves working one-on-one with students either in the lab or in the field, seeing them get excited about research, and seeing them grow intellectually and personally. I've managed to supervise about a dozen student research projects over the past 6 years. My proudest moments involve bringing students to present at national and regional meetings of the Geological Society of America. For me, professional presentations are a milestone in the educational experience of an undergraduate – they bring out the best in the student and prepare them for both graduate school and industry careers.

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

I still struggle to find creative ways to get students to talk in class. I also find it difficult to assess student comprehension of material prior to an examination. These problems are interrelated, because if students are not communicating it can be difficult to gage what they know and what they do not understand.

Providing short classroom activities and exercises is a great way to get students talking to each other and communicating back to me. It also provides a useful measure of student learning. Using online software, I have also posted a nightly read assignment along with an online quiz. The last question of the quiz asks students to write down one question they thought of while completing the reading. Occasionally, I read these questions to the class and ask if anyone wishes to provide an answer. This has lead to some great in class discussions.

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

Having attended a small liberal arts college in Oneonta, New York, I was able to envision and describe specific student research projects and classroom activities that I would conduct at SUNY Oneonta based on my knowledge of the local area. While describing my personal experience in New Zealand, I was able to convey my enthusiasm for geology and for my research. Most importantly, from my experiences as an undergraduate student and as a teaching assistant in graduate school, I was able to clearly communicate my desire to teach at an undergraduate institution.

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.

My wife began studying for her PhD at a school two hour's drive from Oneonta the same year that I began teaching. We had separate apartments and would meet almost every weekend. In some ways, this has not been ideal, but it could be worse: we have both been able to fulfill our professional goals and maintain a healthy relationship. She has just completed her degree and will begin a 2-year Assistant Professorship in Texas this fall. I'm afraid my carbon footprint will be a bit larger over the next two years.

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?

For those of you looking for a job in a small undergraduate institution, remember that the most important thing to communicate is your ability and desire to work with students. When delivering a campus presentation, make certain to face the audience and not the presentation screen. Have a bag full of creative classroom activities, field exercises, and student-based research projects ready to share with the search committee. Allow your enthusiasm for this awesome field we work in to show during each encounter you have with committee members and students. Finally, when asked to describe student research activities, make sure that you have student-based ideas that empower the student to set the direction of the project. Committees at small schools are less impressed by "student-research" that involves a team of students that simply do the dirty grunt work of your own personal research.

At the beginning of my career, I thought that it was an honor to be asked to serve on lots of faculty committees. I did not realize that so many people would ask me to serve on so many committees, and that each committee requires a fair amount of time. Moreover, it took a LONG time (five years to be honest) for me to realize that I could politely say "No," to one or two of these committees without any negative repercussions. In academia, we are all required to serve in one way or another, and service can be a really great way to meet people from other departments that you normally do not interact with. Upon starting a new position, you should have a talk with your chair about how much service is expected of you before you find yourself over-committed.

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