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Career Profile: Matthew E. Kirby

Matthew Kirby. Photo courtesy of Matthew Kirby.

California State University-Fullerton

California State University-Fullerton is a university with graduate programs, primarily masters programs.

Matthew E. Kirby
is one of the leaders of the 2013 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 Matthew E. Kirby '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.

Ever since high school, I knew I wanted to teach. But, it was not until my junior year at Hamilton College that I knew I wanted to teach at the college level. As a junior (1992), Dr. Eugene Domack offered me the opportunity to spend 35 days along the Antarctic Peninsula aboard the RV Polar Duke. Thirty-five days later, I was hooked on paleoclimatology! For my undergraduate thesis, I studied Holocene climate using sediments and seismic reflection data from the Palmer Deep. After Hamilton, I headed to the University of Colorado, Boulder (1993) to work with Dr. John Andrews. There, I studied Heinrich Event sedimentology, source, and chronology using sediment cores from the northwest Labrador Sea. After two years as a MS student, I decided to take a hiatus to teach high school earth science. I moved to Buffalo, NY where I taught for two-years at Canisius High School (1995-1997). Ready to move on, I headed to Syracuse University (1997) to work with Dr. Hank Mullins on NE USA paleoclimatology. After this, I moved to sunny Los Angeles (2001) where I was a post-doc at the University of Southern California with Drs. Steve Lund, Lowell Stott, and Chris Poulsen. A year later (2002), I obtained a tenure track position at California State University, Fullerton.

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

My job is divided into three parts: teaching, research, and committee work. Typically, I teach two classes per semester, run a research lab with BA, BS, and MS students, and participate on various department, school, and university committees. The trick to this three-pronged animal is organization and time efficiency. My department (Geological Sciences) requires that all BS students complete a research proposal and thesis to graduate. This adds a complexity to my research because it requires that I develop small research projects that can be completed in less than 10 months of work. A typical teaching days is dedicated to teaching, grading, and office hours. Non-teaching days are dedicated to research exclusively. Committee work is lowest on my to-do list and is therefore often relegated to a few evenings of work per month.

What do you like best about your work?

Although teaching is how I make my salary (and I love teaching), my real passion is research and teaching through research. Because the stresses of research success are low at Cal-State Fullerton, I have the opportunity to take risks and pursue projects that may or may not produce any significant results. This stress-free research environment is particularly suitable to finding small projects for BS theses. Like myself in 1992, I find that research experiences (lab or field) are a fantastic medium to connecting with students and sharing my passion for science.

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

The most challenging aspect of my work is balancing my three obligations – teaching, research, and committee work. As everyone will have different primary interests, one discovers that their balance is often skewed towards that which interests – or motivates – them the most. For me, my balance is skewed towards research. My challenge, therefore, is maintaining a rigorous research agenda that does not impact negatively the quality of my teaching or my collegial obligation to committee work.

To tackle this challenge, I divide my time into teaching days and research days. On research days, I do not schedule office hours, grade papers, or do anything related to teaching. Obviously, I teach through my research as well; however, teaching through research is still linked directly to my research. Another way I address this challenge is to hire an undergraduate student as a lab assistant. Hiring a lab assistant depends on funding, of course. Once funding is secured, however, a lab assistant can advance your research agenda without requiring you to spend long hours in the lab. Every hour I spend in the lab is one less hour I can spend writing. Moreover, the opportunity for an undergraduate to "run" a lab is a life-changing experience that opens many doors to a student's future.

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

Having real teaching experience made a big difference. As they say, if you can teach high school, you teach anything! I was also fortunate to publish some papers from my BA, MS, and PhD prior to applying for jobs. In today's competitive market, it is expected that even fresh-out-of-school PhDs have published. A post-doc is also a pretty good thing to have. It represents experience and time to develop a research agenda independent of your thesis advisor. Lastly, a good attitude and ability to connect with people is critical in the job market.

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 is a tenure track professor, and we have two little girls (3 and 6). Balance, scheduling, and patience is the recipe we live by. I often ask myself what is more important in the long run – one more paper or grant a year at the cost of weekends, or some weekend R &R with the family. I can always write a paper later, but my kids will not wait to grow up and that is something I do not want to miss.

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?

How to set up a lab. How to run and fund a research program. How to effectively and efficiently involve students in your lab.

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