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Career Profile: Jake Sewall

Jake Sewall. Photo courtesy of Jake Sewall.

Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

Kutztown University of Pennsylvania is a public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate.

Jake Sewall
is one of the leaders of the 2012 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 Jake Sewall'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 have a B.S. in Geology from Washington and Lee University and received a Ph.D. in Earth Sciences from the University of California at Santa Cruz. The combined experience of private and public higher education and a summer spent teaching in an Upward Bound program solidified a belief in the importance of public higher education. Following my Ph.D., I did a postdoc between LANL and UC Santa Cruz and a second postdoc at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. I moved from the postdoctoral position in The Netherlands to a faculty position at Virginia Tech. I spent two years on the faculty at Virginia Tech before dissatisfaction with dual career options and teaching responsibilities/attention vs. the attention I believe a public institution should pay to education saw me move to my current position at a public, undergraduate, teaching-centered university.

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

In a typical semester I teach three laboratory, majors courses. One of those courses is team taught so that, in the end, my average week is 14 hours in the classroom, 5 office hours, three dedicated meeting hours, and the rest of the time in grading, course development or prep, research, and other meetings. That plays out with four days that go something like this. Classes from 8:00 or 9:00 until 11:00. Meetings (e.g. Department, College Assessment Committee, Environmental Science Program, Environmental Action Club) from 11:00 - 12:00. Lunch (a.k.a. the gym) from 12:00- 1:00. Office hours (often, though not always, attended) from 1:00 - 2:00. Either lab or student research meetings from 2:00 - 5:00. One day a week (most of the time) is free for research, but often ends up getting used for grading, course preparation, or service catch up.

What do you like best about your work?

By far the most enjoyable aspect of my work is interacting with students.

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 wanting to make changes to improve student experience and system efficiency and being stonewalled by bureaucracy. The most effective strategy thus far has been to focus at a low level, find like-minded peers, and develop strength in and between our classrooms as well as develop desired learning experiences outside of normal curricular channels (e.g. combine science and art or science and media communication in club activities or independent studies). It is important to keep in mind that change is always slow and that current structures reflect past practice. Eventually older faculty will disappear and older structures will be unsupported, if there is a new structure waiting in the wings, it can then take over.

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

The qualifications that helped me most in my job searches were likely a strong publication record, postdoctoral experience, and LOTS of practice interviewing (I didn't get a lot of early jobs, but learned a tremendous amount from the interview experience). I also had the advantage of coming from a lab group that had recently placed several excellent graduates and the overall "product" was seen as good in "the 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.

I am part of a dual career couple with two children. We have made balancing work and life/family a priority and, I think, have benefited from it. It also took a lot of time, effort, and job moving/negotiating to achieve balance. I think, as with anything else, you need to identify your priorities, focus on those, and be prepared to sacrifice other things to achieve your priorities. e.g. I no longer read the newspaper or run long – or any– distances recreationally, attend more than one professional meeting each year, have graduate students, publish more than one paper a year, play a musical instrument etc. etc. etc. I do teach a lot, interact with students, work at an institution where my spouse and I both have tenure-track positions, go home at 5:00, grow and cook good food, maintain an active, interesting research program, and sleep 7 hours each night. Success is how you define it, and achieving your success is likely to be far more satisfying than achieving someone else's definition. Play to your strengths and priorities, and try to be zen about letting the rest of it go.

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?

Pick your institution carefully. Try to align your priorities with your job priorities as much as possible. Don't try to sell yourself as more or other than you are, but make sure you sell yourself – no one else will. Prioritize yourself. Try to take something for you out of every experience (e.g. I always tried to come back from a job interview with a new research idea so that even if I didn't get a job offer, along with the interview experience, I gained something).

Take a (or more) course or attend a workshop on effective teaching. Graduate school gives you lots of practice and feedback on being a researcher, it doesn't give you many teaching skills and you are going to need those. If you aren't a postdoc, do one. It gives you a chance to hone your research experience out of your advisor's shadow before you start juggling a full teaching and service load.

Leaving one institution for another is OK. Lots of people do it. Don't expect to land one, dream job and stay forever. Tenure isn't what it used to be and your goals and priorities may change.

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