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Early Career Geoscience Faculty: Teaching, Research, and Managing Your Career
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Dr. Rachel O'Brien

Allegheny College, Meadville, PA

Rachel O'Brien. Photo copyright Bill Owen, 2004; courtesy of Bill Owen and Rachel O'Brien.
Most of the information on this page is from an interview conducted by Carol Ormand on March 17, 2006.

Rachel O'Brien is an assistant professor in the Department of Geology at Allegheny College, in Meadville, PA. She teaches, on average, two lab courses or three non-lab courses each semester; she involves her undergraduate students in her research program; and she is the Chair of the Faculty Council for the 2005-06 academic year. She also finds the time to pursue several "extracurricular" activities: she teaches and calls traditional American folk dances (her husband plays in the band), she is on a local committee that works to bring art films to Meadville, and she and her husband are long-term members of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program in their area.

Choosing a rich, full life

There's always more work to be done, Rachel says; the trick is not to become completely absorbed in it. In fact, Rachel has made space in her life for several other activities, all of them related to community-building, in one form or another. She has been an avid contra dancer and dance caller for years. That's how she met her husband, Jack, who plays Irish flute, guitar, bouzouki, banjo and whistle in a couple of Irish bands, including one called Toppish. One way she and her husband spend time together is traveling to gigs, where Rachel calls and Jack plays. She has even integrated her dance expertise into her academic life, teaching a weekly contra dance course in the dance studies program on campus.

In an effort to help re-invigorate Meadville's downtown, she and other members of the local community have partnered with local movie theater owners to bring in art films. They review, choose, promote, schedule, and show films such as The Gleaners and I, Ballet Russes, and Junebug. "I've helped with just about everything except selling the popcorn," says Rachel.

Rachel and Jack are also founding members of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in their area. The Community Supported Agriculture program pairs customers with local organic farmers. Consumers "sponsor" the farmer by buying shares in his or her farm; the farmer then delivers fresh produce (and sometimes flowers, eggs, recipes, or other goods) to the members. Besides providing members with farm-fresh, organic food, this arrangement creates a bond between farmers and the members of their community. Rachel and Jack belong to a CSA run by David Yoder, a local Amish farmer.

Career at a glance & semester on a page

While all of these activities enrich Rachel's life (and the communities she belongs to), they are also time-consuming. Over the years, she has come up with a couple of strategies for evaluating and planning where she spends her time, both personally and professionally. When you're caught up in your work, she points out, it's hard to get a sense of perspective on how you're spending your time. Moreover, there's always more work to be done than there are hours in the day. You sometimes need to step back, or "zoom out," to look at the big picture. Rachel developed a method for doing this as she was writing her self-evaluation for her "pre-tenure review" at Allegheny College, which takes place at the beginning of a faculty member's fourth year.

In the process of writing her self-evaluation, Rachel found herself wanting a visual aid to gain a comprehensive view of her own professional career. She created the attached template, (Microsoft Word 53kB Oct2 07) a cross between a table and a timeline, listing (in a very abbreviated form) her teaching, research, and service activities at Allegheny, all on one page. (To see how it works, download (Microsoft Word 53kB Mar23 06) a version of the form filled in with fictitious details.) The advantage of this form, she says, is that it let her see where there were gaps in her professional activities, and also what she had been doing that had interfered with her filling those gaps. That made it easy to see where she needed to shift her professional focus in the coming years. (As a result of her self-evaluation, she chose not to teach any new courses for the next two years, freeing up some time to bring her research to the publication stage.) She stills uses this form; it gives her a sense of when she's "done enough"—and when it's time to say "no" to new commitments—in one or more areas of her professional life.

While the "career at a glance" is a great tool for evaluating longer trends in her career path, Rachel also developed a method for planning each semester before it begins. She calls it "semester on a page." She uses this not only to plan her academic work, but also to schedule her personal time. She developed it, in part, to find a way to plan for one weekend a month not working. Each semester, she prints out a calendar for the semester (Microsoft Word 53kB Mar21 06) on a single page, writes in her existing commitments (advising week, grant deadlines, etc.). This allows her to see when she's going to be busiest. She then schedules her class assignments so that they are reasonably distributed throughout the semester, adjusting them if necessary, and blocks out one weekend a month for personal time. It's been so valuable to Rachel that she gives it to students, too.

Setting boundaries and making adjustments

Since there's always work to be done, Rachel knows she needs to set some boundaries for it. A couple of years ago, she established a practice of not bringing work home. That meant that she would stay later at work, but it also meant that when she got home, she was free from work responsibilities until the next day.

It's easy to tell, in retrospect, when you've taken on too much. Figuring that out in advance is a much trickier process. Rachel says she is finding her way to a balanced life gradually, by trying things out and seeing what works. In part, this is a slow process because it takes some time to see how well a particular adjustment works. It's also slow because she makes some commitments (being on a committee, for instance, or teaching a new class) several months to a year in advance, so adjustments can't be made instantaneously. It's easy to sacrifice having a personal life, according to Rachel. But she feels it's healthier to decide, consciously, what she doesn't want to give up, both personally and professionally, and then to work around those commitments.

Advice for new faculty members

Rachel's advice for new faculty members has two facets: look at the long haul, and be kind to yourself. Balancing a rich career with a rich personal life won't happen all at once, so you'll need to have a vision of where you'd like to get to, but know that getting there will take some time. Think strategically about how to achieve your long-term goals. At the same time, know yourself; if you are a workaholic or a perfectionist, you may need to consciously find ways to keep those tendencies in check. They may serve you well in the short term, but as habits they will undermine your long-term vision of a having rich personal life.

If you want to have a rich, fulfilling life (and who doesn't?), Rachel suggests, look around you for role models. When she first arrived at Allegheny College, she looked for vibrant senior faculty members—people who were professionally very successful, and still passionate about their work. Without asking for advice, she made an effort to get to know them and to observe how they approached their work and their lives. She found that all of them had full, interesting lives beyond their work. Seek these people out, she says, and learn by observing them. One day, you may be that vibrant faculty member sought out by younger colleagues.