On the Cutting Edge - Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
Early Career Geoscience Faculty: Teaching, Research, and Managing Your Career
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Cutting Edge > Early Career > Workshop Leader Profiles > Career Profile: Sarah Penniston-Dorland

Career Profile: Sarah Penniston-Dorland

University of Maryland-College Park

The University of Maryland is a public research university.

Sarah Penniston-Dorland is one of the leaders of the 2014 "Early Career Geoscience Faculty" 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 Sarah's answer to an individual question, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Educational background and career path * Early teaching challenges * Research transition * Institutional fit * Balancing responsibilities * Advice for new faculty


Briefly describe your educational background and career path.

I have a bachelor's in History and Science from Harvard University. After graduating I worked for a few years in health care consulting. I went back to school for a master's degree in Education and taught middle school science for three years. Part of that teaching experience involved teaching Earth Science. I enjoyed teaching about rocks and minerals, and wanted some field experience so I took field camp one summer. I was hooked! I went back to school to take a year of undergraduate geology courses at UT Austin, followed by an M.S. at UT Austin, followed by a PhD at Johns Hopkins University. While finishing my PhD I was a lecturer for a year at the University of Maryland, which was followed by two years as a post-doc and then a faculty position at UMd.


What were some of the challenges you faced in your early years of full-time teaching? Could you briefly describe how you overcame one of those challenges?

Preparing a course for the first time is an incredibly time-intensive experience. One of my first courses I taught was an introductory 120-person class on Environmental Geology. I enjoyed teaching introductory-level material, however the workload of dealing with that many students was huge. Grading is just part of the issue – dealing with students missing exams and assignments for a large variety of reasons ends up taking up a lot of time. The most unusual excuse I had for a student who missed an exam was that he was in jail! I learned a few tricks for dealing with large numbers of students during that experience. For example, I learned to give three midterm exams and drop the lowest midterm score. That way if a student misses an exam for any reason, that exam can automatically be the score they drop, so there is no need for scheduling makeup exams. I also included randomly scheduled participation exercises and quizzes for the class. The participation exercises were a way to get students actively engaged with the material, and they also served as a way to encourage attendance.


How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?

I was given the advice that I needed to define myself as an independent researcher from my PhD advisor. This meant that I could not collaborate with my former advisor and needed to branch out into new research areas. I did not want to do this – I really liked what I did for my PhD, which is why I chose to work on that subject! I had numerous conversations with lots of different people about this process – mostly former professors, friends from graduate school, and colleagues in my new workplace. In the end, it worked really well, in part due to the advice and suggestions from the people I spoke with. Some of the conversations led directly to new areas of research.


An essential component of achieving tenure is finding or making an alignment of your teaching/research goals with the goals of your institution.... How do your goals fit with those of your institution? Did you adjust your goals to achieve that fit? If so, how?

I was pleasantly surprised with the fit that I have found in my department. The University of Maryland is a Research 1 institution. Since I had a strong background in teaching before returning to school for my PhD, I always thought I would prefer to work at a small liberal arts college because I really enjoy teaching. At Maryland, however, I have been able to engage in a very active research career while still enjoying teaching. I think this is partly because Maryland has a relatively small undergraduate population (~40 geology majors at any one time), so it is possible to get to know students well.


Many of the new faculty members in these workshops are interested in maintaining a modicum of balance while getting their careers off to a strong start. Please share a strategy or strategies that have helped you to balance teaching, research, and your other work responsibilities, OR balance work responsibilities with finding time for your personal life.

On top of being a faculty member at the University of Maryland, I have a teenage daughter and I commute to work. Time management is key to success! For me this means that I have to be very efficient when I am at work. I do bring my work home with me. I have heard all kinds of advice about leaving work in the office or not checking email at home. I could not survive if I did these things. I squeeze in work (and home) responsibilities around my home life during evening and weekend hours – double-tasking when possible by bringing my laptop with me when I wait for my daughter during her piano lessons or using the time during soccer practice to walk the dog in the area around the soccer field.


What advice do you have for faculty beginning academic careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career in academia?

The relationships I developed with other geoscientists, both within my department and outside, have been extremely helpful in my career. My first piece of advice is to find a good mentor or mentors. I was assigned a mentor within my department, and got good advice from many of the senior faculty in my department. They are the ones who know what the criteria for success in a career in your department/University are. My second piece of advice is to find or develop a good support network. My network includes a colleague in my department who was hired at the same time as myself.

Additional Resources

Sarah authored an article for the journal Elements in April 2012 titled Patching the Leaky Faculty Pipeline (Acrobat (PDF) 75kB Nov11 13), about the process of transitioning from student to professor/researcher.


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