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Career Profile: Robert Rhew

Robert Rhew
Robert Rhew at the Sacramento River. Photo courtesy of Robert Rhew.

Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley is a large public research university.

Robert Rhew is one of the leaders of the 2012 "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 Robert'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 did my undergraduate degree at Harvard, where I began as a biochemistry major but switched to Earth and Planetary Sciences in my sophomore year. I was strongly influenced by my professors, who seemed much bigger than life but who also spent the time to cultivate my interest in the field. I spent a post-graduate year at the Australian National University, where my world experience grew (but where alas, I forgot much material from my college coursework). I re-learned much and learned much more as a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UCSD), carving out a PhD after 7 years. I spent two years as a post-doc at UC Irvine's Earth System Science Department and then moved up to UC Berkeley's Department of Geography in 2003 as an assistant professor. I received tenure in 2009.


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?

Right after arriving, I started teaching an introduction to earth system science course, which included a fair bit of material that I had never seen before. I had spent years developing a specialty in research, but now I needed to have a much broader understanding of the entire earth system. I borrowed another professor's lecture notes and tried to simulate the course. This led to some spectacular failures, including a time that I set up a problem on the board but had a complete brain freeze and couldn't solve it. Eventually, I realized I would need to create the course the way that I processed and organized the material, and I created all new lectures from then on. This was an enormous effort, but it gave me ownership of the course and a foundation to build upon.

My first two years, I made several teaching mistakes, but I learned a couple key things to put it in perspective. First, these type of mistakes reveal what you don't know, which can be either embarrassing or enlightening. Choose enlightening and give yourself a break. Second, you should always indicate when you don't know the answer, but then express what you think and try to work out the answers (just like a qualifying exam). Students actually appreciate it when they've "stumped the chump", and it's also a great learning opportunity for everyone.


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

My current research in trace gas biogeochemistry stems from my Ph.D. and post-doctoral research – I have just built on top of that. For me, the major hurdle was going from laboratories where the instrumentation was already set up to an empty room, where I had to fill it with everything – outlets, furniture, computers, instrumentation, and so on. This was my biggest challenge being a new professor, because I had never set up any of the equipment before. This took years to do, and I spent spare time in my post-doc years chipping away at all of the questions: what equipment to buy, where to buy it, how to build it, what the laboratory electrical and climate needs were, space issues, and so on. I learned most of the answers from my former labs but also from my new campus colleagues.


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?

The factors leading to tenure [at the University of California, Berkeley] are: 1) research, 2) teaching, and 3) service. In that order. My career goals are aligned with this hierarchy, although I do find that several semesters I have spent much more time on teaching than the research, especially when I am developing a new course. I find it a constant challenge balancing these three responsibilities, each of which seem like full time jobs. Certain aspects tend to be quite a drain on resources. I cycle through phases where I am more interested in one aspect than another.


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.

I can't say that I live a balanced life on a day to day (or week to week) basis, but I hope that over the course of years, a balance is achieved. Research and teaching dominated my life for 4 years, but since the birth of our two children, the balance has shifted heavily towards normal work hours and less travel. For important things, there is often a critical time, and I accept that time and energy will shift towards what is critical at the time. Other duties cannot be neglected though, which means that some progress still needs to be made on all fronts. Strategies to make sure things get done are to figure out ways to more effectively manage my time and to identify time-wasters that seem like work but do not lead toward any goal.


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?

As a new faculty member, you will need a fundamental shift in perspective, and you must mentally prepare for being unprepared. You cannot predict who will apply to work with you. You cannot (and probably should not) be exactly like your advisor. You will need to teach things you were never taught. You (and people you know) will have personal crises. You (and people you know) will have professional crises. You will have to work on both long-term and short-term projects, because some will fail or never come to fruition. And perhaps most importantly, you need to have a positive attitude. Just as having a negative attitude can cause problems out of thin air, having a positive attitude can actually deflect real problems.


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