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Career Profile: Cindy Shellito

Cindy Shellito
Cindy Shellito. Photo courtesy of Cindy Shellito.

Associate Professor of Meteorology, University of Northern Colorado

The University of Northern Colorado is a 4-year public university.
Cindy Shellito is one of the leaders of the 2014 "Workshop for Early Career Geoscience Faculty." 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 Cindy'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 bachelor's and a master's in Atmospheric Science. For my PhD, I wanted to do something more interdisciplinary, so I found an opportunity to apply my understanding of atmospheric models to past climates. My work has focused on using numerical models to understand factors that promote and maintain warm climates in Earth's past. In the time between my MS and my PhD, I spent a couple of years working at a university teaching and learning center where I lead professional development workshops for graduate student TAs. It was this that really mustered my motivation to get a PhD. I knew from that point on that I wanted work at a college or university with a heavy focus on teaching.

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?

The greatest challenge I faced in my first couple of years of teaching was the enormous time commitment involved in developing new courses and maintaining some sort of scholarly activity. What got me through this time was my commitment to getting 8 hours of sleep each night. I also tried not to work on weeknights, once I left my office. I learned how to become very efficient during my work hours. I rewarded myself with weekend hikes and summer travels.

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

It was (and still is) a challenge to conduct research at my university. With a heavy teaching load, research only gets done on school holidays. I managed to continue my research in paleoclimate modeling by strengthening connections with colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which, fortunately, is only an hour away from my university. At an institution with such a heavy teaching load, it's difficult to acquire grants for pure science research. But I have managed to continue doing science by collaborating with others at research institutions and universities. I've had to learn how much I can realistically accomplish in a year, and clearly communicate this with others. As a result, I've found myself working on small side projects in association with other people's grants. I don't have money to pursue science research – but I also find that liberating, in that it allows me to pursue directions that I wouldn't otherwise consider.

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 feel rather lucky that the expectations for research and teaching at my university were fairly well aligned with my own. I wanted to be at an institution with a high expectation for teaching, and one that encouraged connections between teaching, service, and scholarly work.

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 made sure (and still do) to set rewards for myself – traveling whenever I get the chance is one of my rewards. I also keep track of how much time I spend working each day, and how much time I devote to certain activities that seem particularly time consuming (grading, for example). This has allowed me to get a very good idea of how long it takes me to do things, and what I can realistically accomplish in a single day – or even a month. I write down everything I've done in a day that is not part of my regular schedule. At the end of the day, I take a quick stock of what I've accomplished.

I also try to have one non-teaching day a week. I work at home on this day, where I have fewer distractions.

To balance my life, I always try to learn something new – not related to my work. I joined a book club, took a pottery class, and learn foreign languages on my commute. Learning something new helps you stay fresh in the classroom, especially when you're teaching something you know very well. You will at least understand the frustration of your students.

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?

Set your long-range goals, but also be open and flexible to changing them. Don't be afraid to say NO to some great-sounding opportunities (you only have 24 hours each day!). Be very picky about choosing collaborators. Try to have a life outside of your college or university, with non-academic friends and family. This has really helped me to maintain my perspective on things.

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