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Career Profile: Kathleen Surpless

Trinity University

Trinity University is a liberal arts college.
Kathleen Surpless is one of the leaders of the 2013 "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 Kathleen'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 went to a small liberal arts college (Amherst College), majored in Geology, and went directly into a PhD program (Stanford University). I was always planning on a career in academia, and did my best to get teaching experience while still a graduate student. I stayed at Stanford in an unusual postdoc for 3 years after receiving my degree – as Undergraduate Program Coordinator for the GES Department, I taught an intro class, worked with TAs, worked with undergraduate students, and kept up my research. I started my tenure-track faculty position at Trinity after that postdoc.


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?

Time management, of course. Teaching could take every minute of my day, and then some! I've learned strategies to reduce that time, such as not beginning to prepare for a class until two hours before class time. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not adopt that strategy until I'd already been teaching for a couple years and had already put many, many hours into class preps. Even so, grading, meetings, committee duties, and anything else with immediate deadlines always seem to impinge on my time for research. So I have to actively work at keeping my research moving forward and keeping connected with my field.


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

My current research is an extension of my PhD research – I've been following wherever the research leads me. In other words, I have yet to find "the answer;" just more, and more interesting, questions. I don't mean to imply that I haven't moved forward with my research at all, just that I absolutely love following where the questions take me, and the data I collect always seem to contain surprises that just beg for explanation.

I set up a mineral separations lab at Trinity, but I do most of my analyses at other universities. This has worked well for me, and has given my students a chance to see other campuses and interact with graduate students at R1 universities.


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?

One reason I wanted to work at a liberal arts college like Trinity is because the college values the combination of teaching and research that I want to pursue. I love teaching, but I didn't want teaching to be the only focus of my job. Research is key to my growth as a scientist and as a teacher, and I like that Trinity expects high achievement in both aspects of my job. So I did not have to adjust my goals for Trinity – I found a good match.


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.

This may sound pretty counter-intuitive, but having two children while pre-tenure actually helped me find a much-needed larger perspective and required that I balance my work responsibilities with my personal life. As part of a dual-career couple (and both of us are geoscientists at Trinity now), I'm well-versed in negotiating time for work and time for family. I'm much better than I used to be at scheduling my time, scheduling in time for exercise and for family, and being able to tell myself "it will get done..." during those stressful times when balls seem to be dropping.


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?

This comes from my perspective at a liberal arts college with pretty high teaching loads and high teaching expectations: cut way back on preparation time for courses. It is very easy to fall into the trap that you must know every detail of a subject in order to answer the incredibly probing and insightful questions from the genius student who will no doubt be in your class, but the fact is that once you've prepped for a couple hours, the next 6 hours of work are really not going to make much difference to your students. And it is perfectly OK to answer a question honestly by saying "I don't know," so long as you get back to that question and can answer it for the student later. Do not let teaching take over your first year. Keep progress on research, even if is limited to setting up a lab and planning/writing a grant proposal.


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