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Career Profile: Steve Wojtal

Steve Wojtal. Photo courtesy of Steve Wojtal.

Geology Department, Oberlin College

Oberlin is a liberal arts college.
Steve Wojtal is one of the leaders of the 2009 "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 Steve'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 was an undergraduate at Brown University, where I was lucky to work with Jan Tullis, Terry Tullis, and Bill Chapple. I went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, doing my dissertation with David Elliott. I came to Oberlin directly out of graduate school - in fact I was not truly out of graduate school when I arrived. I have spent my entire career at Oberlin.

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?
At the outset, I was filling a temporary opening at Oberlin, which simply added to the insecurity felt by most of us prior to tenure. What is in other cases a character flaw - an ability not to face impending problems - enabled me to keep working so that I was able to fill the tenure track position when it finally came open. Along the way, juggling a personal life and a professional one was difficult for me, like many young academics. In my case, an added complication was living in a small town. I met and am now married to a woman who now also teaches at Oberlin (in the humanities), though we 'commuted' for several years. If my career is in any way a model for others, it would be that perseverance pays off eventually.

How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?
My first post-Ph.D projects focused on aspects of questions that derived from my dissertation work. A few years out from graduate school, I decided to look farther afield, to move from examinations of low-grade, foreland fold-and-thrust belt studies, to higher-grade, basement-involved thrusting. Largely serendipitously, I was interested to include a study of the Bay of Islands ophiolite with 'basement-involved thrusting.' The rocks in Newfoundland were really different from what I expected, and they forced me to abandon many preconceived notions and rely on my own observations.

It took me some time to feel confident in guiding student research projects - even for the highly qualified undergraduates with whom I am fortunate to work. I briefly tried to emulate in detail the approaches taken by a few colleagues, but I now believe that there are several successful models and that it is best for young academics to follow their own instincts as much as they can in this aspect of their work.

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 fortunate in that I felt from the outset that working at an undergraduate institution was where I wanted to be and what I thought I would do well. In that sense, it was easy to adopt the institutional culture. In addition, my institution expected me to maintain an involvement in research and provided some support for that.

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.
Even now there is always (or nearly always) more work to be done in a day than can be done. Early on I realized that I worked better during the week if I (1) kept a regular regimen of exercise (in my case I play a raquet sport, so I had some social interactions too); (2) took at least one day off on most weekends; (3) participated in hobbies that were sufficiently engaging that I did not think about work when doing them.

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?
First, you will often hear people saying that research enriches and energizes teaching. This is true. It also turns out that teaching enriches and energizes research. Second, our work is as much about developing and maintaining relationships with other people as it is dealing with data, concepts, and analyzing processes. Finally, work on developing relationships outside of your home department and your institution - engage with a larger community.

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