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Career Profile: Michael Wysession

Michael Wysession
Michael Wysession. Photo courtesy of Michael Wysession.

Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

Washington University in St. Louis is a Private Research University

Michael Wysession is one of the conveners 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 Michael'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.

Teaneck (NJ) High School (1980)
Brown University (Sc.B. in Geology/Physics/Math; 1984)
Staten Island Academy (Math/Physics teacher for grades 8-12; 1984-1986)
Northwestern University (PhD in Geophysics; 1991)
Washington University (professor of seismology ever since then!)

This means that I have been in a classroom every year for the past 44 years! OK, there have been several different kinds of classrooms, and I have been on different sides of the classroom. Teaching high school math/physics was the hardest work I ever did: 25 different classes per week (5 different classes, 5 days a week). By comparison, the one class a semester I teach now hardly qualifies as teaching! But it is still some of the most rewarding parts of my work. My career path has taken me to a point where I still spend a major chunk of time on research (I am PI of a project that involves installing a network of seismometers in Madagascar and Mozambique this summer, and am also part of a project installing a network of seismometers in Minnesota and Wisconsin), but spend an increasingly large amount of time dealing with increasing science literacy at a national level. I am co-author of 20 science textbooks with Pearson Prentice Hall at the K-12 level, and create video courses on Earth Science with the Teaching Company. I was Chair of the Earth Science Literacy Initiative (www.earthscienceliteracy.org), Chair of the Earth and Space Science Design Team for the "Conceptual Framework for New National Science Education Standards" with the National Academy of Science, and am team leader for Earth and Space Science in writing the new national science education standards with Achieve, Inc.


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?

I tended to be very fidgety and say things like "um" and "ya know" a lot. (OK, I still do the latter.) I had myself videotaped, and then watched the tape. It was incredibly helpful to see what I looked like up in front of the class. I improved quite a bit from just that one taping. I have more opportunities now to see myself in front of a camera, and it is still always very instructive.


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

It was hard. I got hold of some copies of NSF proposals that had been funded and just started writing grant proposals. Fortunately, I got a few funded the first year, so I was able to get a running start. I managed to get a Packard Foundation Fellowship (a 5-year fellowship) that first year, which greatly helped. A couple things helped. My years teaching high school and then teaching night school classes while a grad student allowed me to come right into the teaching with a lot of experience as well as some classes, which allowed me to spend more time on getting my research going. The other thing that helped was a lot of experience reading and writing. I love to read, and learned at an early age to write well, and this helped tremendously with writing proposals, papers, textbooks, government reports, etc. I stress writing in all of the courses I now teach, from large introductory undergrad courses to upper level graduate courses. The better you can write, the easier your science will come to you (and others!).


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?

During the first years of my time at WashU I focused purely on the research, and had no trouble getting tenure. However, if I did then what I am doing now, I never would have gotten tenure. It is a difficult thing because when you start your career, you don't necessarily know where it will go. I didn't plan on going this route of being a geoscience educator in a very broad sense, but as the opportunities arose to do this, I found that this was where my real skills lay, and I just kept drifting in that direction. This works at WashU because I have kept up with pure science research as well (I am PI or co-PI on 5 different NSF non-education-related grants at the moment).


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.

Get up every morning, walk to a mirror, look at yourself and say "No!" Repeat this throughout the day. You will get asked to do all sorts of things in your department. If you feel you need to give a reason more detailed than "No," explain that you need to get tenure first, so please come back and ask again in X number of years. Some committees are actually very important; others aren't. Avoid unimportant committees (particularly time-consuming ones) at all costs. If you have committee work that can't be avoided, be smart about it. Use your time wisely. In my experience, at my institution, committee work doesn't make or break a tenure case.

Do whatever it takes to be as organized as possible. Set target dates for completing papers, proposals, research for meetings, etc.

Get some exercise every day - it helps you think more clearly. And don't scrimp on sleep, for the same reason. I rarely manage to follow these bits of advice myself, but when I do, I always wonder in amazement why I don't do it all the time.

Do everything possible to make your life easier. Don't buy a fixer-upper house. Buy a condo, or save your money and rent. Buy food at Trader Joe's. Let everything else go before you let your work cut into your personal life (with significant other and/or kids). But even that will happen at times.


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?

Swing for the the home run. One good research paper in Nature or Science is worth more than dozens of OK papers in this or that bulletin. Get involved with a controversy. Choose topics that are uncertain and involve some debate.

Build collaborations with other scientists. This not only puts you on more papers, but makes the job a lot more fun. When you go to meetings, try to build several collaborations each day. Suggest going in on a proposal together with someone, or even a group of people. NSF has a decent pot of money for funding workshops, so you might even organize a workshop on a topic and plan to write a proposal from the result of it.

Spend a lot of time thinking about who you suggest as reviewers for your proposals and papers. Too often people will spend weeks or months writing and then a few minutes thinking about who will review it. I am currently an editor for GRL, and have been an editor for JGR and been on several NSF panels. Your suggestions will usually be followed, and that will make a huge difference on the final decision on your proposal or paper. You might even send reprints to some people, or at least talk to people about your paper or proposal. Decisions on your work will be made very quickly by a panel or editor -- having good mail reviews can make all the difference. You might even cultivate some possible reviewers -- invite them out to give a department seminar.

And speaking of proposals, always focus on the big picture and the important topic being addressed. Why do we care? What is this so important? What is the big question this will help solve? Include enough details to show you understand the topic, but not so many that you bore and annoy the reviewer. Give good background to the topic, but not too much. Be sure you spend time describing the logistics and time-table of the work. But most importantly, lay out a set of hypotheses and show how the different outcomes of your work might help choose between them.

Foster good undergraduate or graduate research assistants. They can greatly expand your research program. But be careful; an unmotivated or underprepared student can eat up way too much of your time. Don't let a bad situation go unaddressed.

Push as hard as you can to teach a limited number of courses and teach them often. This will keep you from spending all of your time preparing new lectures/classes, which is a huge time sink, and allow you to go through the very helpful exercise of improving existing courses.

Don't be dismayed by failure. Even the most brilliant scientists have had many papers rejected, at least on the first try. Take the reviews to heart, and resubmit to another journal. The Madagascar project proposal got turned down twice, but I revised it each time and it eventually got funded. The success rate for NSF is 20-30% or less, depending upon the program. Most of your proposals will get rejected, at least on the first time. It can be demoralizing. But just know that it is happening to everyone else too. Take the reviews to heart, and resubmit.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The Reduce is for administrative work. But the Reuse and Recycle go for everything else. JS Bach wrote well more than a thousand compositions. How did he do this? He recycled. You will hear the same themes used over and over. Same with Haydn and others. Put the work into writing the proposals, then use most of it in your papers. If you write a blog for something, use it in your class. If you put a lecture together for something, use it somewhere else. Accept things that can be used elsewhere as well. It not only saves you time, but gives you the opportunity of perfecting whatever it is and making it better.

Most of all, keep an open mind. Be smart about what you accept and take on, but when you look back, years from now, you are likely to feel that your greatest accomplishments, in research or teaching or otherwise, were things that were unexpected, not that followed one step after another. You would never have predicted them at the time. So be open to these gifts when they come.


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