Washington University in St. Louis, Earth and Planetary Sciences
by Jennifer Smith
Strengths, weaknesses and concerns
The Washington University Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) department has several strong research foci, in planetary geology and geochemistry, geophysics/seismology, and terrestrial geochemistry. With 17 teaching faculty (4 assistant, 3 associate, and 10 full) and 5 research faculty (as of fall '09), we are a moderate-sized department that nonetheless has excellent laboratory and analytical facilities and a large (~30 scientists) research support staff. The Pathfinder Program in Environmental Sustainability, a guided undergraduate curriculum which recruits outstanding highschool students interested in the environment to Washington University, has been a feeder of a small group of excellent majors.
This department has had difficulty recruiting both at the undergraduate and graduate level. We graduate only ~5-8 undergraduate majors per year, and many upper level courses have fewer than 10 students. Graduate applicant pools are not large, and yield is typically 40%, that 40% generally coming from the lower end of our ranked list of accepted applicants.
Though the Environmental Studies (EnSt) program (an interdisciplinary degree program that is not housed in any one department) was founded by an EPS faculty member and is currently directed by another, the EPS department is not well integrated into the program. Due largely to the research foci of our faculty, few actively participate in teaching or advising of EnSt majors. The EnSt program is a source of students (EnSt graduates ~50 students/yr) and resources, yet EPS has largely failed to engage this population.
The following aren't specifically strengths or weaknesses but are areas of concern for our department.
- The existence of a "Research Professor" position, as a parallel track to "Teaching Professor", with varying responsibilities and levels of departmental support, has created some difficulty in department structure and interaction.
- Hiring strategies in the past have focused on developing "world-class intellectual clusters", thus we have small groups of faculty working on closely related research topics, with large gaps between them. Certain traditional areas of geoscience are nearly unrepresented (stratigraphy/paleontology, climate/global change, tectonics). As we move forward, do we focus solely on building our strengths in established areas, or do we try to fill in some of our gaps?
The department has a "Strategic Planning Committee", consisting of the Chair and ~3 tenured members of faculty, representing each major research focus in the department. This committee meets once or twice a semester. At their discretion, these discussions are communicated to the rest of the faculty during faculty meetings for more general input.
Summary of review
EPSc underwent external review in spring of 2007; the recommendations of this review committee largely echoed our self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses. The committee felt that on most research axes our department was performing above average for a department our size, and that our facilities and research staff were superb. The Pathfinder Program was identified as a unique strength in our educational activities. Our relatively low undergraduate enrollment, as well as low yield rates on graduate student acceptances (and the particularly low yield rates for the most desirable subset of applicants) were noted.
It was recommended that we foster a greater presence in the environmental studies program, and that our future hiring take this into account. The committee also felt there was a need for greater faculty involvement in and contributions to strategic planning, mentoring, and leadership development, as well as the teaching mission of the department.