Career Profile: Ellen Martin

University of Florida

The University of Florida is a research university.

Ellen Martin
is one of the leaders of the 2008 Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences 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 Ellen Martin's answer to an individual question, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Educational background and career path * Current job responsibilities * Best part of the job * Challenges and strategies * Qualifications * Balancing work and life * Advice

Briefly describe your educational background and career path.

I graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in Earth Science during the height of the oil boom in the early '80's. At that time Amoco was hiring BA/BS students in an experiment to see if they could improve their retention rate. I started as an "Exploitation Geologist" (you have to love that term) with Amoco just as the industry turned around. After 4 years of turmoil my husband and I decided it was time to return to graduate school. We both received MS degrees from Duke and PhDs from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. After Scripps we moved to northern California where I had a postdoc at UC Santa Cruz and he had a post doc at the USGS.

Briefly describe your current job responsibilities, perhaps by describing a typical day, week, or semester.

Being at a large research university, my main focus is research, but the daily obligations of teaching, mentoring and running a lab seem to consume much of my day. I typically teach one course a semester: a graduate course in the fall and an upper level undergraduate course in the spring, plus I co-teach a Bahamas field course every other spring. I currently have 3 graduate students and an open door policy, meaning that they tend to stop by whenever they want to discuss something. This means I usually see each of them every day - sometimes just to answer a quick question, sometimes for longer discussions of data, techniques, or ideas. I rarely get into the lab anymore, so research time is dedicated to playing with the data the students produce, trying to catch up on the literature, writing proposals, reports, reviews and manuscripts, and communicating with collaborators. Then, of course, there are always meetings.

What do you like best about your work?

Flexibility and freedom in terms of time and research focus. Academia is an odd blend of having constant demands on your time, yet having lots of flexibility for when the work gets done. As a mother that has meant I can do school things with my kids during the day. The trade off is that I frequently work at home on the weekends. I also think it is amazing to have a job that pays me to study whatever I'm really excited about, with the only caveat being that I have to convince a funding agency that it is a worthwhile endeavor (and that could go in the challenges topic below).

What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?

Finding the right balance between work/family and research/teaching/service. The career/family balance is something everyone has to deal with in their own way. The research/teaching/service balance is a tough one. I constantly have lists of things to do, but certain items just keep moving down the list. For me it is important to set aside blocks of time for research.

What qualifications do you think made you competitive in your job search(es)?

Before applying for positions I had demonstrated that I could secure funding for my research with an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship. When we interview people the question of fundability always comes up. Will funding agencies view the research as worthy of funding and will the researcher be able to sell it effectively? Having a grant in hand, even if it is a small GSA grant, helps you clear that hurdle. It also helps to be a high-energy person. I find I am constant looking for the person who is still vibrant and excited about what they are doing after 2 days of interviews.

Many of the graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in these workshops are interested in balancing a family and career, in dual career couple issues, and in how other personal choices affect the search for a fulfilling career. Please share information about your situation, your ideas and experiences.

My husband and I were incredibly lucky and were hired at the same time for tenure track positions in the same department. People often ask how we managed that. It's a long story, but luck played a major role. We have 2 kids who are now in middle school and high school. I have always been jealous of friends who have family in town or a spouse who can cover for them when needed. When our kids were sick my husband and I would compare calendars and see who had the most flexibility that day. We've traded off kids at the loading dock between classes. But it was important to both of us and we've both made sacrifices. So, find a spouse who will share the work! It definitely gets easier as the kids get older, but that doesn't help much when they are young and tenure is looming.

What advice do you have for graduate students or post-docs preparing for academic careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career?

I didn't follow a lot of great advice when I started out, and in many cases that made the process more difficult. Ultimately we all need to make our careers work in our own way, but here are a few basic tips that have taken me surprisingly long to figure out:
  1. Close your door for some portion of the day; it's amazing how much you can get done when you know you won't be interrupted.
  2. Never do anything that isn't valued enough to include some sort of compensation. I was an unpaid Associate Chair for my department for years and didn't realize how much time that sucked up until I stepped down last summer.
  3. Collaborate. The number of papers you get out of a project will increase with the number of collaborators. Just make sure you chose them carefully.