Career Profile: Kirsten Menking

Vassar College

Vassar is a liberal arts college.

Kirsten Menking
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 Kirsten Menking'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 received my bachelor's degree in Geology from Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1990 and then went straight to graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, from which I earned a Ph.D. in 1995. Thereafter I was hired as a visiting assistant professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA where I spent 1.5 years, then did a 6 month post-doc at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and then got my present position at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. Having grown up mostly in Kansas, I can now claim to be very well traveled! I've been at Vassar since 1997 and was tenured in 2004.

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

At Vassar, scientists are given full units of teaching credit for laboratory sections. Our normative load is 5 units a year, which means a lecture plus lab one semester, and another lecture plus lab and an additional lecture or senior seminar in the other semester. Our labs and senior seminars meet for four hours a week and our lecture sections for 2.5 hours a week. I teach an introductory lab course called Earth, Environment, and Humanity, intermediate lab courses in Geomorphology and Structural Geology, and senior seminars in Paleoclimatology and Computer Modeling in the Earth Sciences. The intermediate and advanced courses alternate from year to year. I have also taught field trip and laboratory courses in the Environmental Studies program and a lecture course in our Earth Science and Society program.

In addition to teaching responsibilities I serve as the director of Vassar's Environmental Research Institute, on the steering committee for the Environmental Studies program, on a science facilities planning committee charged with developing a new interdisciplinary science building, and on the oversight committee for Vassar's ecological preserve. I have in the past served on Vassar's committee on curricular planning and on the college's committee on computing and educational technology. I spend entirely too much time on committee work, but I can't help it because I care about the place! Between teaching and committee work, I don't get any research done during the school year. We are expected to be scholars in our fields, however, so I do spend all of my break periods on my research. I average a paper publication every 1.1-1.2 years.

What do you like best about your work?

Definitely working with students. I love teaching at every level, from getting introductory level students excited about the world around them, to teaching intermediate level students the methods of our discipline, to working with advanced students, who are able to integrate their lower division course work and make connections between topics. I also really love supervising senior theses and other independent projects when students get to learn about all the steps involved in the research process and take ownership of their own little chunk of the advancement of knowledge. Seeing the lightbulbs going off in their heads is incredibly rewarding to me.

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

Trying to have a life. While my teaching load might be light compared to that at many schools, I still find myself working 60 hours a week. One of the reasons is that I spend a lot of time preparing for class and also do a very thorough job grading student writing. Another reason is that I try to maintain an open door policy, and as a consequence, I'm interrupted nearly every 10 minutes throughout my day. Also, as I mentioned before, I'm involved in a lot of committee service because I care about my campus. One strategy that I've developed for dealing with the constant interruptions is to get a private carrel in the library. When I'm really crunched for time, I can escape to that room where no one can find me and grade papers or prep for classes. It's a 2-3 minute walk from my office, so is easier to use than working from home, since if I've forgotten something, I can quickly run over to my departmental office.

Another strategy I've developed to deal with the fact that a college teaching and research career can completely consume one's life is to take an art or music class that I pay for and that meets once a week. I have done stained glass and choir. This is important grounding for me. It introduces me to people who have nothing to do with Vassar College, allows for an artistic outlet, and by paying for the class, I feel like I will lose my money if I skip out on it, so I'm motivated to go.

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

My willingness to teach a wide variety of courses and, to be completely honest, serendipity. Vassar advertised for a structural geologist, and I hadn't planned to apply for the job since I am a Quaternary geologist who does geomorphology and paleoclimatology. A Vassar faculty member happened to give a lecture at Franklin and Marshall during my time there, and an F&M colleague chatted with her about me. I was asked to apply and convinced the Vassar faculty that two summers of structural and metamorphic field mapping that I did as an undergraduate research assistant would allow me to teach structure along with other courses. I also wrote a very strong statement of teaching philosophy and interests.

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.

I'm in a very non-traditional relationship with a wonderful man who is 41 years older than I am. We have no children of our own, but he has 7 children (6 of whom are older than I), 12 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. We maintain strong relationships with all of them. Because he is so much older, he is retired, and spends his time shuttling back and forth between his home in New Mexico and my home in New York. We have been doing this for 11 years now and are together 6-8 months of the year. I try to get to New Mexico in the summers and take my sabbaticals there in order to give him a break from the travels. We are presently looking to adopt a 3-10 year old child out of New York's foster care system. If that happens, my partner will spend more time in New York.

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?

First, take very seriously the job advertisement when applying for a position. We've had numerous job searches since I arrived at Vassar to fill sabbatical and administrative leaves, and we're always amazed when we get applications from people who tell us about how they're going to attract graduate students, apply for 5 NSF grants a year, etc. Inasmuch as we have no graduate program and only have time to get a grant funded every 2-4 years, these applications indicate that the candidate is not paying any attention to the jobs he or she is applying for.

Second, apply for a wide range of jobs and, if at first you don't succeed, keep trying. I applied for >40 positions over a 3-year period, having 10 interviews and landing 3 different jobs, the first two temporary. Visiting assistant professorships and post-docs are a marvelous way to get teaching and research experience without the stress of a tenure clock running. I highly recommend taking advantage of these opportunities.