Career Profile: Steve Semken

Arizona State University

Arizona State University is a university with graduate programs, including doctoral programs.

Steve Semken
is one of the leaders of the 2010 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 Steve Semken'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.

Perhaps a bit atypical, but it worked for me. I earned degrees in three different though related fields: SB Earth and Planetary Science, MS Geochemistry, and PhD Ceramics (Materials Science). While doing graduate research I also accrued some experience and much enthusiasm for teaching. Upon finishing my PhD in 1988 I took a faculty position at (what is now called) Diné College, which is the designated institution of higher learning for the Navajo (Diné) Nation. DC is located in the remote heart of the Colorado Plateau and at the time served only about 1500 students, 95% of them Native American. I went there mostly for the chance to teach in the midst of incredible geology, but also to immerse myself in a wholly unfamiliar culture and language. I thought I'd stay about 5 years, but it turned out to be 15. While at Diné, I got involved with NAGT and learned that there was a robust scholarship of geoscience teaching and learning, into which I plunged. My setting and Diné colleagues enabled me to experiment with and study cross-cultural and place-based geoscience learning. Through NAGT and the Native American educational community I was also able to network and collaborate effectively with colleagues all over the nation, including several at Arizona State University. Then in 2003, ASU advertised a tenure-track faculty position in Geoscience Education within its department of Geological Sciences (now School of Earth and Space Exploration). To me, this was a dream job in an institution I knew and greatly admired. I had some misgivings about rebooting my career in my late 40s, but could not pass the opportunity up, and it all worked out quite well. I've maintained ties to the Navajo Nation but now also work with many other Southwestern cultures and communities.

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

At ASU I am expected to spend 60% of my time on research, 30% on teaching, and 10% on professional and community service. This makes for a gentle teaching load of about 3 (sometimes 4) courses per academic year, but the flip side of that is the need to work incessantly on grant proposals and publications. Having quality graduate students and undergraduate interns on your team makes a big difference. I am able to teach a broad range of courses in geoscience and geoscience education: introductory, upper-division, and graduate. I try to teach in the field as much as possible, because I love the Southwest USA at all times of year. Almost always, I am doing research and collecting data even as I'm teaching. I also spend considerable time working with teachers in schools.

What do you like best about your work?

I love the trans-disciplinary nature of geoscience education research, and I'm fortunate to be working in a University that is reorganizing itself around research questions rather than by strict disciplinary identities. I'm based in an innovative School of Earth and Space Exploration that combines geoscientists, astronomers, and engineers. I get involved in all of these fields, and also collaborate closely with ASU colleagues in teacher education, psychology, geography, and anthropology. One year, I was even made a faculty fellow in the humanities. I also appreciate that I can live in the middle of the desert and mountain Southwest, where I most love to work.

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

The downside of trans-disciplinary interests, especially for someone based at an enormous and very collegial university, is how easily it is to become overextended. All of my close colleagues seem to have the same problem. We tend to get interested in more things than we can manage in a 60-hour work week. My principal strategy right now is an ongoing attempt to convince my colleagues in SESE that we need to hire another full-time faculty member in Earth and space science education research!

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

My convoluted career path enabled me to build up something of a unique set of professional experiences and skills, which proved handy when my dream job came along.

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 experiences with the dynamics between relationship and career are better shared over a beer than over the web.

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: Learn how to say "no" but don't say it too often. Second: Know that it is never too late to reinvent yourself or reboot your career.