Career Profile: Barbara Tewksbury

Hamilton College

Hamilton College is a private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate.

Barbara Tewksbury
is one of the leaders of the 2011 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 Barbara Tewksbury'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 a BS in geology from St. Lawrence University in 1973 and went to graduate school at University of Colorado on an NSF graduate fellowship. I knew that I wanted to teach at an undergraduate institution like St. Lawrence, so, to gain teaching experience beyond being a TA, I taught an intro geology course at Colorado College during the last year I was in grad school. Hamilton College hired me in 1978, and I have taught structural geology, intro geo, field geology, plate tectonics, planetary geology, GIS, and a few other assorted courses since then. I have also advised literally dozens of undergraduate research projects over the years.

I've been involved for more than 15 years at the national level in efforts to improve undergraduate geoscience education. I've been PI or co-PI on seven NSF-DUE grants, including all of the grants for On the Cutting Edge, and my passions are innovative course design and effective teaching strategies.

For about 10 years, the bulk of my scholarly activity was focused on pedagogy. About five years ago, my scholarly activity moved back to include more geologic research. For the past five years, I've conducted research in Iceland on the origin of deformation bands in subglacial volcanic rocks and their role in collapse of subglacial edifices. I have also recently begun three major projects in the Western Desert of Egypt in collaboration with several Egyptian and American colleagues. I am lead PI on an NSF grant for three years of field work In Egypt and am just beginning a collaborative project to build LiDAR capacity in Egypt. I also work with NASA on geologic training for the current NASA astronaut candidates and on analog field tests for future lunar exploration.

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

Hamilton is an undergraduate-only liberal arts college with high expectations for both quality of teaching and research, and the teaching responsibilities are consistent with those expectations. I teach three courses per year and am responsible for teaching all labs for my courses. I normally teach an intro geology course, structural geology, and an elective course (GIS, planetary geology, plate tectonics) every year. I occasionally teach a summer field course or an overload seminar related to upcoming field courses or research trips (e.g., seminar on the geology of Iceland or Egypt). Our department also requires a senior project of all of our geology majors, and I supervise two to five research students each year in addition to teaching courses.

Teaching consumes much of my time during the academic year. The reality is that I do most of my research during the summer and in concentrated spurts during the academic year before deadlines of various kinds (grant and report deadlines, professional meetings, etc.).

What do you like best about your work?

I've taught at Hamilton for 34 years, and I still love going to work. I am very lucky to have the perfect job for me. I love the process of developing creative ways of engaging students and helping them learn, and I am at an institution that expects and values good teaching. At one point, many years ago, a colleague asked me to apply for a faculty position at his institution. He warned me, though, that it wouldn't matter what I did in the classroom, as long as I met my classes, and that effort spent on teaching was definitely not rewarded. I realized how lucky I was to be at Hamilton, which values the things that are important to me as a professional. I also like the freedom that I have to choose what I teach, the support that I have received for the research work that I do, and the ongoing opportunity (requirement!) to learn new things.

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

Teaching is a bit of a black hole that can vacuum up all your time if you let it. You can always prepare more, spend more time with students, and so on. Committing to collaborators is a great way to force yourself to spend time on research and not let it slip to some future time "when you have time". Committing to non-geology things where others are counting on you also helps. For me, it's been kiltmaking and playing the bagpipes. Give lessons in something, take lessons in something, join a group, plan a vacation well in advance and buy the tickets.

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

Without a doubt, one of the main factors that made me competitive in my original job search was the fact that I had had real, "pilot-in-command-time" teaching experience prior to applying for jobs. And I can't think of a single person we've hired at Hamilton in the last 30 years who also didn't have significant teaching experience (not just as a TA). The other two factors were that I was passionate about teaching and why I wanted to come to a place like Hamilton, and I was able to explain geology to the many non-geologists that I met during my interview.

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 think it's important to realize is that your situation will be unique and that some type of sacrifice or compromise is inevitable if you have a partner who also has a career.

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?

Job search
  • If you want a position at an institution whose mission stresses teaching, get real teaching experience ("pilot-in-command-time", not just TA or fill-in lecturer) before you put yourself on the job market.
  • Be broad-minded about searching for an academic position – no one type of institution has the "Holy Grail" of academic positions. Know yourself, and know what you are willing to put up with and what you want an institution to value.
  • Do your homework before an interview – learn about the department and the institution, figure out what their strengths are and what is important to them, and know where the institution is (I kid you not – some interviewees don't know this...).
  • When you are interviewing, remember that there are no "off" times – potential employers will judge you during every minute you are with them.
Your first academic job
  • Make time for yourself and the people who are important to you.
  • Do not waste time reinventing the wheel – find out what others have done, and adopt or adapt.
  • Learn something about how people learn and about teaching strategies that optimize student learning. Get over the idea that "coverage" and "exposure" guarantee learning.
  • Move past your dissertation/postdoc work as quickly as you can to document that you can develop new research avenues and carry them to completion.
  • Find collaborators for your research work, but be sure to have something that you can point to as your own.
  • Develop a (realistic!) two-year plan and a five-year plan, and update them every year. Be sure that you are crystal clear on what the expectations are at your institution.
  • Learn how to work with difficult people and to stand up for yourself while maintaining civility and collegiality.