Career Profile: Ankur Desai

University of Wisconsin-Madison

A university with graduate programs, including doctoral programs.

Ankur Desai
is one of the leaders of the 2015 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 Ankur Desai'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.

Unlike most of the students who apply to our Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences graduate program, I was not obsessed with the weather since I was 6. I liked nature, especially the beaches and forests of New Jersey (don't snicker!), where I grew up, but mostly had my head in books. Or more likely, at a screen, as I was good at computers, 64K at a time.

So I stuck with that, and become a computer science major at Oberlin College. But one day, trapped again in the cornfields of Northern Ohio, I had an urge to try flying airplanes. Suddenly, one needed to think a lot about the sky. That changed everything. And so I added an environmental studies major, the closest thing we had to meteorology, and one that fit my general interest in nature. I graduated, worked some odd jobs in the Forest Service and interned at the EPA, and found myself back in graduate school when real world jobs didn't live up to their expectations.

It was during my M.A. training in Geography in Minnesota that things came together when I joined a lab doing land-atmosphere interactions, one not in my own department. Just as I was finishing my M.S., my advisor moved to Penn State. I followed briefly after first getting married, but soon came back to the Twin Cities, where I found it impossible to get jobs in GIS with my background, but through a connection with my advisor, found a post-M.S. research technician position to build an eddy covariance flux tower in an old growth forest. I had no skills in this, but nothing like trial by mosquitos or blinding blizzard while strapped by climbing harness trying to solder wires a 100 feet up on a radio tower I helped construct (and no I didn't trust my engineering skills).

That experience led me to realize how much I still wanted to stay in research. I convinced my advisor, now at Penn State, to take me back, and start a Ph.D. in meteorology, using the data generated by the tower I built. During this time, my wife and I had our first kid and my wife also finished her M.Ed. and started full time work. These forced me to learn time management!

By now, like most Ph.D. students, the idea of becoming a professor at a research university seemed far-fetched and unsatisfying. I went to workshops on science policy, communication, and visited folks working in research labs, look for alternatives. And then one day, toward the end of my Ph.D., I took a workshop titled Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences, and though I came in convinced this was not my calling, the discussions changed my mind and led me to apply to faculty positions.

And then fortune struck multiple times, in ways that are still hard for me to fathom. I landed an interview months before defending, right after AGU. I had an amazing and snowy interview and then a phone call in January for an offer with an option to defer for a post-doc. I took the deferral when I landed a fellowship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. So I quickly defended, sold our small house which we had bought by then, packed up and drove our toddler to Colorado, and then a year later, weeks before the due date of our second child, to Wisconsin, where I am today, ten years since I took that workshop.

The last eight years in UW have been busy. I jumped into the classroom, advised students, had ups and downs in successes with those, wrote a bazillion proposals, got a few funded, lost a lot of hair, and found a niche leading a lab on scale interactions in surface-atmosphere fluxes, with a specific focus on biogeochemical cycles, atmospheric models, and integration of ecological and meteorological observations, especially eddy covariance flux towers. I still run the tower I built 15 years ago. We had our third child in the 3rd year of my tenure clock, got tenure a couple years later (definitely a shared experience), and just came back from sabbatical in the Alps. Like my early grad school days, I still spend most of my time outside the department, bridging connections, learning new disciplinary languages.

So that's me. Not so brief. Maybe not the best person to convene a session on academic careers given where fortune has struck. But I think I can tell you some stories and assure you that this is actually a really cool thing to do and it will, most of the time, work out.

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

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the Grad Program. I run a lab with 2-3 PhD students, 1-2 Master's students, 1 lab manager, 1 post-doc, and most summers, 2-3 undergraduate field interns. I usually teach one graduate or undergraduate lecture course a semester, and often a graduate level seminar, occasionally field-based. We have weekly lab meetings and I meet individually with all students biweekly. I spend way more time on my ass than I want to answering emails, writing reports, grading exams, commenting on manuscripts, sitting in committee meetings, and debugging code. I'm usually "on the clock" from around 8-4 or 5, block off evening time for family, and then take care of light work tasks most evenings, say from 8-10. I tend not to work on weekends, though fieldwork, conferences, and proposal deadlines do cut into that. I'm usually traveling to conferences, committee meetings, or field projects about a 3-5 days a month, occasionally longer 1-2 week trips in the summer.

What do you like best about your work?

This is an enormously creative profession and we get to determine most of what that entails. Where else do you get a blank sheet of paper and get to write your own 3-year job description, one that advances science, which will be reviewed by your peers and funded by taxpayers? Also, I keep getting older, but the students all stay the same age, and it's great to harness that youthful energy to stay creative! Finally, no one day is the same, and I set that agenda, with extreme amount of flexibility in time.

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

I worry most about keeping my graduate students funded and second about how I best use my time and balance professional and personal time. For the first, I've forced myself to be a prolific and collaborative grant writer and find creative ways to cobble together various bits of funding. The federal support for science has been in a steady stage of erosion. For the latter, we are in a vocation that consumes our mind constantly, and virtually any task we do (data analysis, prepping a course, talking to a student) could take infinite time. So I found it important to master time management and spend a lot of time on calendars, lists, syncing things with my wife, and blocking time off.

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

Well, "right time, right place" didn't hurt and I've learned that this doesn't just happen by chance or luck alone. Many of us are introverts, but over time I realized I needed to be collaborative to get my research done. And that level of interaction with scientists, hosting them for seminars, and essentially learning to act more like a colleague than student, I think helped with getting strong letters, helped with search committee meetings at the interview stage, helped with seeing the bigger picture of my work.

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.

You can see in my non-brief bio above that balancing family and career has always been a high priority for me. With three kids, my wife and I are outnumbered! My strategy was to wear my family on my sleeve. Of course, being male, this is easier to do and navigate. But I decided early to not take positions at places that seemed family unfriendly. I also took advantage of all options for tenure extensions, campus day cares, work from home schedules where possible. There is no one right model for everyone. You have to decide what is important to you and how you let others know about that.

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?

Take this workshop! To the greatest extent possible, publish your dissertation chapters as soon as possible. Don't be afraid to talk to scholars. The world of higher education is much broader then the research intensive place you are currently at. Don't turn down opportunities to present your work, mentor students, or guest lecture. You will have more flexible time in your post-doc than any other stage in your career - take advantage of that. I wish I spent more time learning about grant writing, budgeting, and management.