Career Profile: Jennifer L. B. Anderson

Winona State University

Winona State University is a public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate.

Jennifer L. B. Anderson
is one of the leaders of the 2013 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 Jennifer L. B. Anderson'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 grew up in eastern Wisconsin and went to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, for my undergraduate degrees. I wanted to be an astronomer, so I started as an Astrophysics and Physics major. In my third year, I determined that I really loved the planets and so I decided to add a Geophysics major so that I would be better prepared to go to graduate school in Planetary Geology. I graduated in 1998 and went to Brown University for my master's and doctoral work in Planetary Geology. I worked with Peter Schultz on experimental impact cratering studies and completed my Ph.D. in 2004.

I served as an adjunct astronomy professor for a semester at Rhode Island College and then moved to Winona, MN. I worked with the Science Education Resource Center on their "Preparing Teachers to Teach Earth Science" project for half a year. I was hired as a fixed-term (one-year contract) assistant professor in the Geoscience Department at Winona State University and began there in fall of 2005. In my second year, I was able to apply for a tenure-track position within the department and was hired permanently in 2007. I applied for and was awarded tenure in 2009. I served as interim department chair in spring/summer 2010 and took my first sabbatical during the 2011-2012 academic year.

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

As a faculty member at a four-year state school, I have a heavy teaching load and typically teach 12 credits of courses in a semester which translates roughly into 2 lab courses plus another small assignment (a senior seminar or something like that) each semester. There are five faculty in the Geoscience Department at Winona State University which means that we each have to wear a lot of hats. In one year, I will teach an intro-level, 200-seat Astronomy class, an intro-level for majors Earth & Space Systems lab course, and I alternate years between my upper-level Geophysics with lab and Planetary Geology with lab courses. I also teach one class per year in the Investigative Science program – science content courses for elementary education majors. To fill in the remaining gaps in my teaching load I will also teach an orientation section for geology and science majors, a seminar class for graduating seniors, and/or a research strategies course for sophomore/junior level majors. I also operate and maintain the WSU observatory as part of my load.

Beyond teaching, I am encouraged to do research both on my own and with undergraduate students. Many of our undergraduate majors and all of our Earth Science teaching majors complete a senior capstone experience and I typically advise 2-5 students a year. I have tried to remain active in my own research specialty and participate in 1-2 conferences a year, write NASA proposals, and do experiments a few weeks a year at Johnson Space Center. I write 2-3 abstracts per year on my undergraduate research projects, my own research, and my work in geoscience education but I continue to struggle with getting manuscripts submitted.

I am the Geoscience Education "specialist" in our department and advise our Earth Science teaching majors and 5-8 General Science teaching minors as well as other assorted students, approximately 20 advisees a year. I serve on education-related committees on campus and am responsible for the accreditation of our program with the state Board of Teaching and other agencies. I am active in geoscience outreach in the area and work quite a bit with local K-12 students and in-service teachers. In a year I might also serve on a proposal review panel and/or review a manuscript for publication. I am generally ridiculously busy.

What do you like best about your work?

The best thing about my job is that I work with the most amazing people. Because I'm at a smaller university, I have gotten to know scientists, liberal arts faculty, performing arts faculty, and very interesting community members. I have a fantastic group of friends and there is always someone interesting to talk with. I am a life-long student and I'm surrounded by people who would love to explain their disciplines and work with me. I am passionate about interdisciplinary studies, especially the intersection between science and art, and have worked on a number of projects with people outside of Geoscience.

The next best thing about my job is that every day is different. I really don't know quite what to expect when I show up for work. Many days this means that my to-do list in the morning is barely touched by the end of the day, but I love the variety. I am always interacting with other people, students, ideas, and knowledge. It is a great deal of fun!

Now that I think about it, the overarching best thing about my job is that I'm really my own boss. I have incredible flexibility and, so long as I am doing my job, no one really defines what I have to do. If I get a good idea and want to act on it, that is just fine. If I can find someone to give me some money to support it, even better! And so my job is very creative. The craziest thing I ever did was work with a Dance professor to design and co-teach a Dance Appreciation course that explored scientific concepts and theories of time through movement. And I had never been in a dance studio before!

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

There are so many things that you have to be able to do as a faculty member at a small institution that I was never prepared for during my time in graduate school. I was really trained to be a research scientist and there is so much that goes into teaching that I never had experience with, including simple things like creating labs or a syllabus. I was also unprepared for working with undergraduates; I was so used to thinking of students as graduate students that I wasn't prepared for how they thought and learned differently. Finally, we have limited administrative support so I have to manage all sorts of small things like photocopying, travel arrangements, and paperwork on my own.

Probably the most challenging aspect of my job is that there is no end to the things I could (or should) be doing. We all work so hard and we work all the time (I'm filling this out at 6:22 pm on a Friday) that my life-work balance is out of whack. I'm still learning how to say 'no,' but I've been doing better with that this semester. I've been running full-speed for eight years and I know I can't maintain it much longer. But there is so much to do and it all seems either so worthwhile or so absolutely necessary (like some paperwork) so that my projects and ideas can move forward.

Back when I attended this workshop as a participant I was told that I needed to learn how to set boundaries and say "no" and I so wish I had taken that to heart back then. When you first start out, you want to do so well and be so impressive and you agree to so many things. And it's hard to back down once people learn that you can do those things.

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

The fact that I was willing and eager to work with science education and teacher preparation I think helped a great deal. There is a huge push to improve STEM education K-16 but very few scientists are really interested in working with elementary education majors. These students are the most challenging that I have throughout the year and many faculty will not or cannot (or should not) work with this group. If you are interested and willing to really get in the trenches with science education at an institution like ours your application will definitely get noticed. But don't say you are interested in doing it if you aren't really because it is a huge challenge. On the other hand, remember that science education happens in all of your courses with the non-majors, majors, and (if you are willing) with pre-service teachers. When we get an application that doesn't even mention working with undergraduates, we are generally not interested in that person.

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 experience with this is that it is an on-going challenge. I had so much energy when I got out of graduate school that it was like I had been a caged bird suddenly set free. I wanted to do everything and get involved at all levels and do my absolute best now that I was in my dream job. The first two semesters were incredibly difficult; while I never slept overnight in my office, I was there pretty much every day. After eight years, I don't want to work like that anymore but I've gotten involved in so many things that it is difficult to say "no." For example, I'm known in our region as the astronomy go-to person, but I just can't work with every group of cub scouts who contacts me. I have to make choices about how much time I can put into things and how to use my skills and energy in the most effective way.

It has been easy to fall completely into this job and lose track of my personal life because I am so busy. I have to constantly plan to take time for myself and enjoy my town, my friends, and my hobbies. I learned to knit over my sabbatical as part of my "personal goals." I take at least one day off on the weekend. I cultivate friendships and try to get regular exercise and sleep. For the past two years, I have been in a long-distance dual-career relationship and that has been a challenge. Hopefully we will be in the same location within the next 6 months. While this has been necessary, I believe that we've done it well and it has generally been positive. But it is not ideal because it allows me to work constantly when we aren't together. I'm working hard right now to get my work-life more in balance so that when we are together I'm not still working 12-hour days. But it's a constant challenge and there aren't many good role models of people who manage this balance.

Another personal choice I made while searching for a fulfilling career was to be very specific about where I wanted to live. My environment is very important to me and I can't be happy in a part of the Earth where I don't feel comfortable. I really wanted to move back to the upper Midwest and I did a location-based job search. Most people thought I was crazy and warned me that I needed to go where the jobs are and be happy with that. But I can't live in a big city and be happy, it's just not me. I need seasons and water and open land. And I can't emphasize how happy I am that I recognized that about myself and was true to myself when I was looking for a job. I firmly believe that these aspects of ourselves are important and need to be honored. It takes a bit more research into the region, some additional legwork, and the guts to advocate more for yourself, but it is completely possible to do a location-based job search.

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?

This is such a tough question!
  • It's OK to say no. Practice saying "no" early and often. Never agree to something right away. Think about it for at least 24 hours.
  • "Done is better than perfect." Excellent advice from a dance colleague and a permanent post-it note on my monitor!
  • Get to know faculty outside of your department and outside of the sciences! These relationships have been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career.
  • Set boundaries on when you are available and then turn off your email.
  • Don't leave your office door open all the time. Set aside time in your daily schedule for research and grading and then close your office door and don't answer it during those times. Treat your research time as sacred.
  • Get to know the custodians who clean your office and the other people who help you at your institution – secretaries, people in the business office, librarians, etc. Take a moment to talk with these people and thank them for all that they do to support you. You want these people to be your friends and most of them are perfectly wonderful people, no matter the pile of paperwork that you have to complete for them because of a decision that the state legislature made.