Career Profile: Erin Kraal

Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

Kutztown University of Pennsylvania is a public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate.

Erin Kraal
is one of the leaders of the 2012 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 Erin Kraal'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 have a bachelors of science in geology from Washington and Lee University. Then I traveled to University of California Santa Cruz. First I earned my masters degree in surface processes. Then I changed advisors and focused on planetary science for my PhD. Following my PhD, I was an NSF International Post-Doctoral Fellow at Utrecht University, the Netherlands and combined both my surface process and planetary work. I spent two years as a research faculty scientist at Virginia Tech where I taught graduate level courses, had a small graduate group, and worked on my research. In 2009, I moved to my current position as an assistant professor at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania where I teach in the Department of Physical Sciences.

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

As faculty member at a primarily undergraduate state institution, most of my time during the semester is spent in the classroom (or preparing to be in the classroom or grading the result of being in the classroom...) and advising students (in programmatic, research, or life issues). While I work with geology and physics majors, I also advise secondary education majors who are focusing on Earth and Space Science. My major service includes serving as a national geosciences counselor for the Counsel of Undergraduate Research (CUR) and working on putting together a freshmen dorm for Physical Sciences Majors. I also run our department's interdisciplinary science seminar series. During the semester, I try to devote one morning a week to my personal research. In the summer, my focus shifts (theoretically!) to focusing 90% on my research and 10% on service and teaching tasks.

What do you like best about your work?

I really like the balance between teaching and research. I like being able to focus on teaching during the school year and research during the summer – it keeps me interested. Just as I'm getting tired to teaching, it's research time. And when I'm ready for a research break it is teaching time. I also really like working with the students here at Kutztown, both in the classroom and on a personal level. Because Kutztown has a large college of education, I also get to work with a lot of future science teachers – and this is one of the things I've come to enjoy most about my current job.

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

There are a lot of pressures on your time – it is always possible to do more and I always see new and different ways I could get involved. I always want to do everything a little bit better...This creates immense pressure on my time and energy. In all of the aspects of my job – teaching, research, service – I find maintaining my research as the most difficult because it is easy to put off the small things that you need to do to keep your research active (like reading papers, analyzing data, etc) because teaching and service always SEEM more urgent in the short term. I find that having a specific weekly schedule that is blocked for tasks like research, class prep, grading, etc helps (as long as I stick to it!). I have been developing collaborations that are more conducive to my current role at a PUI. I have also been looking at where I spend time repeating tasks in things like making lectures and advising students, and creating templates for future use.

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

I think my success on the job market was related to:
  • Publication and grant record as a graduate student and post-doc.
  • Teaching experience beyond TA'ing as a graduate student including being a single course instructor for a class I designed and the instructor for the department's TA'ing course on Teaching Methods for graduate students.
  • Spending a lot of time on my application materials and jobs talks.
  • Having varied graduate experience (in lab, field, modeling) across several fields (geomorphology, sedimentology, planetary science) made it possible for me to apply to a variety of position and be able to teach a variety of courses in a smaller program.

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 am proud to be a 4 body SOLUTION! My husband is also a faculty in the geosciences and we have two children (one at the end of graduate school, the other during our faculty position). We have managed to negotiate graduate school, international post-docs, research faculty positions, and PUI positions. It hasn't always been easy, but it is possible and has even been a lot of fun (most) of the time. My advice for the two-body job search is to remain positive, flexible, and creative.

For overall work-life balance issues, it is important to have priority list for your job (in each area of research, teaching, and service) and in your personal life (time with family/friends, hobbies, exercises, etc). Say YES to things that are inline with your top priorities and say NO to things that distract you from your priorities. This allows you to focus and make progress on your most important tasks for your career and to devote time to your personal life. Your priorities will be unique and you do not have to make the same decisions as anyone else. Be confident in your priorities - You must build a sustainable framework for your whole life.

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?

All of my advice is predicated on the following: in graduate school, your research is your top priority – you need to focus on taking this time establish your research skills. Having said that:
  • If you are interested in a position with a lot of teaching, gain some experiences that distinguish you from the 'TA'ed only.' Opportunities include things like being able to teach/design your own course for a semester (but again see warning above about staying focused on your research over the long term!), attending workshops (like this one and other at GSA/AGU about undergraduate research programs), take a teaching pedagogy course if it is offered (even if it isn't in your specific field), and/or seek out an opportunity to mentor an undergraduate student as a part of your research (don't just have a 'field assistant' – have them draft their own mini-project).
  • Make sure that you postdoc – whatever type of institution your are headed to – this is an extremely valuable investment in your future research.

The most important thing I learned during my 5 years on the job market, 4 negotiation rounds, and 2 different faculty positions is that this is a process, not an end game. Initially it felt like I was making a life-long decision with every single interview, that my whole career hung in the balance and I put a lot of stress on myself to make the 'perfect' decision. Now I think of it as making the best decision that you can at the time and working my way toward achieving my goals. In graduate school, a faculty position seemed like the end (a rewarding one, but an end none the less). Now I see it is just another step on the journey.