Career Profile: David McConnell

North Carolina State University

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

David McConnell
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 David McConnell'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 BSc from Queen's University, Northern Ireland. I went to Oklahoma State for a Masters. I thought it would be a nice wee 2-year excursion to the US that turned in to a career. I was much better as a grad student than I was as an undergrad. I earned a PhD at Texas A&M, fully planning on going into the oil and gas industry but my roommate was committed to a career as an academic and that made me reconsider and try a few job applications. I started out as a structural geologist in a sabbatical replacement position at Kansas State, then the U. of Akron before getting a full-time job at the latter. I was in Akron for 19 years before moving relatively late in my career to NCSU. About 10 years in, post-tenure, I shifted research focus from structure to geoscience education. That turned out to be a good decision and I believe that any measure of subsequent success mainly followed from that choice.

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

I typically teach one or two classes a semester and oversee about 30 sections of our physical geology lab taught by grad students and a few undergrads. Much of my time is committed to working with a team of grad students and with colleagues at multiple institutions involved on several funded research projects. Some of that is actual research but a lot of it involves administration and communication, a critical component of multi-institutional collaborative projects. My classes are either large intro courses (~95 students) or a grad class (15 students) on geoscience education research.

What do you like best about your work?

Working with students. I thoroughly enjoy weekly meetings/discussions with my grad students but also find a great pleasure in directing learning in my large intro course. I have found that the best part of science is the social aspect of the work, working with others.

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

The hardest part is finding a balance. First, there are always too many things to do. (At least you should hope that is the case.) So, I am always not doing something I think has value and that causes some stress. I try to keep track of what's due and schedule more challenging tasks for when I have several hours to focus and knock out basic things (like writing this profile) in an hour here or there between other tasks. Some of the best advice I got was about keeping to a strict schedule so that you maximize the time you have to write papers or proposals. (I don't actually follow that advice, it's impossible, but do the best you can.) Second, there is a work-life balance that also requires effort. You absolutely have to get away from work and do something else - workout, hike, join a band, crochet outfits for baby goats - anything to shift gears several times a week.

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

The right mix of experience and publications. I had some publications during grad school and the sabbatical replacement positions gave me good experience with teaching. There is a bit of luck about it too, right place, right time. The interview process is going to be different every time, sometimes you will just click, other times the won't be a connection. I've been turned down for more jobs than I have been hired for, you have to persevere and consider each opportunity a learning experience.

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 married after my career was already on track. It was always a challenge to find an appropriate work/life balance. Others who are not in academia often don't view the job in the same light. For many, it only involves teaching a few hours a week, and they have a hard time considering work that involves a lot of thinking and writing as "work" or as a source of stress for you. Unlike some jobs, you can't just stop at 5 PM and leave it behind, the ideas follow you home.

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?

Get a good mentor when you start. Someone who's advice you can trust, a good sounding board for all the issues that will come up as your career develops. Find the type of institution that best fits your career goals. Be honest with yourself, do you prefer teaching or research? Can you see yourself working in the same field 10, 20 years from now?