Career Profile: Dana Royer

Wesleyan University

Wesleyan University is a private liberal arts college, primarily undergraduate, but offers a Master's program in the Earth and Environmental Sciences department.

Dana Royer
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 Dana Royer'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 BA from University of Pennsylvania and a PhD from Yale University. After Yale, I spent one year at the University of Sheffield (UK) and three years at Penn State before landing my current position at Wesleyan.

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

Wesleyan is somewhat unusual in that its roots are as a typical small New England liberal arts school, but beginning in the 60's they added graduate programs in the sciences (and music). Although most science departments have small PhD programs, my department (Earth and Environmental Sciences) does not--we have a small Master's program.

With that preamble for context, during the academic year my typical day is split ~50/50 between research and teaching. The teaching load is not heavy (2/1, with labs counting as full courses), but because teaching is taken seriously (think small New England liberal arts school) we spend a lot of time with students.

What do you like best about your work?

If I can share three things, I would say:
  1. The balance between teaching and research. Neither dominates the other, and they feed back on one another.
  2. The quality of the undergraduate students. They keep me honest.
  3. The congenial, positive atmosphere among the faculty in my department. This makes a huge quality-of-life difference.

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

Wesleyan has a fairly open curriculum, so there can be a striking gradient in general preparedness even in our upper-level courses. As a result, it is challenging to keep the advanced students engaged without overwhelming the less-prepared students. I have not found a silver-bullet solution to this problem. I spend a lot of time outside the classroom with less-prepared students. My department also initiated a "Sophomore Colloquium," a required course for recently-declared majors that helps bring all students to a level playing field.

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

  1. Research accomplishments;
  2. Knowledge of the department (the internet is your friend here) and the ability to make the case that I belong in the departments in which I applied for jobs;
  3. Teaching. My last year as a post-doc at Penn State, I volunteered to teach a large introductory course. It was trial-by-fire for sure, but it demonstrated to liberal arts schools that I considered teaching important;
  4. Luck :) I hit the job market for three years, had interviews in the last two, and offers only in the final year. Part of this improvement with time was no doubt experience, but luck was important too. It's difficult to know ahead of time exactly what a department is looking for in a new hire.

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 have a wife and two kids, and my wife is the principal care-giver.

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?

Remain flexible and persistent (these are not mutually exclusive). The job market is getting tougher, with more PhD's and fewer tenure-track positions. Establish your priorities before hitting the job market (location, institution type, etc.).