Career Profile: Becca Walker

Mt. San Antonio College

Mt. San Antonio College is a two-year college.
Becca Walker
is one of the leaders of the 2014 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 Becca Walker'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.

Educational background:
  • B.A., Geology, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY
  • Field camp, Idaho State University, Pocatello, ID
  • M.S., Geosciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. I also completed the Certificate in Higher Education Teaching program while at the U of A.
Career path:
While I was a graduate student, I worked as the Geoscientist-in-Park at Mt. Rainier National Park as part of the GeoCorps America program. The year after grad school, I served as the Education Specialist for UNAVCO, a non-profit geodetic consortium in Boulder, CO. I started a full-time faculty position in the Department of Earth Sciences and Astronomy at Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC), a 2-year college in Los Angeles County, in 2006, and have been there ever since!

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

At Mt. SAC, a full-time teaching load is 30 LHE (lecture hour equivalent) per academic year, which in our department translates to 10 classes. We are required to have at least 4 office hours per week and 6 hours of "supplemental hours" (service, committee work, curriculum development, etc.) per week.

Teaching: I generally teach 5-6 courses in the fall, 2 during the accelerated winter session, and 5-6 in the spring. I have the option of being compensated for my extra classes or "banking" them in my faculty time bank. For the last few semesters, I've co-supervised a group of Mt. SAC students on an independent study project, which does not count as part of my teaching load. Between teaching and office hours, I have 19-22 contact hours per week. In addition, all of my courses have required field trips, ranging from 2-4 days. My longest field trip to date was a 3.5 week trip to Hawai'i from January-February 2014.

Other responsibilities: I'm the Academic Senator for our department, attend department meetings, work on developing new courses, and sit on various short-term task forces and search committees. I've been involved with externally-funded projects (Faculty Inquiry Network, SAGE 2YC, and InTeGrate) since 2009 and am currently a co-PI on the GETSI (Geodesy Tools for Societal Issues) project.

Professional development: I attempt to attend an On the Cutting Edge workshop, a national meeting (usually GSA—AGU always falls during finals week!), and an NAGT section meeting every year.

What do you like best about your work?

I love working with students! It's incredibly satisfying to work with a population of primarily non-science majors and observe their academic and personal growth as we work. I understand that the vast majority of my students will not become geoscientists, but I like being able to use Earth science as a vehicle for helping them develop critical reasoning, metacognitive, and quantitative skills that will be helpful as they continue their studies. Field trips are my favorite part of the job. I'm lucky to teach in a part of the world where we have access to so many phenomenal field areas.

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

Having enough time to get everything done and do it well. I spend most of my time racing around.

Sometimes, the challenge tackles me more than I tackle it, but I do my best. Some strategies:
  • Always having my calendar with me to make sure that I'm meeting deadlines and not double-booking my time.
  • Learning to say "no" because I recognize that I don't have time to be involved in every project/committee/proposal that interests me. This is tough.
  • Giving up on getting work done while I'm on campus because there are too many distractions. Other than teaching, office hours, and meetings, I do all of my work off-campus.

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

During my job search, I went after positions for which I felt like I was a strong fit, rather than trying to fit my qualifications to a particular position. For example, Mt. SAC wanted a candidate with experience in geoscience education, outreach, and working with K-12 teachers, and I had experience with all of these. Although I lacked community college teaching experience, I think that the hiring committee gave me a chance because I'd demonstrated through my TA experience that I had an understanding of and passion for intro-level teaching and curriculum development. Being able to articulate my teaching philosophy and provide concrete ideas for how I could contribute to the department's needs also helped my candidacy.

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 believe that the flexibility of an academic schedule helps with cultivating a fulfilling career and personal life. However, it's easy to focus most of your time and energy on your career because the work is never done and could always be better. When I talk to colleagues about these issues, we seem to agree on the importance of carving out dedicated time for your 2-3 non-work priorities and learning to say "no" to work and personal obligations that aren't high on that priority list.

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?

The reality is that this job is going to consume a large chunk of your time and energy, so you'd better be sure that an academic career is something that you are going to LOVE. If you'd rather be working on lesson plans and field guides than on your thesis, you might be a good fit at an institution that emphasizes teaching. If you feel happy and energized working with students, consider applying to schools that have a strong mentoring component. If you are happiest writing grant proposals and papers, apply for positions where there is a heavy publishing and research expectation. Do you like working alone? If not, don't apply at institutions at which you would be the lone geoscientist. In choosing the type of institution you want to target, I suggest doing a great deal of reflection about the kind of lifestyle that you want and the types of interaction that you wish to have with colleagues and students. It will help to seek advice (either formally through mentoring programs or informally through your social/professional network) from faculty at different types of institutions and if possible, shadow these people for a day or two to get a sense of a typical day. The more teaching experience you can get as a grad student or post-doc, the better. Grad students, go for TA positions where you get to develop and run your own lecture and/or lab sections as opposed to TA appointments where you're just a grader. If there is a community college nearby, get yourself in their adjunct pool and teach courses there. Teaching experience looks great on your CV and will allow you to clarify your teaching philosophy. Finally, I can't emphasize enough the importance of being honest with yourself about what you love to do and resist any pressure that you may experience to become someone else's academic clone.