Career Profile: Mike Williams

University of Massachusetts

A university with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Mike Williams
is one of the leaders of the 2011 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 Mike Williams'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 Amherst College (Geology), an M.S. from the University of Arizona (Structural Control of Ore Deposits), a PhD from the University of New Mexico (Metamorphic Petrology and Structural Geology). After completing my PhD, I had a short 6-month Post-doc. at the University of New Mexico, and then started as an Assistant Professor at UMass. I have been at UMass ever since, including a six-year stint as Department Head.

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

My current job involves teaching approximately three courses per year plus several graduate literature seminars, advising M.S. Ph.D. and undergraduate researchers, and pursuing my own research in metamorphic petrology, structural geology, tectonics, and geochronology of metamorphic and structural processes. I am also involved with a number of outreach projects including the Trail of Time at Grand Canyon.

What do you like best about your work?

I absolutely love all aspects of being a professor and faculty member: the teaching and interacting with undergraduate students, graduate advising and research. I love field trips and field work and analyzing rocks with the electron probe. I love going to talks and giving talks and interacting with the public about geology.

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

Managing time is the greatest challenge. Careful prioritizing and saying "No" are key parts of the solution, and also, keeping the expectations reasonable.

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

I believe that one key is having a broad skill set, having the ability to teach and collaborate across a broad spectrum of disciplines. I think it is a valuable asset to span the gap from field work to lab work. Also, familiarity or expertise with analytical instruments that are useful to students, researchers, and other members of the department. Enthusiasm for ones own research and that of others is a strong selling point.

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 wife is a tenured faculty member in the same department. I have worked with couples as graduate students and have interacted (as Department Head and as a colleague) with many couples who are looking for faculty positions. Obviously, a stable family situation is a requirement for a happy and successful career, but most couples that I know started with one job or a long commute and worked into a favorable situation over time. That is, it might be necessary to sacrifice a bit in the short term to obtain a satisfactory situation in the long term.

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?

Establish a thriving research program with many colleagues before beginning a faculty position. When planning a new course, borrow class materials (even whole classes) from colleagues. Then, modify and adapt the classes to your own situation. Don't try to revise everything all at once.