Career Profile: Richelle Allen-King

Richelle Allen-King

University at Buffalo

University at Buffalo is a public Ph.D.-granting university.
Richelle Allen-King is one of the leaders of the 2009 "Early Career Geoscience Faculty" 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 Richelle's answer to an individual question, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Educational background and career path * Early teaching challenges * Research transition * Institutional fit * Balancing responsibilities * Advice for new faculty

Briefly describe your educational background and career path.
I completed my undergrad degree at UC San Diego in Chemistry with specialization in earth sciences. The latter means that I was fortunate to take the equivalent of a geology (or geochemistry) minor from the Scripps Institute professors, which was pretty neat (they did not have a geology department on the main campus at that time). I knew that I wanted to do some sort of environmentally-related research and had always been fascinated by minerals. After working a bit to gain focus, I headed for graduate work in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Waterloo, where I completed my PhD and short post doc in hydrogeochemistry. I began my first faculty position at Washington State University and was tenured and promoted there. After ten years, I moved to University at Buffalo for both professional and personal reasons.

What were some of the challenges you faced in your early years of full-time teaching? Could you briefly describe how you overcame one of those challenges?
The biggest challenge in the classroom was (and is) that the students are 'not me' (or part of my generation of learners). Almost none of the students learn as I did (by listening, taking notes and working problems on my own). Learning to teach students with very different learning styles, life experiences and course expectations was, and still is, my toughest challenge. This challenge is exacerbated by disparate student preparation (competence in high school math, for example).

The most successful strategy that I have used (in addition to what I learned at the course prep workshop) was to convene a student 'review' board following the dismal failure of one of my courses for our geology majors. It was the first lower division course that I had taught and I completely overestimated the prerequisite knowledge that students would bring to class, missed the mark on understanding their expectations about work load and how to communicate to them what is important.... ETC! There was a small group of 'B' students who were motivated and did well because they worked hard, not because it was easy for them. During the semester following the 'melt down,' I shared my desire to improve the course with one of the students and asked him if he would be willing to chair an expert review panel. Together, he and I selected three other students - I took his advice about who would be good choices. I wrote out a formal charge to the committee, explaining that I wanted high-level expert review on the most important attributes of the class that needed improvement AND suggestions on how to improve the course, in their opinion. I distributed the charge in a brief kickoff meeting and explained that, as with all expert review panels, it was wtihin their purview to change the charge! I also explained that I expected that the job would take about 5 hours total (2 hours reviewing their course notes individually, two hours of group discussion and about an hour final meeting with me to present their findings). Their feedback was SO helpful. As it turned out, the course didn't need a wholesale overthrow but needed minor and important adjustments. I needed advice from them about frequency of homeworks and point distribution, quizzes (they wanted more!), assignment clarity, and so on. In lieu of payment, I gave them gift certificates to the book store to compensate them for their time.

How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?
I do related work. My research direction at the outset of my faculty position was focused by problems that I discovered while a post doc and by coming to understand the strengths and interests of the population of graduate students who were recruited to my institution (e.g. influenced by the available resources!)

An essential component of achieving tenure is finding or making an alignment of your teaching/research goals with the goals of your institution.... How do your goals fit with those of your institution? Did you adjust your goals to achieve that fit? If so, how?
I consciously chose to focus my research within a relatively narrow range of problems before tenure. This allowed me to generate sufficient depth to satisfy my institution. I chose to wait to start one avenue of research that I knew would take a LONG time to show productivity until I was basically up for tenure.

Many of the new faculty members in these workshops are interested in maintaining a modicum of balance while getting their careers off to a strong start. Please share a strategy or strategies that have helped you to balance teaching, research, and your other work responsibilities, OR balance work responsibilities with finding time for your personal life.
About the only strategy that works for me is to plan ahead by blocking off calendar time for important activities first. When employed, this strategy works for me for balancing different activities at work, as well as for balancing work and personal activities. The best and most consistent example is that my husband and I both have 'together' vacation time blocked off in August from now until forever. We have changed the block of time in some years - the point is that the block of time for that purpose is in the plan no matter what else happens. Although less dramatic, the same tactic - deciding what is important and putting it on the calendar first - works on a daily, weekly, monthly, semesterly basis for various tasks at work.

What advice do you have for faculty beginning academic careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career in academia?
It is okay to ask for help. Is is essential to make time for yourself, your friends, and your family.