Career Profile: Jennifer L. B. Anderson
Department of Geoscience, Winona State University
Winona State University is a four-year public university.
Click on a topic to read Jennifer'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 earned my B.S degrees in Astrophysics, Geophysics, and Physics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in 1998. I went on to Brown University in Providence, RI, where I earned my Sc.M. (2001) and Ph.D. (2004) in Geological Sciences. I am a planetary geologist who specializes in impact cratering processes but I have always been devoted to working with teachers and science education. I was thrilled to get hired at Winona State University because of their excellent Earth & Space Science teaching program. I started on a fixed-term basis in 2005, applied for and got a tenure-track position in 2007, and earned tenure and promotion in 2009. I was promoted to full professor of Geoscience in 2014 and am likely to never leave.
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?
I was amazed at how unprepared I was and felt for the career of a full-time professor! The class prep was enormous and I taught 14 different classes in my first four years prior to tenure. I had to learn the hard way that I didn't have to perform at 98% all the time. In fact, my 90% was really quite good (thanks SERC!!) and, frankly, my 80% still looked like an A to most people. I felt like I had been released from a cage when I arrived at WSU -- if I had an idea and the time and energy to pull it off with a minimal or zero budget, then I could do it. And I tried to do everything -- it was so hard to learn to say no. I'm still struggling with that. I also struggled a bit with being the first experimentalist in a heavily field-based department as well as being a young woman and/or just new. It took a few years for the students to get used to me. I work hard, even after 16 years, to make myself say "no" and think carefully about agreeing to something. I have also reached out to many different communities to build support groups on campus and across the geosciences. Turns out, I'm not the only one who thinks they need to perform at 98% all of the time!
How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?
Completing research at a four-year undergraduate university is still a challenge. There simply is not enough time and resources with such a large course load. I have continued my research over the past 16 years with a different lab and collaborator than my PhD research. Luckily, the problems I work on can move slowly; I'm not on the cutting edge of Mars research, for example. And they have moved, but very slowly. I was awarded my first PI NASA grant in 2015 that allowed me to buy out some of my teaching load to complete research and hire student researchers. Recently, a second grant on which I am Co-I was awarded which will continue this funding for the next 3 years. The grants have helped, but it's all about managing time, classes, students, and the seemingly endless paperwork. I am learning and moving forward, but it's been very difficult. I had a few thousand dollars for start-up funds and have been able to pull small pockets of money together for travel, which was my main expense until the NASA grants came through. My research collaborator is fantastic and completely understands the demands of my full-time teaching load; although I'm sure he would want me to move faster if possible. I have worked hard to engage students in the research and I've done lots of other small research projects that are not related to my main PhD work. After 4 years of actual NASA funding with course release, I've figured out how to get my undergrads working in a pipeline to process and generate all the data we collect in the lab. Learning how to work with the undergrads has been my biggest challenge, but I'm really gearing up now!
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?
When I was looking for jobs, I really wanted to be at an institution with excellent science education programs for future teachers. Winona State is one such place and so I was very aligned with the goals of my institution when I arrived here, I think. I have remained very active in working with all levels of education majors here on campus -- I teach science content for K-6 education majors, I am an advisor for the 5-8 science education minor, and I am the coordinator of the 5-12 Earth & Space Science education major program. I have worked with in-service teachers and teacher training, done workshops, serve on education committees, and I handle all of the accreditation issues for the 5-8 and Earth & Space Science programs. I was forward-thinking when I "stalked" the institution I hoped to work at and so I fit in quite well with their goals. I was able to adapt my "fit" as well -- WSU wanted to hire a geophysicist to teach near-surface geophysics and while I was more theoretical in nature, I knew that I could figure out the near-surface techniques. I attended a geophysics field camp as a faculty member and also took a few GSA sessions and other geophysics opportunities to help hone my skills. Turns out, I was able to mold myself to what they needed -- the key is a willingness to be flexible!
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.
Yikes, this is the tough one! I have struggled with balance for so long that I'm certain I won't know what to do if I ever figure it out. Here's how I approached the tenure and promotion pathway. I am at a primarily teaching institution, so I felt that my time as an assistant professor needed to be spent becoming strong in my classes and a dedicated faculty member in service to the institution and programs. My research was not nearly as important then, except that I started getting students involved in small research projects. I wanted to really get my upper-level Planetary Geology and Geophysics courses well-established and valued within the department. I needed to spend time learning more about how the K-12 system worked in Minnesota and what the requirements were for me as a person now involved in training future teachers (there are LOTS of rules). And so that was my focus for pre-tenure. Post-tenure, I felt that my classes were going pretty well and while I improve them constantly, I felt that my main goal as an associate professor was to establish a sustainable research program, ideally with some external funding. This is when I really turned to my research colleague and worked to get on one of his grants (as a Co-I in 2011) to bring in some money to support student research and travel to conferences and the lab. During all of this, I will be honest, my personal life was secondary although much of my personal life was satisfied through relationships with my colleagues who are mostly good friends. I did start to burn out and get cynical or jaded because I hadn't yet learned how to say "no" effectively. For various reasons, I have only recently had children, earning me a title of "advanced maternal age," and my priorities have rapidly shifted again while I figure out how to have a young family at home and keep my work and high standards. I have learned to work much more effectively while in the office and I protect my time at home like a she-wolf. I have made a lot of "rules" for myself, like which nights I am allowed to work after the kids go to bed (only twice a week and ideally, less). And I have learned that things get done just fine usually even without my constant worry and effort. And I am still learning -- I look forward to gaining more tips and ideas for balance from this group!
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?
I wish I had a better understanding for the amount of paperwork, committee work, and general random-stuff-that-needs-to-get-done at a primarily teaching institution. I think my grad school could have done a better job preparing those of us who wanted to go into teaching (and they likely do a better job now), but I was really trained and somewhat expected to be at a research institution or NASA lab. Especially with budgets for public schools the way that they are now and the economy, it is incredible what faculty are expected to do to keep things running at a university like this. The thing is, I am absolutely dedicated to the idea of a public four-year university, so I work as best as I can at it given the constraints. I also wish I had someone to protect me from myself earlier on. Someone who could have helped me slow down and say "no" before I got myself involved in so many things. I don't know how you learn to not be absolutely perfect so that you can sleep more regularly, but hopefully someone is designing a course about it right now. The main thing is that I think most of us start out feeling unprepared for the job and so we work extra hard to hide it, assuming that everyone else knows exactly what is going on. And that's simply not the truth; we all feel a bit lost and crazed those first few years and even well beyond that. And that's OK. That's just fine.