Career Profile: Mea Cook
Geosciences Department, Williams College
Williams College is a Liberal Arts College.
Click on a topic to read Mea'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 a BA in Geosciences and a certificate in Musical Performance at Princeton University. I had entered college intending to major in Chemistry, but took a geochemistry class as a second year student and loved it and decided to change my major. I earned a PhD in Marine Geology and Geophysics in the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program, with a focus on paleoceanography and paleoclimatology. I also continued studying music at MIT with an Emerson Music Fellowship. I did postdocs at WHOI and in the Ocean Sciences department at UC Santa Cruz, and was a Visiting Investigator in Organic Geochemistry at the University of Bremen, Germany. I was a Lecturer at UCSC and a Visiting Professor at Williams College before joining the tenure track at Williams in the Geosciences department.
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?
Developing materials for new courses is a huge job. It could easily have consumed all of my work hours, and I also needed to set up my research lab, advise research students, and write proposals and papers. Having the mindset that developing courses is a multi-year iterative process helped me let go of perfectionism. A strategy that worked well for me was to only prep for class the morning of. This gave me a specific window of time to do the work and a hard deadline to complete it by, forcing me to focus and be efficient. It then freed up the rest of my day for other tasks with no pressure to start thinking about the next class meeting.
How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?
As the only person in my specialty at my institution, I had to find ways to keep connected with colleagues in my field and up to date on the literature. I found that going to conferences and reviewing papers and proposals were especially important ways for me to keep up with my field. In my classes, I incorporated topics from my research that I wanted to learn more about or stay up to date in. I invited people from my field that I wanted to interact with to give a department seminar and visit my class to discuss a recent paper.
It took me a while to figure out how to frame research questions that were both intellectually rewarding and the right size and scale for undergraduate research students. I got the great advice to pair up a 1st or 2nd year student with a 3rd or 4th year student to work on complementary parts of a project. This built in more capacity to make progress on the research question, and an opportunity for peer mentoring.
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?
One of my important mentors from when I was in college told me about their positive experiences attending a research-focused liberal arts college, so it was on my radar as possible career direction. There were not many opportunities to TA or teach in my graduate program. So when I was a postdoc I sought them out: I joined a team that taught an asynchronous online oceanography course for educators, I volunteered to teach K-12 school programs at an aquarium, and I taught an introductory oceanography class at UCSC. Teaching for the first time was scary, but I found that I really enjoyed it. It was especially rewarding working 1 on 1 with undergraduates at UCSC. I decided I wanted a job where teaching and research were both valued and where I could work closely with students. I was fortunate to get a faculty position that matched those goals.
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.
Finding teaching-research-service-life balance is a work in progress for me. I tend toward perfectionism, which I have to actively counter in order to juggle the challenges of my job. I remind myself that I really like doing nearly all the things I do for my job, and the stress I feel comes from there being just a lot of those things to manage. This emphasizes to me how important it is to think through my goals and priorities before planning how I spent my time, and it helps me enjoy myself more as I make my way through my to do list. Before starting each task, I take a moment to think about the essence of what really needs to get done (if anything!) and try to do just that and as efficiently as possible. I am mindful of what times of day I can most easily focus and schedule more difficult or important but no-deadline tasks for those times. I find external accountability and encouragement motivating, so I have colleagues who I schedule time with to talk through our priorities, set goals, sit and work together, and congratulate each other on what we accomplish. Investing time in my physical and mental health helps me keep things in perspective and handle the demands of the job.
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?
Take advantage of resources and wisdom from others. I have benefited so much from peer support and mentoring relationships within and outside my department, and from colleagues in my field. For all its rewards, academic jobs are demanding and hard. It made a big difference to me to have a community and not feel alone in facing the challenges, and it was extremely valuable to learn about strategies that worked for other people when trying to figure out how to navigate all the parts of my job.