Career Profile: Cynthia Hall
Department of Geology and Astronomy, West Chester University
West Chester University is a 4-year public university.
Click on a topic to read Cynthia'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 received my B.S. in Chemistry from Howard University (2001) and my Ph.D. in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (Geochemistry) from Georgia Tech (2009). I landed a tenure-track position at West Chester University in 2008 after successfully defending my dissertation in the summer prior to my appointment. I received tenure (2014) and promotion (2015) in the Department of Geology and Astronomy at WCU.
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?
Because I went straight through from undergraduate to tenure-track position without a break (or post-doc), I entered into teaching rather young. My main challenge was asserting myself as an authority as a young, black woman at a predominately white institution. Some of my students were older than me so I had to "prove" myself for the first few years and convince everyone, even myself at times, that I deserved to be in my position. I found that I tended to dress more professionally than my colleagues and also "required" that my students address me as Dr. or Professor, whereas other colleagues were more laid back. Eight years later, I think that I've established a healthy position of authority without overdoing it. Plus, I got older...
How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?
I made the transition by jumping off of a bridge and into an abyss. I completely changed topics from my dissertation research to my current research program. I had lost interest in the topic but I also was transitioning from a research I (Georgia Tech) to a 4-year public university (WCU). I loved teaching as a grad student and realized along the way that I wanted to be at a teaching institution. So my Ph.D. research that was marine-based and dependent on research cruises for sampling was not feasible with a 4-digit start-up budget. So I followed my heart and my husband, who is a farmer, and shifted my research from marine nitrogen cycling to heavy metal soil toxicity. The shift was also influenced by our relocation from Georgia to Philadelphia and my husband learning to farm in lead-contaminated soil.
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?
My shift in research was largely influenced by the Department of Geology and Astronomy at West Chester U. being open to various forms of scholarship and welcomed my style of service-driven research. I did lots of outreach activities as a grad student but it took away from my research so I was committed to finding an institution and a department that valued service.
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.
All puns intended: I use yoga to find balance. I managed to have three children during the marathon that is my academic career. I had complications during my second pregnancy from overworking, as I was writing my dissertation, job searching and interviewing, and teaching; with a 1-year old. We're both okay now but I learned the importance of patience. I was an overachiever and couldn't risk taking longer to finish or not succeeding. During my third pregnancy, I took the time off that I needed to ensure a healthy pregnancy and baby and had to delay the tenure clock in order to do so. Yoga fits into all of this because I have used yoga to help me navigate these murky waters of working parenthood, both physically and mentally. My shift in attitude towards myself, my goals, and the "big picture" has been attributed to yoga teaching me to let go.
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 think that it's important for all of us to remember that we're people. If it takes an extra year to get tenure or promotion or the big grant, it's ok. The amount of stress that we place on ourselves is usually unmerited and can have serious consequences. We have to spend time with our loved ones, do what we love, sneak away from the conference to have a 3-hour lunch with an old friend or whatever helps us feel fulfilled.