Career Profile: Christopher Kim

Chapman University

Chapman University is a comprehensive master's university.
Christopher Kim is one of the leaders of the 2014 "Workshop for Early Career Geoscience Faculty." 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 Chris'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 majored in geology with a certificate in environmental studies at Princeton University, where I got my first taste of independent research as an undergraduate student (Princeton requires 2 junior projects and a senior thesis of all of its BA students). After a post-grad year teaching English at a junior college in South Korea and traveling throughout Asia, I began a Ph.D. program in geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University.

After that I held a post-doctoral fellowship jointly with UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I then surprised all of my academic mentors (and parents) by choosing a tenure-track faculty position at Chapman University, a private, up-and-coming, primarily undergraduate institution with a more balanced teaching/research profile. I've been at Chapman since 2004 and since 2011 have also served as the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, a university administration position.

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?

Of course the time commitment is pretty dramatic that first year along with the constant gear-changing between prepping new classes, setting up one's research lab and learning the dynamics and politics of a new environment. The second time I taught a course it only took about 50% of the effort as I was adjusting and changing things I wanted to improve from the first iteration; it wasn't until the third time I was teaching the same course that I really felt I hit my stride (probably 10% of the effort of the first time) and could really focus on refining the content, examples, and exercises. So one strategy would be to try and teach the same course in subsequent terms as much as possible so you can improve quickly and gain the efficiencies of repetition; for some courses I taught that are only offered every other year, this was much tougher.

How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?

I'll address the logistics: I have put a significant amount of thought over the years towards how to structure my lab operations in order to preserve momentum and continuity, a significant challenge when working with undergraduates. Selected technologies can aid these goals and preserve group knowledge in the process, e.g.:

  • A lab group wiki, established using (free) and containing all lab and field protocols; lab member class schedules and contact info; lab weekly schedule; to-do lists, sortable by member and deadline; and centralized online documents and spreadsheets which can be accessed and edited collaboratively by all members.
  • Cloud-based data management, using Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, or Sharepoint.
    • Used as a virtual server for lab content and file management
    • Accessible from any computer via web browser or Microsoft Windows interface
    • Backed up daily, automatically
    • Primary contents:
      • Raw experimental data
      • Group meeting presentations
      • Conference posters/talks
      • Weekly progress reports
      • End-of-semester reports
      • Processed data
      • Scanned lab notebooks
      • Student grant proposals
      • Endnote libraries
      • Personal lab member folders (for work-in-progress)

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 am very fortunate to be at an institution that strongly values teaching as well as scholarly research; in my first few years struggling with new preps and putting significant time into crafting my courses, I felt secure that my administration supported such efforts and didn't just want me to be focusing on grant proposals and publications. Despite an educational background at exclusively research institutions, I sought a better fit with my own personality and interests which spanned many aspects of academia besides just my research. The highest satisfaction rates I've seen among faculty at any institution come from those whose professional priorities and interests match most closely with the university's priorities; that is, those who would always want to be doing research should be at research-focused places, teaching enthusiasts should be at primarily teaching-centered institutions, and those who want to do a little bit of everything should seek institutions that value the "many-hat" wearers.

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.

In my first few years, I actually pulled a "second shift" of prepping for classes after dinner in the late evening when no one was awake, I didn't get many emails or phone calls, and I could focus on the best way to present the course material. This freed up time for me during the day and I'm fortunate in that I'm able to work well in the evenings.

After my first semester where I taught a MWF 9-9:50 AM geology lecture, TuW 1-4 PM geology labs, and a W 6-9:50 PM chemistry lab, I realized that if I didn't advocate for a more concentrated teaching schedule then I ran the risk of getting consistently stuck with such bad assignments (my Wednesdays ran from 9 AM to 10 PM!). For the past few years I have been able to teach exclusively on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which allows me to compartmentalize better and find larger stretches of time to focus on writing, research meetings, etc.

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?

Research: Keep a keen eye out for promising undergraduate students (through your classes, word-of-mouth, even by advertising your research program) and approach them directly about engaging in research with you. They will likely be flattered and willing to work to set up your lab, do some groundwork for a new research direction, and start your first experiments or studies. This preliminary work could then be the basis for a grant proposal. [This was my strategy at a PUI; you may have different approaches if seeking grad students.]

Teaching: After grading an exam, hand it back to students and go over the answers in class, then collect the exams back and let students know they can come to your office hours if they want to look over it again (e.g. before the next exam) or ask more questions. This allows your exams from being passed on to future classes or used in a test bank (many fraternities and sororities put these together and distribute them among their members) and lets you reuse past exams more easily.

Service: Don't be allergic to service opportunities, just be discriminating in choosing things that a) pique your interest; b) allow you the chance to meet and interact with people outside of your department (bonus points if it's someone in upper administration whom you might be able to impress or form a contact with); and/or c) are not an overwhelming time burden (committees that meet once a month, or more frequently but just over the course of a few months are best).

Overall: Although tenure is likely your overriding concern, it's not something you have complete control over and so is not (in my opinion) worth as much stress as most ascribe to it. If you're at an institution that's a good fit, you're committed to working hard, and you have valuable mentorship from other colleagues, then focusing on doing a good job and enjoying what you're doing is a better use of your time than worrying about and second-guessing your decisions and actions purely from a "getting tenure" framework. (I know this is easy for me to say now that I'm tenured, but still.)