Career Profile: Helen King

Helen King

UK Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Geography Earth Environmental Sciences (GEES)

GEES is a UK-wide faculty development organisation.
Helen 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 Helen's answer to an individual question, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Educational background and career path * Research transition * Institutional fit * Balancing responsibilities * Advice for new faculty

Briefly describe your educational background and career path.

I have a joint honours double major degree in Geology Physics from the University of Manchestr and a PhD in Palaeomagnetism / Geochemistry from the University of Liverpool. On graduating from Liverpool I knew I wanted to stay in Geoscience but lacked confidence in undertaking research. I fell into a project management position for a four year 1996 - 2000 UK-wide Earth Science faculty development programme and loved it I then became manager and later assistant director of the newly formed GEES Subject Centre. During this time as well as running a variety of faculty development initiatives I also became actively involved in geoscience education research. Since 2007 I have been living in the US and working as an independent consultant. My work includes acting as Earth Science Senior Advisor to the GEES Subject Centre and undertaking a variety of small research projects.

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

Although both in Geoscience my education research has a different focus from my PhD. I have attended various workshops been involved in collaborative projects and participated in many relevant conferences - all of these activities helped me to gain more knowledge about geoscience education research. The breakthrough for me came when I realised that education research is not that different from 'ordinary' geoscience research - it's about observation and interpretation telling the story of the features you see. I have also developed a great network of colleagues internationally who are interested in the same research areas I am - they're really helpful for brainstorming ideas as well as collaborating on projects.

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 work with the GEES Subject Centre very much shaped both my interests and then my research goals. The research projects I undertook were usually linked to priority themes identified by the Centre and became active parts of the Centre's operational and strategic plans.

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.

I really love the work I do so it can be difficult to switch off or to say 'no' to requests to take on more. It took me some time to settle in and discover for myself how best to balance my life. I found it useful to identify what tasks I had to do in order to keep my job what were useful professional development development for me and beneficial to my organisation and what was pure personal interest. For me keeping lists works really well - and identifying what is really achievable within waking hours. When work is really busy I make sure I include personal activities on the list so I guarantee time for myself. If possible think quality not quantity - it's not the number of hours you work but the quality of the work. Now that I work for myself from home I have to be very disciplined - I set aside a certain number of hours a day that are for work and I stick to it I try not to get distracted by other personal tasks. Similarly when I'm spending time with myself friends and family I try not to get distracted by work - not always easy since many of my friends work in the same field. Remember you're probably far more likely to undertake good quality work if you are well rested and have set aside time for your personal life.

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?

In my personal experience and from talking to many new faculty there's so many things to know about when you begin your career, not least of which are the policies, procedures, and politics of your department / institution / subject area. Often we feel that we're supposed to learn things by osmosis; we never get told what to do or how to do things. If possible find a mentor or experienced friend whom you can ask 'stupid' questions - often the secretarial staff in departments are fonts of wisdom. Not everyone will be friendly or sympathetic to your 'newness' - some older colleagues may be of the opinion that they had to battle their way through the system so why shouldn't you - but don't be put off; many people are willing to help. The other participants you meet at this workshop will also be great peer support - it's always reassuring to know other people in similar situations to yourself.