Initial Publication Date: January 21, 2016

Career Profile: Ben Laabs

Department of Geosciences, North Dakota State University

North Dakota State University is a 4-year public university.

Ben Laabs is one of the leaders of the 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 "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 Ben'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 have B.S. and Ph.D. Geology degrees from the University of Wisconsin and an M.S. Geology degree from Northern Arizona University. I started college-level teaching immediately after earning my Ph.D. in December 2004, working predominantly with undergraduates. In 2016, I moved from a public liberal arts college (SUNY Geneseo) to a research institution (North Dakota State University), where I am back on the tenure track, teaching new classes, and developing a research program with undergraduate and graduate students.

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?

Supervising student research while carrying a steady teaching load is an ongoing challenge for me, but in the early years of my career I found it especially challenging. I wanted to include undergraduates in research involving geochronology and numerical modeling, but found that training students in the methods I used and getting them to read and comprehend the literature was too time consuming to accomplish very much. I overcame this largely by communicating with my colleagues to identify a realistic set of expectations for student theses/research projects and by laying out a set of learning objectives for a research project. Emphasizing the depth of a research project instead of breadth has proven to be a useful solution. I have also taken advantage of collaborative research opportunities with colleagues at similar-size colleges to enhance research experiences for students and to bring in methods of co-supervising research projects. This has helped to maximize the value of research experiences for students while meeting broader objectives and producing results in a timely manner. In my current position, I have taken a similar approach in working with undergraduates and have followed the advice of my ECW colleagues to set expectations for graduate students. Frequent communication, careful planning, and setting clear expectations are key to sustaining a successful research program with students.

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

The transition from my Ph.D. was swift; one month after I defended, I was teaching my first class on the tenure-track and designing research projects for undergraduates. I relied heavily on the advice of others who graduated before me and had already started a teaching job at a similar liberal arts college. I was fortunate to join a department that had just moved into a new building with abundant lab space and offered a generous start-up package to help me get going. This minimized logistical problems and helped me set up a geochemistry lab similar to the one I had worked in during my Ph.D., giving me the opportunity to develop research that addressed questions related to my Ph.D. work. Building on my expertise from my Ph.D. worked well in my case. It allowed me to get started quickly without having to develop research projects in an unfamiliar area or subject, and it helped me secure external funds for research. Since then, my research has taken me into new subject areas (e.g., volcanology, paleoseismology) through new collaborations. Some of these have emerged naturally, others required some effort to initiate. Generally, I have found that bringing the tools and expertise of my research to new settings and problems in geology has been a great way to advance my research into new areas and to become an recognized expert in my field of study.

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?

A key step in this process is finding out what the goals are and how they are addressed at the department level and institution level. This seems like a simple process, but the abstract nature of institution-level goals can render them of little value to new faculty members, in addition to the fact discussions of institutional and department goals do not always include new faculty. The department-level goals, whether aligned with institution-level goals or not, are perhaps most important to identify early on because the department is the first level to recommend tenure. I took advantage of available mentoring by colleagues within and beyond my department to gain a clearer understanding of department and institution-level goals, and then designed my approach to research and teaching accordingly. Having a mentor is greatly advantageous for a number of reasons, not least of which is the awareness or access to faculty who are in a similar position as you or have just moved beyond the position that you are in. Their advice, methods, and perspective can be hugely valuable in the important exercise of aligning your goals with that of a new department and institution. 

To fully understand the institutional and departmental goals, communicate with your department head/chair AND with an established faculty member in another department (if possible, one who is familiar with your department). This provides useful internal and external perspective on your department, as well as multiple perspectives on the institution.

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 think the challenge of balancing a career with a personal life never really goes away, even after completing the tenure track. The best advice on this I have ever read is here:

As far as balancing teaching and research, some of the best advice I've received in this regard came from the Early Career Workshop I attended in 2005. For example, embrace the mentality of "publish and flourish", instead of "publish or perish." Doing so can help to establish a positive, forward-looking attitude toward substantiating your work for the purpose of advancing knowledge in your field and maturing as a scientist. Another is the simple concept of designated writing time. Build time into your schedule for writing papers, and schedule other tasks around this time. Writing when you are at your best, instead of writing after you've finished everything else, is much more efficient and enjoyable. 

As for service to a college or university, be discerning and unafraid to say no. Be realistic about the time commitment involved and ask the people who are asking for your time to be realistic, too. If service makes up 15% of your workload, then do not let it take up more than 15% of your time (on average).

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?

The best advice I received while early in my career was to build a network of colleagues. Communicating with others in your field and/or at the same point in their career is an incredibly helpful thing. Go to conferences and workshops where you can (re)connect with people in your network, and speak to them periodically over the phone (voices are more personal than text and listening to a friendly voice can be more refreshing than reading). Regular renewal of your very purposeful career can provide a much-needed second wind, a refreshed perspective on work, or just enough to keep you going when times get especially challenging. 

The tenure track is an intense, steep learning curve. Seeking advice and general counsel from others in the same position as you, or just ahead of you, is absolutely worthwhile and in many ways more valuable than the advice of people who have been working for a longer period of time.