Career Profile: Erika McPhee-Shaw

Physical Sciences Department, Western Washington University

Western Washington University is a Public State 4-year University.

Erika is one of the leaders of the 2021 "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 Erika'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.

BA in Physics and one course shy of a minor in Russian at Dartmouth. Ph.D. in Oceanography at University of Washington. Worked during and after college at the US Forest Service and for a year at the USGS before starting graduate school and research at the UW. Postdoc research position at UC Santa Barbara and then faculty position at San Jose State University Moss Landing Marine Labs, tenure through full professor 2004 – 2014. Leopold Leadership Fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and leadership roles on regional, national and local boards with budget oversight. Moved to Western Washington University, as administrator for three years, and now a professor again in a primarily teaching position but also doing significant research.

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?

Learning how to teach while maintaining an ambitious research agenda was my biggest challenge in the beginning. I was working in a department that required teaching and research with masters students, yet I was also trying to keep up scientifically with my research peers. When I started I did not have a clear understanding of the big picture – that I was an outlier in my scientific field. Instead of having university teaching appointments, a significant portion of physical oceanographers work in research institutions with their salary primarily paid by federal grants or defense-related contracts. Many of them work with PhD students and postdocs, but few do much research with MS students or few teach full-time. I did not understand the mismatch and put too much pressure on myself. This was a mistake and it took a long time to figure out that I was supposed to do one job, not two, and to realize that my niche, relative to my research-faculty peers, should be to run fewer grants and write fewer papers yet still do fun and rewarding science.

Overcoming the initial research challenge worked out by collaborating with wonderful, more established scientists who brought me in on writing proposals and or long-running projects, and after a few years that gave me the freedom to go after the riskier but more scientifically rewarding NSF proposals. I was extremely lucky to work in the collaborative environment of central CA with many oceanographic institutions and scientists excited to work together. I also learned how to teach by working with others; our department encouraged to co-teaching and sitting in on each other's classes. I benefited from lesson plans I was given from faculty who taught classes similar to mine and I have paid this forward by sharing my lessons with many others. Active mentorship is the main way we all succeed.

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

There's no easy answer – I'm an intensely curious person and find myself studying topics that fascinate me but that funding agencies may not think I'm uniquely qualified to study. This is one of the great things about being a "teaching professor" compared to being a full-time research scientist. A lot involved serendipity because when I met interesting people and saw a chance to work on something new, I could sometimes take advantage of that opportunity. I often go back and forth between my specialty of studying fundamental dynamics of waves and coastal transport to researching how these things affect biology and ecosystems. It works out when you find collaborators you enjoy working with and the timing is right. However, I am currently funded to work on research that is close to theoretical topics I delved into during my Ph.D. – Seems some stuff is coming back into vogue, as sometimes happens in fluid dynamics, and it's great timing to ride that wave; pun intended.

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?

 It was a good fit where I started my career. I was hired in after a professor retired. They wanted one person in my scientific field to teach courses in oceanographic circulation and programming and data analysis, and it was easy for me to do exactly that. I had a lot of freedom to choose research topics.

Ten years later I moved institutions for two reasons. 1) I wanted to be back in the Pacific Northwest; both sides of my family have been here for > 130 years and it is home. 2) I felt the undergraduate mission of academia could be a better fit than working in a masters-focused department and program. However now my research does not fit well with students in my current program and although I enjoy the courses I have newly designed for my department, the topics are far away from my research expertise. Because I am a full professor I can feel pretty relaxed about this. I've adjusted my 5-year research goals to advise fewer graduate students and interns at a time, primarily incorporate national and international collaborators, and do work I hope will be satisfying and fun.

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.

Honestly, I suppose our family has just muddled through from one year to the next. I don't think we've got anything truly figured out. An intense early-career memory was from when I attended a women-in-science workshop as a young professor, and a postdoc asked me something along the lines of "oh – you seem to have it all worked out! Children, a faculty job, and you're a scientist. Tell me what I should do. Should I wait until I get a faculty position to have children or not?"  I was completely unprepared for the question. Taken off guard, I decided I was in no position to give advice but could only speak about my own decisions. I told her that my husband I decided we wanted children well before knowing that a faculty position would be in the cards, and that a family was a priority but that I had also known I would want some kind of career, even if I didn't know exactly what it would look like.

I started teaching in a tenure-track position when our first child was four months old. I was honest with colleagues about the craziness of working with little kids, and, since there weren't many other women around, treated the other men with young families as fellow comrades in the endeavor. We were dealing with similar daycare issues, etc. Parenting teenagers is still difficult and watching folks deal with kids as they go into young adulthood, as well as caring for elderly parents, etc, I've learned these challenges will remain. We will all need to learn strategies from each other no matter our career stage.

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?

First, I wish I had listened to folks who told me I was doing great and to mellow out. If I had only believed them pre-tenure, I might have gotten more sleep and been healthier. I was insecure and thought I wasn't doing enough to succeed. It was only after getting tenure, when I ended up chairing (of course - hint -  you don't have to do this kind of stuff just because you are asked!) the tenure and promotion committee and seeing the files of many others, that realized I had been working too hard against imagined competition out misplaced fear of failure. Second, I wish I had known that I could say no to more requests – to be on so many committees, to take on so many graduate students, to get overly excited about trying to overhaul the curriculum, you name it.