Career Profile: Gretchen Miller

Physical Sciences Department, Wake Tech Community College

Wake Tech Community College is a two-year college.

Gretchen is one of the leaders of the 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024 "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 Gretchen'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 like to tell my students that I have taken a few zigs and zags in my career path. I was one of the odd students who knew that I wanted a career in geology as soon as I started college. In 1995 I earned my Bachelor's degree in Geological Sciences from the State University of New York at Buffalo. While completing my degree, I had the opportunity to work on several different research projects in the Geology Department, which gave me additional skills beyond what I was learning in the classroom. At that time my goal was to study planetary geology, and in 1997 I earned my Master's degree in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Graduate school was a very eye-opening experience, and I discovered a new interest in studying our own planet. I then decided to enter the workforce, and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where I started a job as a hydrogeologist for a private environmental consulting firm. I loved the challenges and the field work. I earned my North Carolina Geology License and was planning a long career as a hydrogeologist, when I saw an advertisement in the local newspaper for a Geology Instructor position at Wake Tech. That was the first moment in my life that I had any idea geology was taught at community colleges anywhere. I was hired to teach the night introductory geology class as an adjunct for the Fall 2003 semester, which meant I could keep working my regular job during the day. But within a couple weeks I was hooked on teaching, and was hired to teach full-time starting in Spring 2004. I have never looked back!

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?

The biggest challenge for me when I first started teaching is that I had never planned to teach, and felt like I was there simply by accident and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I enjoyed teaching, especially since I had experience working in the field and could relate to my students who were also juggling multiple responsibilities, but I knew there had to be more to it than what I was doing. I had good support from my colleagues in the department, but decided I needed to go outside the college for additional help. So I participated in the June 2005 On the Cutting Edge Early Career Geoscience Faculty Workshop, and it was a career-altering experience. I learned about exciting new things like "rubrics" and "think-pair-share," and started to look at teaching in a whole new light. I have since participated in numerous additional workshops, and I am always exploring new ways to support student success in my classroom.

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

This question is not applicable to my situation specifically, but it is an opportunity for me to share what is possible for faculty at two-year colleges. Our emphasis is on teaching, rather than research, but that doesn't mean you cannot do research or participate in grant funded projects. I have been able to participate in several collaborative projects with other institutions in recent years, all geared toward supporting student success in the classroom and along their education and career pathways in geoscience. I have even served as the Principal Investigator on a National Science Foundation funded project. It does take extra time to work on these projects with a full teaching load, but I have found the experiences to be quite valuable for my students as well as me.

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?

Wake Tech does not offer tenure, but we do have a system for promotion through faculty rank. Being a two-year college, our emphasis is on teaching rather than research. The goals for achieving rank include factors such as exemplary teaching, professional development and growth, leadership, mentoring, and service to the college. My own professional goals align quite well with these goals, and I have been able to achieve all four levels of rank up to Senior Professor by simply documenting the work I was already doing to support students and the college.

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.

This is a tough question, without an easy answer. Early in my teaching career I found myself saying "yes" to a lot of requests for my participation in extra projects, and I started to get overwhelmed. So I began evaluating requests more carefully. One thing I consider is whether the project is something that anyone in our department could do (to which I may lean toward saying "no"), or whether my skill set would bring something unique to it (more likely to get a "yes"). I also consider how my participation will help, or possibly hinder, supporting my own students. And when I am already working on one or more big projects, I try not to take on anything new for a while.

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 the best advice is to get advice from a lot of people, and not just ones at your institution. I have found that some of my best teaching ideas have come out of conversations with others. No one knows the most perfect way to teach, there are too many variables, but there are a lot of good ways to teach and the more you expose yourself to different ideas the more likely you will find what works best for you and your students. And don't be afraid to throw something out and try again, not everything is going to work the way you planned!