Friday, May 2, 2008

So you want to work with undergrads: II and a half. Industry experience?

First, Daniel Promislow from the University of Georgia sent me a link to a book he co-authored on getting an academic biology job. I haven't read it, but a book will probably have more carefully-thought-out advice than a blog post.

Second, Chuck brought up an interesting point in the comments to my previous post:

I think it is both amusing and sad that having any kind of work experience in the fields which your students can expect to be employed is completely absent from this list.

It's a good point. In the searches I participated in, some (but not all) of the applicants for the jobs had experience either in industry or in government, but I don't think the search committees explicitly looked for practical experience as a criteria for choosing members of a short list. This may have been unusual - the result of a combination of the positions in question, the institution (private SLAC in most of the searches), and the times (ten years or more after oil & gas stopped booming... last time). But it might also have been a pure academic's ivory tower bias.

I think we did consider professional experience as a plus when it provided evidence of the ability to teach certain subjects. But the experience alone wasn't enough - the applicant needed to put it in some kind of context and demonstrate that he or she had some idea of how to take that experience and translate it into effective teaching. ("My three years working for Big Oil Company on exploration of fractured shales allowed me to see the practical side of my training in rock mechanics. I have developed a lab exercise for Structural Geology that teaches the basics of rock fracture while showing the importance of fluid flow - both gas and water - through cracks in rock." - Not a real quote, btw - I haven't read any applications for structural geology positions.) Industry or government experience could be used to support statements in the cover letter, the statement of teaching interests, or the statement of research interests.

Different arguments are going to be effective for different positions. (If you're being asked to teach a course in Ore Deposits, it shouldn't be difficult to explain why industry experience is important. If you're being hired to teaching Mineralogy, Petrology, and additional advanced and introductory courses that fit your interests and the department's needs, you could still make the case, but it won't be as obvious. You would need to be explicit - talk about how your experience used the skills students need to learn to work on all sorts of different rocks, and how you can teach the fundamentals using ore deposits as an example.)

And different institutions have different attitudes toward vocational training. Private liberal arts colleges, in particular, see themselves as educating citizens, not training geologists. Most of my students at my previous institution aren't geologists now - there are doctors, lawyers, nurses, investment bankers, teachers, and at least one owner of a catering company/bed & breakfast. Students majored in geology because they liked it, not because the major would guarantee them a good job. And that attitude allowed the department (and similar departments) to survive in the 90's, when geology jobs were scarce and geology departments were being shut down for lack of students. And courses for non-majors are a significant portion of the teaching load at those schools - and from the administration's point of view, the non-majors courses may be the only really important ones. A career-oriented argument ("I know what students need when they graduate") probably wouldn't be very effective in that context. An argument about connecting textbook knowledge with important issues in the real world, on the other hand, might work.

Small public colleges, on the other hand, tend to be more practical. A connection to jobs (and the skills necessary to get and keep jobs) would probably be a better sell. (Public liberal arts colleges are a bit of a hybrid. My department thinks practical experience is important, despite having hired me. We've got several people in the department with varied experiences outside the Ivory Tower. But there are plenty of other faculty across campus who will argue that extreme focus on a career is not the purpose of the institution. Any prospective faculty member would need to remember that general education is a big part of our mission, too.)

In all cases, applicants for jobs at undergraduate institutions should remember that they'll be teaching a lot of non-geologists. I've seen a lot of applications that don't seem aware of just how important non-majors are.


Chuck said...

I thought the whole point of non-major courses was to steal engineering and environmental studies majors from those respective departments.

Kim said...

Hee. Well, the point of non-majors courses depends on who you talk to. (And at my previous institution, science and environmental studies majors aren't considered REAL non-majors.)

- If one is being idealistic, the point of non-majors courses is to teach non-science majors how scientists think. And to get Studio Art majors to build art out of rocks, and Classics majors to consider the effect of earthquakes on the war between Athens and Sparta, and political science majors to realize that anthropogenic global warming is not a liberal conspiracy to destroy capitalism.

- If one is being cynical, the point of non-majors courses is to let science-phobic students fulfill their general education requirements without hurting their GPAs. (Note: this refers to a particular course which I taught at my previous institution.) They can also allow pre-meds to take a full course load while passing organic chemistry.

The courses that steal potential majors are the intro courses with labs, anyway. At my previous institution, those courses were considered courses for majors. (Even if fewer than 10% of the students became geology majors.)

Service courses for engineers are things that happen at universities, not at liberal arts colleges. (Lots of private liberal arts colleges don't have engineering majors. Too practical.)

Kareina said...

As someone who is nearing the writing-up stage of her PhD and is starting to wonder what to do "next", I am ever so grateful that you started posting these, just after I discovered that blogs exist.

The more I read, the more convinced I am that this is an appealing direction. But then I did a 10 year (full time) bachelor's degree taking anything and everything that sounded like fun, before completing a BS in geology, so I really understand how undergraduate learning works!

Silver Fox said...

At my undergrad school, the 1st quarter intro class+lab, which was for majors and non-majors, was designed to steal/recruit potential geo majors. The intro class had 300+ students, and if the right prof taught it (a particularly interesting one who made geology seem exciting) the department would gain 1 or 2 students per year (like me! although I already knew I liked geology, hadn't decided to major in it).