Post Pomona: Academia

This week in our series on life and careers after Pomona, we have the stories of alumni who pursued a career in teaching at the university level. The accounts and advice of these four graduates should prove helpful for any current students interested in becoming a professor.

“I had a pretty checkered career path, shaped more by necessity than planning,” said Janice Frates PO ’65. “I originally hoped to pursue a career in romance languages and literature, but then needed to find a job as quickly after graduation as possible to support my first husband’s career ambition to become a pilot… I became a social worker after graduating because it sounded interesting, and there were equal career paths and work assignments for men and women (this was pre-Equal Opportunity Act).” After moving up in this field, Frates realized that her favorite parts of the job were the teaching and training aspects. Deciding that teaching, research, and consulting would be a better way to explore these interests, and that health care was more interesting than social services, Frates decided to get her doctorate.

“However, after receiving my doctorate I found more interesting work opportunities in industry than in academia, so I worked for several years in planning, business development, and consulting positions and taught part time, then became a full time academic in 1997,” she said. She is now a professor in the Health Care Administration Program of California State University, Long Beach.

Of her current job, Frates said, “Health care administration is a very dynamic field, so although I teach the same courses there is a lot of new content and many changes in the environment to inform class discussions. This is an especially exciting time with national health reform a top priority on the Obama administration’s agenda.”

“In general, I think it is better to leave the ivory tower for at least a couple of years after your undergraduate years and gain some work experience before pursuing a graduate degree,” said Frates. “Take some time to discover what really excites you and what else you want to learn.”

At Pomona, Colleen O’Neill PO ’83 discovered that “ideas mattered, and that I could find a way to connect the life of the mind to the real world.” She graduated with a degree in Government, but didn’t pursue an advanced degree in that field. “After a couple of ‘movement jobs,’ I decided to go to graduate school in history and I started along that road,” eventually getting a Ph.D in History from Rutgers.

Now, O’Neill is an Associate Professor of History at Utah State University, as well as the co-editor of the “Western Historical Quarterly.” “Part of my day is usually spent reading and evaluating manuscripts, and selecting potential reviewers for those manuscripts and books,” she said. “I spend the rest of the day preparing for classes, talking with students, and exchanging e-mail with colleagues.” When she has time, she also works on her own research.

Of the teaching profession, O’Neill said, “For the most part, the day-to-day life of a faculty member is pretty ideal. I prize the autonomy as well as the opportunity to make a living doing something that is socially valuable. Most academics do not make a great deal of money. Yet, the work is interesting and at least after tenure, the job security is quite satisfying.”

As for advice: “Make sure it’s what you want for yourself. Earning a Ph.D in history is usually a rather long, arduous process. Knowing what you want will help you keep your eyes on the prize, despite the stress and struggle.”

Of his time at Pomona College, Jeff Elhai PO ’73 said, “I have difficulty remembering anything about any class I took at Pomona. However, I remember quite well spending much of my time with the Computer Basketball Association, a game…no, a world, a way of life, invented by Steve List PO ’71. Through that experience, I learned how to wade through and figure out a complex set of data, how to build constructs that make sense out of something that first seems without sense. That isn’t a bad description of basic scientific research.”

Elhai was also inspired by his exploration of music at Pomona: “If you analyze a piece of music by imposing your thoughts, then you leave with what you came in with. The trick is to quiet yourself and listen to whatever it has to say (no less true with analyzing DNA sequences, which is part of what I do for a living).”

As for life after Pomona, Elhai said, “In my second (last) year of graduate school in music, I knew I wasn’t going further in that direction, so I took a couple of classes that filled some gaps caused by my abandoning biochemistry for music. Then I got into a Ph.D program in molecular biology.”

After finishing graduate school in molecular biology, Elhai “wanted to do something unrelated to medical research and something that would be useful with regards to either energy or agriculture.” He became interested in understanding a “remarkable organism” he read about that could both produce hydrogen gas and fix atmospheric nitrogen. “But I knew very little about the subject, so after my Ph.D I volunteered in a lab, the best possible lab to learn what I wanted to learn, while working part time as a secretary. Good decision! From there I got a post-doc position in a lab at the forefront of what I wanted to do.”

At the Dept. of Biology and Center for the Study of Biological Complexity of Virginia Commonwealth University, some parts of Elhai’s work are preparing for class, meeting with students, working with undergrads so that they can participate in research, and writing grant proposals.

“If you’re going into research, ignore grades!” insisted Elhai. “Much better to throw yourself heart and soul into…almost anything.” He added, “A good GPA is vastly overrated as an entry ticket into a research grad program. In fact, if it’s too high, I (reading applications) sometimes wonder what the person was doing with his or her life. Scientific maturity is a much more important predictor of success, hence a more important factor. Scientific experience comes best from scientific experience.”

At Pomona, Ruth Ault PO ’68 had several experiences that let her “get a taste of teaching.” First, she was a laboratory assistant for an introductory psychology class.

“I remember one demonstration,” she said, “where we faked my having the ESP ability to ‘read’ the professor’s mind as he looked at the figures on playing cards—he used finger signals in the way he held the card that told me what to guess. Even after revealing that it was a magic trick, a few students in class came up to me afterwards and said they were impressed that I had the talent and didn’t seem to understand our debriefing about the deception.”

Ault was also a tutor, and she was able to serve as a sort of assistant to her abnormal psychology teacher. She was a senior and already knowledgeable about the material, only taking the course because it was a requirement, so she discussed the material with her professor and helped create and grade tests.

“I began graduate school (at UCLA) immediately after Pomona,” Ault said, “and harbored the idea, for about a year, that I would be a clinical psychologist doing a bit of research and teaching and clinical practice. I dropped the idea of clinical practice fairly quickly, which left me on track to be a traditional college professor.”

E-mail correspondence, preparing for class, meeting with students, and administrative meetings take up most of Ault’s days.

“One of the joys of being a professor is that no two days have to be exactly the same. There’s an amazing degree of freedom to set my own schedule and combine immediate duties with longer-term projects.”

Ault suggests that interested students “get to know professors by working with them, on their own or the student’s projects. If quasi-teaching opportunities arise—such as tutoring, being a lab assistant, or being a teaching assistant—take advantage of that time to get an insider’s look at the teaching profession.”

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