Douglas Gress

Professor of Economic Geography, Seoul National University

Education: Ph.D. in Geography (State University of New York at Buffalo), M.B.A. in International Business (Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea), B.A. in International Studies (State University of New York at Buffalo), Diploma in Korean Language and Culture (The Defense Language Institute, CA)

What attracted you to a career in education?
I grew up in a home where there was a lot of emphasis on the benefits of higher education. As a way to get me interested in university, my parents had my older brother take me to an economics class at his university. I remember the professor of the lecture was engaging, organized, and incredibly knowledgeable, and I thought to myself that was something I might like to do one day. Even while serving in the army, I noticed how some of my peers were better teachers than others, and in university I constantly took note of who my best professors were and their qualities. I was an active student, so I appreciated a great class and involved guidance, and I tried to learn from them. Years later, working first on my M.B.A. thesis and then my Ph.D. dissertation, I became hooked on the research process, and took advantage of opportunities to actually teach over the course of my studies.  So in the end, a career in higher education meant being able to do research that interests me and being able to teach, too.  Bingo! Perfect job for me.  I never saw myself doing the same thing every day, day in and day out.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
I’m an American, yet I’ve spent half of my life as an expat and my entire professional career has been overseas. Geography has greatly informed my experience. Some topics within economic geography, such as exchange rates or investment, have provided me with useful information on living overseas long term. In broader terms, geography’s approach to culture and how organizations and institutions across space are impacted has been extremely valuable.

Had I not received my Ph.D. in economic geography from SUNY Buffalo, I obviously would not have the job I do today. Formally, it was a top-notch program that provided me with a great education from some of the leading names in the field. Informally, I owe much to the professors that mentored me for their great advice and early career guidance.

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often in your work?
The geographic skills I use at work differ depending on whether I’m engaging with undergraduate or graduate students. In undergraduate classes, you teach about your discipline and its roots, and how to tie theory and geographic perspectives to students’ lives and the world around them today. Graduate classes allow you to delve into more advanced theory and application.

General skills that I consider important would be classroom preparation and administration. Otherwise, I’ve learned how to do things more ‘the Korean way’ over the years. Social skills are eminently important here, but it’s a high context culture, so there are a lot of unwritten norms and rules, and a lot of communication takes place ‘between the lines’.  This informs both teaching and how I perform my role in the department.

Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them?
I was fortunate to have had a background in Korean language and culture prior to starting my academic career here, but not everyone is as fortunate.  If you find yourself interested in working in a particular country, I’d urge you to begin studying the language and culture as well in advance as possible. I’m not saying you can’t succeed working abroad without this background, but it certainly makes life easier and more enjoyable.

I wish I had taken graduate courses in teaching. Over the years I’ve developed what I hope is an effective teaching style, but why re-invent the wheel? Education courses provide an opportunity to teach and, more importantly, to be critiqued.  I learned via observation and while working my way up the academic food chain.  Students pick up on whether or not you have a passion for what you teach, and I hope that has helped me over the years as well.  I love what I do.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
Yes.  I look for both hard and soft qualities in a candidate. Hard qualities include having the requisite Ph.D. and publications, and that goes for even early career hires. I also look at research agendas to see if they’re a good fit with the department. Will they be able to engage and advise our student body? Beyond that, I look for verifiable teaching experience in the target discipline and some demonstration of service. In terms of soft skills, I look for people who are personable and motivated. It sounds cliché, but we look for team players, and that is especially critical in Korea where there is a decidedly collectivist culture.

What do you find most interesting/challenging/inspiring about your work?
The great thing about economic geography is its breadth. My interests and passions have guided my research and teaching. I work at a huge university with students and scholars from all over the world, and they’re all doing interesting things.  I’m always going to special lectures or engaging with visiting students and faculty.

The biggest challenge is probably being able to maintain a work-life balance while staying on top of your diversified workload. You want to be productive, but you don’t want to get burned out.  In my case, one challenge might be that I do a lot of my work and day-to-day interactions in Korean, though I might not consider it a challenge per se.   Challenging? Sure, but it keeps the days interesting and it forces me to keep working on my Korean.

By and large, inspiration for me comes from teaching. It’s amazing when undergrads get interested in economic geography and start making connections to what we do in class and the world around them, when you see those wheels turning.  Having been at SNU for quite some time now, watching the development of grad students has also been inspirational. The increasing depth of their critical thinking ability on one hand, and then the development of their writing over time on the other.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in academia?
The market has changed a bit since I first started.  I would say that if you want to become a professor at an R1 university, start managing your career when you begin graduate school. Don’t just take the requisite classes, get cross-training as well.  Pick up a GIS certificate, for example, or bone up on a different sub-discipline (e.g. spatial statistics, urban geography, etc.) by taking a few extra courses. You might wonder why, but look at the ads coming out these days. Budgets are tight, so a lot of departments are looking for scholars who can wear multiple hats.

Also, be realistic and be ready to move. If you’re serious about becoming a professor at an R1 school, mission number one is to get that first tenure track job. A post-doc is all well and good, but it won’t start your tenure clock, and statistics tell us that the majority of the tenure track jobs go to those either on ABD status, or who graduated one to two years prior. If an opportunity presents itself, it may not be directly related to your research or teaching interests, it may not be at an R1 school, it may not even be in a geography department, and it might not be located where you ultimately want to settle down. Most professors I know didn’t begin and end their careers at the same university, and most have worked in more than one state or country. Working your way up often means moving around a bit.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
It seems that the academic job market has bounced back a bit from the trough it hit after the economic meltdown. Still, a lot of the jobs are adjunct or visiting positions, and for any given hiring season, there are more applicants than there are positions. Many jobs are also requiring increased teaching loads, but not cutting back on the publishing expectations. Your first job might not be a dream job. I think the odds are better for anyone with multiple skill sets (e.g. economic geography plus GIS or urban geography).  There’s a glut of highly qualified, well published early career scholars from around the world, so you need to set yourself apart somehow.