Professor, Towson University
Education: Ph.D. in Geography (Clark University), M.S. in Energy Management and Policy (University of Pennsylvania), B.A. in Geography (Temple University)
What attracted you to a career in education?
Just prior to completing my undergraduate degree, I was hired by the Geography Field Division of the US Census Bureau. This was my first full-time opportunity in cartography and data handling; but shortly after I felt that working as a consultant might be a better fit for me. I worked part-time in a city planning position and completed a graduate degree in energy management, and then was employed as an energy consultant. Working as a consultant allowed me to work throughout the US, but as it turned out I was more interested in exploring international employment opportunities, and decided to pursue a Ph.D. for the opportunity to conduct international field research. Five months after completing my international doctoral fieldwork I was employed as a country director for an international NGO. For about five years I was involved in educational reform, civil society development, and youth empowerment programs. But it was through my work with individuals at all levels — from high school students to ministers of education — that I understood the advice I had received from a geography professor years previously. In response to a question regarding why he chose to teach rather than do something “practical,” he replied, “Education promotes change, development and emancipation.” I realized that education has the power to bring change to individuals and society, and I was convinced to return to the classroom as a professor.
How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
Geography taught me that knowledge is best understood outside of the classroom. My interests led me to conduct research in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Italy, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Norway, and throughout Russia. Geography helped me develop a geographical imagination, a way to ask questions spatially and identify (potential) solutions. I honed my geographic imagination through field research in Pacific Russia, followed by a professional position in the Caucasus, from where I moved to Alaska. I not only taught in Alaska, but also helped create new programs and departments in geography, environmental studies, and international studies. Now at Towson, I have been returning to the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Pacific Russia — likely more often than the administration might prefer.
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?
I use a wide variety of tools to communicate geographic information, ranging from the as-expected maps, statistics, and reports to TV, the Internet, and other types of media. And to encourage other geographers who do not use GIS, I’ll mention that the last time I explicitly used GIS in a job was while a grad student working part time with the USGS. As this list conveys, the differences between what is geographic and what is “general” can be quite small. It speaks to the need for geography to be positioned as a foundational component in the general education of everyone — a place geography actually does occupy in many countries. Competency in more than one language, though generally taken for granted by non-US based geographers, is another critical skill that is often overlooked in the US. I think back to a recent discussion on the skills expected of our geography majors in which only a minority of our faculty tried to convince the majority of the importance of language proficiency as a skill. I would have had a very different career were it not for a high school counselor who first advised me to study a second language.
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?
As an ABD, I was one of three candidates invited for an interview, but I wasn’t hired. The employer gently explained that the other finalists demonstrated evidence of supervisory and program management experience. Although I had made it a point to supplement my core geography classes with electives while a student, I was disappointed to realize that this was inadequate for this professional position. It was through other positions that I learned skills such as financial management, personnel supervision, diplomacy and negotiation, program administration, public outreach and marketing. These skills might not seem to align with geography, but I credit my background in geography for giving me the transferrable skills to manage programs, to help connect with international audiences, and to engage in different cultures. My education in geography generally helped me to coordinate programs in a manner that strengthened relationships among diverse stakeholders, and my knowledge of cartography specifically helped me to communicate to a broad constituency using a variety of media.
Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
I was involved in hiring and training while serving as the director of an international NGO. I sought skills in foreign language proficiency, written and oral communication, experience working with international organizations, and the ability to manage one’s time and meet budget guidelines. More subjectively, I looked for collegiality and humor, understated confidence, buy-in for networked management, creativity, and flexibility.
What do you find most interesting/challenging/inspiring about your work?
Geography is a calling both inside and outside of the classroom. My work has allowed me to share ideas, communicate concepts, and encourage and participate in fascinating conversations through many roles. I will admit, with a bit of reflection and some nostalgia, that my daily professional work outside of academia seemed more dynamic: The range of issues with which I dealt and that impacted others’ lives seemed more immediate; and the tangible results of my projects were inspirations to myself and, I hope, to others.
What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in academia?
The path into academia is somewhat straightforward, though not necessarily easy. Practicing geography outside of academia is less so. My first advice (for those thinking outside academia) is to get a copy of the small, but extremely helpful book, Practicing Geography. That book offers a wealth of websites, guidance, ideas and strategies to pursue a career in geography in diverse and surprising ways. I would also request vacancy announcements from services such as USAJobs.gov, Idealist.org, and from specific organizations that operate in regions and specialties of interest.
What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
My answer is trite, but if a geographer is curious and analytical in applying their knowledge to real-world problem solving effectively, then career opportunities are excellent. But with a caveat — as graduates take on debt, a larger family, and material belongings it may become more difficult to accept some of the entry-level international positions that require a lighter suitcase.