Matt Connolly

Assistant Professor of Geography, University of Central Arkansas

Education: Ph.D. in Geography & Geographic Information Science (Texas State University), M.A.Geo in Geographic Information Science (Texas State University), B.S. in Business Administration & Management Information Systems (University of Colorado Denver)

What attracted you to a career in education?
When I was a master’s student, I spent a summer working at Texas State’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment as an interpreter, leading tours and environmental education activities on Spring Lake.  This experience allowed me to teach people about the connection between human activities and physical environments, and to appreciate the power of being an educator.

My first position in formal education was teaching undergraduate GIS labs, and through this experience I realized how much I loved explaining concepts to others. There was nothing quite like that moment of understanding when you witnessed the mental lightbulb flicker to life, and this is the main reason why I decided to become a professor.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
I attribute my ability to understand the “big picture” of human-environment interactions through integrating knowledge from multiple disciplines to my geography education.  I stress the importance of the geographer’s breadth of knowledge that allows us to provide unique insights. For instance, my work on municipal water consumption patterns taught me that human, historical, and physical perspectives are necessary in making effective resource management decisions.

My geography education also developed my sense of curiosity about the complex world around us. The ability to think spatially has made me want to explore the patterns that exist around the globe, and aim to get my students to adopt this way of thinking to stimulate their own curiosities and solve problems creatively.

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 most important skill I use is spatial thinking to integrate data and more fully understand a given phenomenon. Spatial analysis begins with the framing of research questions pertaining to the spatial configuration of a phenomenon, and then analyzing it with qualitative visual analysis, as well as computational techniques for quantitative analysis. Reading the physical landscape is another important skill, especially in applications involving remote sensing data and fieldwork. Being able to analyze problems from multiple scales is critical in integrating data to solve a given problem, and examining the human, physical, and biological data of a particular issue—for example, water quality— provides a more complete understanding of changes over space and time.

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?
My academic training has done much to strengthen my teaching, research, and publication experience. Upon completing my graduate degree, I have focused mainly on developing my writing and physical geography fieldwork skills. So far, I’ve improved my writing skills through reviewing journal manuscripts, and volunteering to help train graduate students at colleagues’ research labs has improved my physical fieldwork skills, and has created new research opportunities I would not have had otherwise.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
As a junior faculty member, I sometimes assist in hiring new staff for the department. When hiring a faculty member, we are most concerned with how well the applicant fits into the existing department and the university as a whole. We look for teaching experience, an engaging attitude with students, and research and publication records, among other things. The importance of each factor depends on the institution type and existing faculty composition; personally, I look for student engagement ability, collaborative skills, knowledge of the university and general disposition. All in all, I look for a candidate that will be easy to work with both now and in the future.

What do you find most interesting/challenging/inspiring about your work? 

The most interesting part of my work is the diversity of responsibilities and working environments; it’s difficult to experience the same day twice!  My typical day on the job is rarely boring, and I’ve greatly improved my time management and correspondence skills, but I still consider it a work in progress. Perhaps the most inspiring part of my job is seeing my capstone students’ professional growth over the semester as they design and execute independent research projects for real-world clients. This course is most of my students’ first directed research experience, and it’s fulfilling to see initial frustration transform into meaningful achievement.

What advice would you give someone interested in a job like yours?
Interest in a job like mine requires strategies in both graduate school and in the job search. During graduate school, ask yourself why you want to be a professor and what interests you most about the job, and discuss these questions with current faculty that you trust. The importance of sharing your thoughts is not for validation, but to gain better insight into your own motivations.

Secondly, learn about the realities of being a professor. Converse with multiple faculty members, and if your department allows it, attend faculty meetings to gain insight into the inner workings of a career in academia, as well as the working dynamics of your faculty.

Thirdly, be honest with yourself about your career goals, and the type of institution you’d feel most comfortable in. Predominantly undergraduate and research institutions each have their own cultures, and the sooner you find your “fit”, the sooner you can adapt your graduate school experience to meet your goals.

Finally, make sure to gain experience with the publication process during graduate school. Demonstrating your ability to publish your work is critical; in addition to its attractiveness to employers, familiarity with the publishing process is an important survival skill, and your institution will want to see that you can publish your research while managing other responsibilities.

As far as job search advice goes, first and foremost: know when and where to look for jobs! Professional association job boards (e.g. the AAG Jobs in Geography Center), higher education websites (e.g. HigherEd Jobs, The Chronicle of Higher Education, etc.), and professional networking sites such as LinkedIn and ResearchGate are all great places to start. Don’t forget that your advisors and faculty can be excellent networking resources as well.

Also keep in mind the academic job season. The primary job season usually begins in August and lasts until October/November, during which postings are heaviest. Positions posted in January or later tend to be temporary or visiting appointments. Pay attention to the details of a particular job ad as closely as possible, and tailor your cover letter with information on the particular institution you are applying to. Finally, don’t shy away from visiting, fixed-term, or post-doc positions. They can make for great short-term alternatives that keep you in the industry, and provide valuable experience for tenure-track jobs.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field/organization, esp. for geographers?
The wide applicability of geographers’ core skills in social and natural sciences makes for a strong occupational outlook in higher education. Though many academic geographers work in Geography departments, there are a number of additional opportunities in interdisciplinary settings such as combined departments, research clusters, and the like. Unfortunately, shrinking university and research budgets can exclude many within the pool of qualified applicants. However, there are numerous informal education opportunities for geographers. For instance, many environmental/resource management agencies hire academics to develop materials and relay important information to the public. Though the path to a tenure track position will remain difficult in the future, it’s critical to gain experience and hone your skills within geographic education in the meantime.