Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Guest Post: Confessions of a Teaching-Focused Astronomer

Our guest post today is from Dr. Jillian Bellovary. Jillian Bellovary is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Queensborough Community College in Queens, New York. She is also a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History and serves on the Committee for the Status of Minorities in Astronomy. She is passionate about equity & inclusion, knitting, and roller derby.

In August 2016 I started a tenure-track position at Queensborough Community College, which is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system and located in Bayside, Queens.  This job is my dream job, and one I’ve been aiming for for quite a while.  But I didn’t always know this was what I wanted, and I’ve definitely felt like I’m not supposed to want a job like this.  Thus I’d like to share my story.

I went to a large public R1 university for undergrad, and a large public R1 university for grad school, and oh I did my first postdoc at a large public R1 university too.  As someone who was only exposed to one type of academic environment, I figured that was how my career was “supposed” to go.  I was “supposed” to want a job at a school like that.  That’s why I’m here, right?  But as I worked my way through the pipeline, I kept trying to figure out “who is my role model?  Who do I want to be like?” and coming up short.  I admired every professor’s ability to be a superhero – manage a research group, apply for grants, teach, serve on committees, juggle family responsibilities.  But I really couldn’t see myself doing all of that, nor did I want to.  I began to wonder if I was inferior – the fact that I didn’t want this type of job meant that I wasn’t cut out to be an astronomer, or that I couldn’t hack it, or that I didn’t love it enough to deal with all of the extra Stuff that R1 professors deal with. Impostor Syndrome was a constant companion of mine, for years.

What I was really passionate about was students.  Not the superstar kind, not the privileged kind, but the underserved kind.  I was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, and I mentored McNair scholars while in grad school, and worked with numerous other programs to encourage minoritized students to do and stay in science.  I love doing this work and I’m really good at it.  The times when I wasn’t involved in diversity/inclusion work, I felt like something was missing.  I really wanted a student-centered career, including both teaching and research, but that didn’t quite jive with what I saw around me. 

My eyes opened when I went on my first interview for a faculty job.  It was at an undergraduate-serving college with a large focus on teaching.  I almost didn’t take the interview seriously, I felt like I wasn’t ready at all for a faculty job (did I even want a faculty job? I wasn’t sure) and the interview was “practice” for future interviews, ones I’d be really ready for.  (Note:  this was foolish of me, any school that spends time and money to interview you is taking you seriously, so do the same!)  I saw a completely different world at this university – professors loving teaching and doing a great job at it, and doing research with their students.  Realization dawned on me that not only could I do this job, I actually wanted to do this job!   I didn’t get the position, but I suddenly had a new focus and motivation:  the idea that I could focus on being a great teacher while fostering mentoring relationships with different students, still engaging in research but not at the breakneck-pace expected of an R1 tenure-track assistant professor. 

So I prepared.  I adjuncted at a local community college, which turned out to be valuable because I could convince my current employer that I knew what I was getting into.  I took an online course on Evidence-Based STEM Education (which I highly recommend!).  And when I wrote applications and teaching statements, I made it clear that undergraduate education was where I wanted to be.  I did not see it as “settling” for a second-rate job; it was my first choice and I discussed why. 

I was hesitant to admit to my colleagues that undergraduate education (and specifically community college teaching) was my goal.  I felt like they’d judge me, and stop taking me seriously, because I didn’t want the career that I had supposedly trained so hard for.  And honestly – this did happen.  Some collaborators wrote me off.   I’ve been excluded from some collaborations and communications, maybe because someone assumed I didn’t want to be there anymore, or that I wouldn’t pull my weight.  (At least that’s what I assume they assumed… I haven’t felt comfortable asking.)  This has been really unfortunate, but luckily there are tons of awesome astronomers who have filled in those gaps.  I have good support communities, such as CUNY Astro and a women’s mentoring group made up of folks from grad school who I skype with twice a month.  And I certainly have plenty of science to do, I just wish I had more time to do it! 

Now I teach four classes per semester and am working on getting a research group up and running at my college.  Challenges abound, but I know I’m in the right place.   It took me years to admit to myself that this path was right for me, and it wasn’t “failure” to not want an R1 position.  And finally, after 3 postdocs and overcoming a lot of impostor-y thoughts, the journey has been worth it.