Pivotal Moments That Shaped My Career

Does your career feel more panicked than planned? Are you still in those early stages of even getting your courses together and your research lab up and running? You aren’t alone. In this post, Dr. Kerry K. Karukstis reflects on those pivotal moments that yielded important lessons in the midst of the frenzy that seems to characterize academic life. This is wisdom you need.


My students today spend a great deal of time exploring a multitude of potential future careers.  Through the decision-making process they deliberate over their choice of major, discuss the opportunities with faculty, and opt for a variety of course electives, extracurricular activities, and summer experiences that will help to shape their career path.  Their options seem endless and, frankly, very exciting.  I simply don’t remember expending the same degree of effort in choosing a major or deciding on my post-graduation plans.  Did my campus even have a career resource center?   Yet somehow decisions were made, next steps were taken, and, eventually, my career was launched.  Nevertheless, there have been several junctures during my time as a faculty member when I’ve reflected on my path.

I recall being stunned when one national STEM leader visited our campus and asked me to describe my “five year plan”.  I was simply struggling to be prepared for the next day!

Early on I focused on the typical goals for an assistant professor of preparing my courses and establishing my research laboratory. I recall being stunned when one national STEM leader visited our campus and asked me to describe my “five year plan”.  I was simply struggling to be prepared for the next day!  Perhaps I didn’t craft a formal action plan to guide my growth as a faculty member, but I have realized that there were certain pivotal moments that shaped my career.  Each situation required me to make an important decision that would set me on a particular course that, in retrospect, had a powerful impact on my academic career.  I share these personal discoveries now as I’m hopeful some of these insights might be useful on your academic journey.

Pivotal moment #1.  Arriving at Harvey Mudd College to an empty laboratory with no start-up funds.   Today’s junior faculty often have the luxury of a start-up package that includes an account that the faculty member can draw on to establish a research laboratory.   That wasn’t the case for me, and I feel very fortunate that I needed to raise the funds to support my research program.   I wrote many proposals over the years, some successful, some not.   I didn’t rely on a single funding agency nor did I submit just one proposal at a time.   In the end, I garnered research funds far in excess of any start-up package and continued to sustain my program over the years.  Independent research funding enabled me to support numerous students, acquire my own instrumentation, and travel to both national and international conferences.  Never despair at the lack of generous research support – it’s an opportunity to experience tremendous pride when you succeed on your own.  Lesson learned: While institutional support for research is always welcome, successful undergraduate programs are possible without such support.

Lesson learned: While institutional support for research is always welcome, successful undergraduate programs are possible without such support.

slide_11Pivotal moment #2. Beginning my service as a CUR Chemistry councilor.   My department has had a long history with CUR, but I didn’t know much about the organization when I accepted an opportunity to be a councilor.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be by far the most significant career-impacting decision that I would ever make.  I had no expectations on what the position would entail.  I wasn’t looking for professional development or leadership opportunities and I certainly wasn’t sure what I could contribute to this national organization.   However, as a volunteer organization, there were an endless number of ways to get involved.  I never anticipated the professional opportunities that I would have through CUR, and it’s the reason why I encourage faculty to look beyond one’s own campus for leadership prospects.   But the benefits of CUR involvement that I didn’t expect and treasure the most are the incredible friendships that I have made throughout the organization.  They are the reason why I continue to seek ways to be involved.  Lesson learned:  Look beyond your campus for professional involvement.  The investment in time can lead to some lasting friendships and unique growth opportunities.

Lesson learned:  Look beyond your campus for professional involvement.  The investment in time can lead to some lasting friendships and unique growth opportunities.

1kkkPivotal moment #3.  Having the courage to make a major shift in research direction.    This change might not seem out of the ordinary, but switching from explorations of the light reactions of photosynthesis to spectroscopic characterizations of binary phase diagrams of aqueous-based surfactants was a radical change in my mind.  I had years of successful research productivity, external funding, and collaborations that had enabled me to attain full professor working in the area of photosynthesis.  Nevertheless, I left that all behind to carve out an area of exploration with a narrow and unique scope that re-inspired me, capitalized on my students’ skills, and allowed my research group to make important scientific contributions at a pace commensurate with an undergraduate setting.   Lesson learned: It’s OK (maybe even essential) to re-invent yourself to maintain your passion.

Lesson learned: It’s OK (maybe even essential) to re-invent yourself to maintain your passion.

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slide_1Pivotal moment #4.  Serving on a Mellon Faculty Career Enhancement Committee.  A committee assignment might not seem like a momentous occasion.  But this committee assignment gave me an opportunity to explore how faculty at all career stages could benefit from various forms of professional development.  Funding from the Mellon Foundation was awarded to pairs of primarily undergraduate institutions (known as “dyads”) who were part of a larger network of eight institutions (known as the “cluster”).  In reviewing professional development proposals from faculty within the dyad, I remember being disappointed that the only type of faculty development request was for research funds.  So when the call came for proposals involving faculty within the “cluster”, I vowed to propose a project that would benefit faculty (including myself) in a completely different way.   As the first and most senior woman in my department (and the first tenured woman in any technical department at the college), I envisioned using a “horizontal mentoring strategy” to create a support network of women in similar situations throughout the cluster.  To make a long story short, the initiative was funded and further led to an NSF-ADVANCE grant to establish a horizontal peer network of five-member “alliances” for senior women chemists and physicists at PUIs.  The project contributed immensely to the knowledge base of practices that can enhance the academic career enhancement of women faculty.  Even more gratifying are the friendships that I continue to enjoy from the women in my alliance – these mentors have had a lasting influence on my life.  Lessons learned: Faculty professional development and renewal is essential at all career stages.  And committee assignments can have a powerful impact on your life!

Lessons learned: Faculty professional development and renewal is essential at all career stages.  And committee assignments can have a powerful impact on your life!


karukstis_2-682x1024Kerry K. Karukstis is Ray and Mary Ingwersen Professor of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd College (HMC).  Throughout her career Dr. Karukstis has been a strong proponent of the teacher-scholar model for faculty and the practice of student-faculty collaborative research. Mentoring over 100 undergraduates, she has conducted externally-funded research totaling over $2 million and has co-authored over 100 publications in scientific journals and two books. She is co-editor of four volumes on issues related to undergraduate research and the advancement of women faculty. Dr. Karukstis has served the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) in many capacities, including as a councilor for and chair of the Chemistry Division, as president, and as co-principal investigator on three National Science Foundation awards focused on institutionalizing undergraduate research. She received the 2003 Henry T. Mudd Prize for outstanding service to Harvey Mudd College and was named the CUR Volunteer of the Year in 2004 and 2010, a 2012 CUR Fellow, and a 2018 American Chemical Society Fellow.

~this article also appeared in the Fall 2018 CUR Chemistry Division Newsletter

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