Catherine Oertel on working at a primarily undergraduate institution

Catherine Oertel on working at a primarily undergraduate institution

oertel photoOn January 22nd, Professor Catherine Oertel spoke with graduate students and post-doctoral researchers about her career at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI).  Catherine attended a PUI for her undergraduate degree, at Oberlin College, where she is now a professor in inorganic chemistry.

The enthusiasm and passion of students and faculty at Oberlin during her undergraduate experience was a big part of what drew her back. Catherine’s passions currently manifest in her research on cultural materials, especially the composition of corrosion products from organ pipes. This involves the synthesis and characterization of organic-inorganic hybrid materials and oxides relevant to the Pb-Sn system, especially through hydrothermal synthesis.

“Teaching comes first.”  While Oberlin has a strong emphasis on research, teaching takes priority. Catherine’s teaching responsibilities include developing curriculum and teaching chemistry, but also extend into the lab.

“You can’t just let them run.” One challenge of mentoring exclusively undergraduate researchers is high turnover. While the students she works with are less autonomous than graduate researchers, they do good work and their lack of experience can be an asset – particularly in that they don’t talk themselves out of experiments, which can lead to exciting results and discoveries.

Time management: In her 10 years as a professor at Oberlin, Catherine has developed excellent time management skills, which partly “just takes practice”. She recommended the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, which helped her prioritize and minimize distractions to complete the many tasks associated with her position.

Another productivity recommendation by Catherine was a practice she has adopted to balance tasks with specific deadlines (grading, committee responsibilities, etc.) and those without external deadlines (research, data analysis, writing). She finds that to get the deadline-less work done, she must prioritize those over the tasks with specific deadlines, since those will get done, though with some added pressure.

What’s the best way to prepare your resume for a PUI faculty position? In response to a question from from the audience, Catherine explained that what makes a competitive CV when applying to a PUI is no different than that for applying to a research institution – expertise in your research demonstrated through peer-reviewed publications.

Catherine’s passion for science, teaching, and community were evident in the discussion. She included a list of resources, particularly a list of PUI specific research grants (ACS Petroleum Research Fund, Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Research Corporation) and professional development resources, especially COACh, an ACS resource for women in Chemistry.