The LCGC Blog: Climbing the Academic Career Ladder: Choices at the Top

May 6, 2020
The Column

When you’ve reached the top, where do you go next? In this instalment of the LCGC Blog, Kevin Schug explores prospects open to those of us at the pinnacle of our academic careers. Reflecting on his unique journey and offering his perspective – from the stability of academic freedom to interesting research and outside opportunities – Kevin’s experience highlights several options.

When you’ve reached the top, where do you go next? In this instalment of the LCGC Blog, Kevin Schug explores prospects open to those of us at the pinnacle of our academic careers. Reflecting on his unique journey and offering his perspective – from the stability of academic freedom to interesting research and outside opportunities – Kevin’s experience highlights several options.

For the past seven years, I have written a monthly blog article for LCGC and chromatographyonline.com. When I started writing, at the beginning of 2013, I was an Associate Professor. I had received tenure relatively recently, and I was beginning to explore a bit more of my academic freedom in terms of research and outside opportunities.

Looking back, the start of my penning of blog articles matches quite well with the start of efforts to investigate the potential environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas extraction, and the formation of the Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation (CLEAR, http://clear.uta.edu) at the University of Texas Arlington, USA. It also well coincided with my effort to begin some outside consulting activities, predominantly the review of forensics evidence for blood alcohol determination. Both of these activities have blossomed considerably in the past seven years, and it has become interesting to contemplate the most rewarding way to spend my time going forward.

In 2015, I was promoted to Full Professor, and before that I had already held the Shimadzu Distinguished Professorship in Analytical Chemistry for almost two-and-a-half years. While there might be more lucrative or prestigious Professorships out there, I have reached the pinnacle of promotion for academic faculty. So, what next?

In 2017, I was offered the opportunity to be Interim Associate Dean for Research and Development for the College of Science at UT-Arlington. To me, this looked like the perfect internship position to see if a move to the administrative side of academia was palatable. My appointment was only for ten months, and for that, thank goodness! Within a month, I knew that I did not want to be a University administrator of any kind. The politics, the uncertainty of budgets and desires of upper administration, and the “one-size-fits-all” mentality from the top were among the many frustrations of that position.

 

There were many other frustrations, mainly spurred on by the lack of communication within and by the upper administration. It seemed that weekly a spreadsheet of some sort was thrust in front of me to complete. Invariably, I lacked any of the knowledge to complete the forms. To do that, I would need to gain the contact and coax time from people in six departments within the college. I decided very quickly that I did not go through all of the efforts to obtain a Ph.D. in Chemistry, to then rise through the ranks of academia with all of its landmines and nuances, to become a gopher to fill out spreadsheets.

In the end, I have decided that perhaps my poor experience as an Associate Dean was due to just how things run at UT-Arlington. Yet, I have had discussions since that time which lead me to believe that it can be similar in other places. I am glad that I took the opportunity to try out the administrative route, but I also feel bad for the future. At some point, I may be asked to be Chair of the department; previously, I might have accepted to give it a try. Now, no way! But everyone is different, and this was only my experience.

My short stint as Associate Dean did not have a deleterious impact on my group’s research efforts. The past few years have been the most productive ever, mainly because we have not had to battle too hard to gain research funds, and the sources of those funds have not placed a lot of constraint on what sort of research questions we could try to address. We have all of the newest instrumentation and technology as a result of beneficial relationships with many leading companies in the industry. That is a perfect situation – to be able to follow your ideas and have essentially all of the resources needed to do so. I have to give a lot of credit to my friend and colleague Dr. Zac Hildenbrand, co-founder of CLEAR, for drumming up a lot of interesting research opportunities and support for our work.

As we enter into a new decade, there appear to me opportunities up ahead. These continue to build on past efforts. Last year, I helped co-organize two major conferences. One was the 2019 International Symposium on Capillary Chromatography and GCxGC conference in Fort Worth, Texas, USA, in May. I am also heading up the organization of the 2021 edition of this conference, which will again be in Fort Worth in May (though in a nicer, newer hotel).

 

Another was the 2nd Responsible Shale Energy Extraction (RSEE) symposium, a new conference I co-founded with Zac that we organized at UT-Arlington. In 2020, that conference will be part of half-Earth Day in October in Dallas, Texas, USA; RSEE will be rolled into a larger one-and-a-half day EnergyX conference, which will not only focus on unconventional oil and gas extraction, but also other renewable and non-renewable energy modalities. This is a whole other playing field beyond just science and technology.

Considerations also into economics, politics, and logistics of renewable and non-renewable energy sources, in addition to technical aspects, make this a very fulfilling concept in which to engage. We are always meeting new people, and what might be most interesting for LCGC readership to realize – we get a lot of respect and credit for our scientific backgrounds. We also get a close look at the technological advances and challenges, which are shaping the state-of-the-art in these different energy sectors, and it is gratifying to have the ability to understand many of the technical aspects, as well as to offer some potential solutions.

I do not ever see myself fully leaving academia. I feel like I am on the cusp of being able to do those things that people told me an academic could do in order to make a very comfortable living. I thoroughly enjoy my research group and both the fundamental and applied aspects of our analytical chemistry research. I love that this spans work in energy, the environment, pharmaceutical science, clinical chemistry, food science, instrument design, and beyond.

I also now have multiple companies. One is to handle the consulting opportunities, which come and go, and have myriad different flavours. Beyond blood alcohol, I have also had the chance to work on cases involving horse doping, patent interference, and product formulation trade secrets. The hourly rates I can charge are quite lucrative relative to my hourly rate as a Professor.

 

Most recently, Zac and I, together with my wife, have founded another company called Medusa Analytical, LLC. The concept of this company is to facilitate research and consulting opportunities. It is under this guise that we are organizing the EarthX EnergyX conference in April. The more and more that we have worked with industry (especially outside of the analytical chemistry industry), the more we have seen that there are vast opportunities for facilitating solutions to problems. In this case, Medusa Analytical would be best suited to facilitating solutions to problems, which my laboratory at UTA cannot specifically provide. It is also in this way that conflicts of interest and commitment with my role at UTA can be mitigated and avoided (this is a whole other topic for another time). It is important that I acknowledge UT-Arlington is my primary employer and I owe my greatest professional commitment there. But Universities give faculty some leeway to engage in outside opportunities; and if they are faithfully disclosed and present no conflicts of time, interest, or commitment, then there is nothing wrong with trying to create something new.

I initially chose the academic life with the knowledge that it would be able to provide a comfortable lifestyle for my family. My father was a chemistry professor, and I would not characterize my upbringing as wanting for anything. Now, I could go on, simply playing out my role as Professor until the end of my days, educating and training students, and developing new knowledge. I love the relationships that have been forged in this role to this point. I do not see our laboratory slowing down any time soon. That said, I certainly do have my eyes open for other interesting and lucrative opportunities. And I think they need to have quite a bit of both of those aspects (interest and monetary support) for me to bite, but that is the luxury of now being near the top.

I talk to students, especially graduate students, all the time who are scared away from the academic side of life, because it seems so stressful. Any job can be stressful. In academia, if you can climb the ladder, you can gain job security and stability. You might get a chance to patent something and strike it rich that way, but more reasonably, I think it is the potential doors that are opened as a result of being a clear expert in your field. Academic research also has no shortage of means for Professors to be lauded for their accomplishments; these bring prestige and bolster’s one’s credit as a quality scientist. Importantly, when the doors open, you are not compelled to run through them; that is a strong negotiating stance. The stability of the job actually takes a lot of stress out of it, in my opinion. Now, to be able to pursue some other interests, while maintaining that stability, provides a whole other level of potential learning and earning. I am excited to see where this next decade leads.

Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington, USA. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.

E-mail:kschug@uta.eduWebsite:www.chromatographyonline.com