Name: Sean Kinney
Major(s) and Minor: Geology
Why did you choose Geology as your major?
It took me a long time to settle on a career path. Growing up, I was interested in everything – from truck driving to theoretical physics. I even considered going to art school for a while. I eventually choose geology because it provided the opportunity to maintain my varied interests and apply them to interesting, meaningful problems in how Earth and planetary systems operate. I approach geology as an integrated application of all the other physical sciences and focus on the research questions that I find most compelling. In that way, I was very fortunate to never truly ‘settle’ on a major. I would encourage anybody who has an interest in the physical sciences, but maybe some difficulty in deciding, to check out Earth and Planetary Science as an option.
What did you like most about it?
Being in a relatively small department meant reasonable class sizes and close contact with the faculty. I think this environment helped facilitate the types of interactions and experiences that helped me decide on a career in academia. Studying geology in New Jersey also meant some great field trips, where some of the best examples of sea level change, astronomically-paced climate change, records of the largest volcanic eruptions on the planet, and records of some of the largest mountains to have existed are all less than a two hour drive away.
What is your current position, what do you, and what do you enjoy most about it?
I’m currently in the fifth year of my PhD at Columbia University in New York. Though I’m still in graduate school, it is very much a job. There is no typical day, or week, or month – and that makes life exciting. I have several projects, all of them multi-disciplinary, and have had the opportunity to do quite a bit of interesting field work and lab work.
What was your first job after Rutgers and how did you get it?
I went straight into my PhD program after finishing – so I’m still working on it! It’s worth noting for undergraduates thinking about a PhD or Master’s program, that the application process is typically quite different than the transition from high school to college. It’s important to get involved with research, to reach out to potential advisers (and their current/former students), and go to conferences if you have the opportunity. You’re deciding on an adviser/department much more than a school, but you want to consider lifestyle factors too (e.g., rural vs. urban). Five years is a long time and you want to make sure you’ll be happy not only in your research but also in where you’re living.
How did you move from that first job to your current position?
In my program, like most PhD programs, there are a series of checkpoints through which you have to advance. For me this involved a Master’s exam, qualifying exam, and dissertation proposal. Additionally, we’re expected to complete a certain number of course credits and TA a certain number of classes. In my fifth year, I’m primarily focused on completing lab work and data analysis to finish writing papers which will be part of my thesis.
Looking back, what classes or experiences at Rutgers would you point to as contributing to your successes?
Generally, I think the core geology curriculum was fundamentally important to my now being able to juggle many different projects across disciplines. I am equally comfortable discussing stratigraphy, igneous petrology, stable isotope geochemistry, etc. It’s unclear to me if students from other departments who did not have as strong of a “traditional” geology education can communicate with the same fluency.
Specifically, my research experiences working in the structural geology lab with Martha Withjack and Roy Schlische for two summers and my last year were fundamental in developing an ability to visualize geologic processes, translate the features I observe in the field into a real process or sets of processes that produced them, and develop conceptual models that can then be examined in a hypothesis-testing framework.
As far courses go, mineralogy and petrology with Claude Herzberg stand out as particularly significant in shaping my research philosophy.
What advice do you have for our current Arts and Sciences students?
For those considering graduate school, it’s worth repeating that it’s never too early to start getting involved in research. Generally, I don’t think worrying about failure is productive or healthy. It’s ok to try something and either not be good at it or not like it. Make sure to take every opportunity you have to take an interesting class, go on a cool field trip, or apply for a research position or internship. Your time at Rutgers will go fast and you want to make sure you take advantage of everything that’s offered to you.