How Geography Prepared Me for a Career in Research Data Management Librarianship

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By Hannah C. Gunderman, Ph.D.

Earlier this year, I posted the following observation on Twitter:

“Being a geographer is wild. One day you’re writing about the Grateful Dead, the next day about insects and how we can be nicer to them, and another day about data management trends across different countries.”

I received the following response from a non-acquaintance who happened to see my tweet:

“How is this different than in most other disciplines?! Ultimately it is about how practitioners in a discipline view the world around them. There are plenty of narrow-focused and insular ‘Geographers’.”

While it is certainly true there are geographers who study very focused, specific topics, many of my fellow geographers came to the rescue in the Tweet to share why geography, as a discipline, lends itself well to studying a variety of topics concurrently, all connected by the thread of spatiality. I have a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville where I focused on human geography, and a B.S. and M.A. in Geography from the University of Wyoming, concentrated in biogeography and human geography, respectively. During the heyday of my geography education, a common day for me involved alternating between writing about the cultural geographies of the Doctor Who franchise, conducting a data-driven analysis of population stability using open data in QGIS, preparing an undergraduate lecture on the influence of topography on the spread of languages, and crafting an ethnography on Grateful Dead-named businesses across the United States. And, I wasn’t alone: several of my geography colleagues both near and far exhibited a similar diversity of topics within their research and teaching agenda, highlighting how our discipline gives us the flexibility to look at several facets of the world around us concurrently.

Needless to say, throughout my geography education, I became accustomed to having several topic-diverse projects take place at the same time. Being a geographer is incredibly fulfilling, but I knew very quickly into my Ph.D. program that I did not want to pursue a tenure-track professorship in geography and turned towards academic librarianship. For me, this career path seemed to offer me the best parts of academia (the scholarship, teaching, and conferences) while leaving out the parts that were less attractive to me (the publish-or-perish mentality, the constant grant seeking and writing, etc.). I began intentionally seeking out opportunities that would push my career towards academic librarianship, and several years later my dreams came true when I accepted a job as a Research Data Management (RDM) Consultant for Carnegie Mellon University Libraries. This role entails working with researchers to develop plans for appropriately managing their research data throughout the research lifecycle (from ideation to publication/outreach), including establishing descriptive metadata, building descriptive file-naming schemes, and choosing an appropriate repository to store their final data (if applicable). While I was initially worried about the career shift from geography-specific research and teaching to the more broad and varied space of RDM, it turns out that my geography background perfectly prepared me for this transition. Below, I have outlined the three main areas in which geography enhances my new career path:

1. Geography made me flexible.
I am the RDM Consultant for the entire university, from robotics and machine learning to fine arts, from history to mechanical engineering. This means that I have to develop and maintain an understanding of the research process in each discipline, and the paradigms and technologies guiding each discipline’s engagement with data. While this is no simple feat, my background in geography primed me for working with interdisciplinary projects and gaining understandings of several domains and subdomains, from engaging with teaching and research in biogeography to experiential geography, from historical geography to fluvial geomorphology, etc. Each of these geographic subdomains engages with concepts from biology, ecology, philosophy, sociology, history, and geology, all through a spatial lens. My time as a geographer encouraged me to embrace serendipity and see the value in all disciplines of knowledge, as geographical research often incorporates concepts from several disciplines, synthesized through a spatial lens. Now, as an RDM Consultant, rather than being overwhelmed by the task of understanding data engagement across dozens of disciplines at the university, I appreciate the opportunity to continue the inter- and multi-disciplinary engagement that geography provided me early on in my career.

2. Geography made me think deep.
Geography involves analyzing and understanding a topic at multiple scales, from the cursory, surface-level view of a topic, to the deeper mechanisms guiding what we see at the surface-level. I have found, so far, that RDM librarianship is no different: in a library reference interview, we want to fully grasp what the researcher is asking for, including their motivations for asking the question(s), the knowledge they already know, and areas where they need further sources. Simply applying a surface-level view to their reference question will not provide them with a deep engagement with the topic, and with RDM-focused questions, I apply my background in answering geographic questions through a multi-scaled approach. While, of course, many disciplines encourage seeking a holistic view of a topic, it is geography’s concentration on a scale that guides my researcher consultations in my new career. I encourage consultees to consider how their data intersects with their chosen topic from both microscale and macroscale perspective and help develop data management schemes, which take into account their data engagement at these multiple scales.

3. (Cultural) Geography made me consider inclusivity.
During my time as an RDM Consultant so far, I have encountered many researchers both online and in-person who feel that conversations around managing research data often gloss over important distinctions among researchers, including socioeconomic status, institutional access to resources, age, abilities, etc. Our education and outreach surrounding RDM, as a result, caters to a specific “brand” of researcher and may alienate those who do not fit within that brand. I have decided to devote my future research agenda to analyzing these conversations and providing blueprints for having more inclusive RDM conversations with researchers. After developing this planned research agenda, I realized that my background in cultural geography was an excellent precursor for studying these inclusivity issues. My cultural geography coursework and research inspired me to constantly deconstruct the world around me, seeking to understand the intersections between gender, socioeconomics, race, and myriad other factors and the landscapes in which we are surrounded.

While I will always consider myself to be a geographer, my career path has shifted, and I am now working to feel more comfortable calling myself a librarian. However, I am slowly realizing that the two titles need not be mutually exclusive! My training as a librarian, which includes on-the-job experience and working part-time towards a graduate degree in information sciences, has been heavily enhanced by my background in geography. I encourage all geographers who are considering alternative career paths to becoming a geography professor to leverage the unique skillsets geography offers, from multiscale engagement with a topic to familiarity with research paradigms in multiple other disciplines, in their career development. Geographers can fill important roles both within and outside of geography departments!

Hannah C. Gunderman, Ph.D. (she/her/hers)
Research Data Management Consultant | University Libraries Faculty
Carnegie Mellon University
410A Hunt Library | 412-268-7258
4909 Frew Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213


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