A Conversation With Dr. Amanda Harris

For wellness week, I chose to do a profile on one of my favorite professors at VCU, Dr. Amanda Harris, who was my professor for Chem 102. I talked with Dr. Harris about her job with the hope of helping someone learn more about her career and showing girls that the road to your ideal career isn’t always straight; a career path you don’t expect to follow can actually end up being your dream job.

Q: What got you involved in chemistry?

"I’ve always loved science and I did well in science and math growing up. I have a lot of family members studying science - my grandmother and aunt are both chemists and my uncle has a PhD in physiology - so that may have been something that had an influence on me. But chemistry just felt like the best choice to me from the beginning."

Q: Why did you decide to become a professor?

"I kind of took an unusual path to becoming a professor. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years, but then quit and didn’t work for a couple of years in order to care for my son. When I was ready to start working again, I was looking for part-time jobs but there aren’t very many part-time jobs in chemistry. I managed to find a part-time teaching position at J. Sargeant Reynolds, and absolutely loved it. When it was time for me to go back to working full time and I had to choose between teaching or going back to working in a lab, I chose teaching."

Q: What are your favorite things about being a professor?

"I love how rewarding it is. When I was younger I felt that I was changing the world and making a difference by working in pharmaceutical labs and I feel that way about teaching as well. I can see the impact I’m having on students’ learning every single day. I really enjoy teaching."

Q: Do you have any career regrets?

"No regrets! I’m really glad that I started teaching, but I also really value my time working in labs doing methods research. I enjoyed both professions."

Q: What is the most difficult thing about being a teaching professor?

"The sheer volume of students means that there’s a lot of grading and paperwork, but it also means that it’s more difficult for me to form a personal connection with all of them. I have about 300 students a semester and I try really hard to get to know them all but it’s difficult. I have two young children so sometimes working late into evenings is challenging because I have to spend time away from them."

Q: How is your work and life balance as a professor?

"I’m a nine month faculty, meaning that I get summers off. This is really nice because my kids get to have a fun summer instead of being in daycare, and I get to spend quality time with my family. Like I mentioned before, I sometimes have to work late into evenings and I often have to check my emails on weekends. But I think it’s a pretty flexible job and it is worth getting free time to spend with my family during the summer."

Q: Lastly, do you have any advice for students wanting to follow your career path, or advice for students in general?

"A lot of my students get stressed out if they aren’t following a certain path, or if they don’t really have a defined plan for what they want to do in the future. I didn’t ever expect to become a professor and go into teaching but I love my job, I think it’s important to have an open-minded outlook for what you want to do in the future."


Thanks so much to Dr. Harris for agreeing to be interviewed!