Ph.D. Student, Already on the Tenure Track, on His Path from High School Dropout to Earning His Fourth CUNY Degree

Brian Olson (Photo courtesy of Olson)

Brian Olson, a Ph.D. student in Biochemistry who recently published a paper on a new coronavirus database that could benefit drug researchers, has his time-management down to a science, and has to: He is also an assistant professor at County College of Morris, in Randolph, New Jersey, where he teaches forensic science and helped create the college’s first virtual reality class as a way to analyze murder scenes. 

Olson took time out from his structured day to talk about his path from dropping out of high school to enrolling in CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), which instilled a lasting commitment to public education and community colleges:

The Graduate Center: You’re publishing papers, finishing your Ph.D., and teaching full time. How do you manage it?

Olson: It’s grueling, at times. I work long hours and have to be as efficient as possible while also being cognizant that I need some time off because this is a marathon, not a sprint. I use a combination of smartphone applications: Google Calendar to schedule tasks (classes, labs, meetings, research, writing); Trello to build a flexible to-do list; and Pomello, a pomodoro timer, to keep track of time and let me know when to work and when to take a break. Each night I sit down to plan my calendar and to-do list for the next day, and I make myself write three sentences about what went well that day and what could have gone better and why I think it went wrong.

GC: How did you find your position at County College of Morris, and what are the challenges and rewards of teaching at a community college?

Olson: In 2018, I found a job posting for a tenure-track position teaching forensic science at CCM. I’d looked exclusively at community colleges because I’m more interested in teaching than anything else. During my doctoral program, I found teaching to be invigorating and it felt easy despite the heavy workload, so I decided to do what I was good at. 

And then there are the students, of course. I find it rewarding to expand their minds and help them both to rely on their own thinking and to question what they believe. And I like to figure a student out and recommend a book that might change their life. This might not resonate with every student but that’s the value in having so many different professors. We all resonate with someone and I hope it adds up to a life-changing experience. 

GC: What advice do you have for fellow Ph.D. students who might want to look for tenure-track positions in community colleges?

Olson: Ph.D. students who want to teach in a community college should get their teaching experience now. Did you know that every semester you teach, even as a graduate student, is applied to your experience teaching so that you are competitive for a tenure-track job even before you graduate? 

When you teach labs, do it the best you can and ensure that you have good student evaluations without making the course easy. Find a way to teach a lecture section in the summer. Prove yourself there and teach a variety of courses. It will be very hard to keep up on your research while doing this, but one must remember: The purpose of college is not to get a degree. The purpose of an education is to get a job. 

You should make your CV this minute if you haven’t already. Write it for a job to see what you need to make your application shine. Whatever you are missing, go out and do it and add it to your CV. Do this from your first semester of graduate school, if possible. For example, I signed up for many teaching workshops. Many of these workshops happened to also provide a stipend, but it’s really about building a CV that will get you a job right out of the gate, or sooner. Consider this: If I graduate and apply for a job, I’m just the guy who graduated college and never had a job; but if I apply with a great CV before I graduate, then I look like a go-getter.

Be sure to apply for jobs two years before you graduate. You will probably get some interviews, and you’ll probably bomb the first few, as I did. You want, in your last year, to be well positioned to land the job of your dreams. There are no guarantees, but you can maximize your chances. At the same time, you still need to put in one to two hours of writing a day and make progress on your experiments and in writing your dissertation. If you don’t, you might take far too long to graduate. Through it all, keep your eye on your dream: Know where you’re going and make a plan to get there.

GC: You’re on the verge of getting your third CUNY degree. ​Can you talk about the importance of public education, from the community college level on up? 

Olson: I’m on the verge of my fourth CUNY degree. I have an A.S. in Science from BMCC, a B.A. in Biochemistry from Hunter College, an M.Phil. in Biochemistry from The Graduate Center, and I’m closing in on a Ph.D. I’m a child of CUNY, no doubt. CUNY makes a place for everyone. 

In particular, community colleges open the doors for people like me ⎯ someone who dropped out of high school and showed up late to the party. But I was enabled to find my passions and pursue them to the point that I was prepared for a four-year college, and then on to the master’s and beyond at The Graduate Center. The value to society becomes clear when you consider this. We are in the middle of a pandemic. I happen to possess a set of skills that are very useful to fight COVID. Public education is the reason I’m available for the fight.

In addition to that, I’ve helped many first-generation college students to navigate the system and earn their degrees. That has family-changing downstream effects that cannot be easily calculated.  

GC: What was your path to college after dropping out of high school?

Olson: I’d dropped out of high school because I was rebellious, got a GED, and went to work. Nobody in my family had gone to college and I really didn’t know how it worked. Then I moved to New York City and tried to find my place. I had a longstanding interest, one might say an obsession, in wondering what living things are made of ⎯ the little building blocks that make up a living thing. I thought maybe I should go to college to see what I could learn. I had doubts about whether I could handle it, but thought I had potential. 

I was renting a room in the West Village at the time and looked at BMCC because it was near my apartment and it also had a major draw that was part of the reason that I’d come to New York City. BMCC ⎯ and CUNY, in general ⎯ is a place where you can meet someone from Jamaica in the morning, have lunch with students from Russia, then do research with someone from Albania, visit an office worker from St. Lucia, have a best friend from Iran, and go to the office hour of a professor from Guyana. I like to say that world travel is amazing but, if you move to New York City and go to college at CUNY, the world travels to you.

Many amazing students start at a community college. Whether it’s for cost savings or convenience, one should never discount a community college. Often, a community college is a very good place to start, and if you stay focused and work hard, there’s no limit to what you can do.

Submitted on: NOV 11, 2020

Category: Biochemistry | GCstories | General GC News | Science Programs | Student News | Voices of the GC