American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Sarah Hargus Ferguson

Assistant Professor, Department of Speech-Language-Hearing

University of Kansas

Certificate of Clinical Competence, Audiology

Sarah Hargus Ferguson 2002    PhD, Indiana University
            Joint PhD in Audiology and Cognitive Science

1993    MA, University of Maryland

1990    BA, University of Maryland
            Hearing and Speech Science

I chose an academic/research career because:
I wanted to be involved in discovering new knowledge that will lead to better solutions for improving the communication abilities of older adults with hearing loss. I'm not an entrepreneur at all and found hearing aid dispensing to be very frustrating.

What do you do in your career as a teacher, scholar, and/or researcher?
I am an assistant professor at a research intensive university, so my responsibilities include teaching, research, and service. I teach two courses a semester. In the fall, I teach two undergraduate courses, The Physics of Speech and Introduction to Audiological Assessment and Rehabilitation. In the spring, I teach the intro class as well as a seminar in speech perception for second-year AuD students. I have the option to teach during the summer but have found summer to be an essential time for working on research.

My research focuses on speech acoustics and perception. I am working on projects in two areas: clear speech and foreign-accented speech. My goal is to better understand the talker-related factors that affect speech understanding by older adults with hearing loss. In particular, I hope that my clear speech work eventually results in techniques for helping the communication partners of hearing impaired older adults to communicate more effectively with their loved ones. My work in foreign-accented speech is very new and seeks to describe and understand how older adults are affected by accented speech.

My service work is quite varied. In my department, I am one of two coadvisors for our NSSHLA chapter and serve on the AuD admissions committee. In addition, because our department is relatively small (like others in our field), there are occasional little tasks that come up. For example, I spent some time over the break working on an Internet video link to our colleagues at the KU Medical Center. I also serve on a few PhD committees, both in our department and in linguistics. At the university level, I am involved in planning and carrying out activities sponsored by our Center for Teaching Excellence, and serve on a few other committees that meet as needed. I serve our professions by reviewing articles for JSLHR, JASA, Speech Communication, and other journals. I have also chaired sessions and taken on other responsibilities at meetings of the Acoustical Society of America and am a member of the ASA's Women in Acoustics Committee.

How did you get to the position you have today?
I became interested in research during my master's degree program in audiology. I enjoyed reading journal articles and spinning all sorts of "what if…" questions. I opted to do a master's thesis and ended up doing a rather extensive research project in speech perception and aging. My thesis took 18 months beyond my clinical course work, so I initially wasn't sure about pursuing a research career. What changed my mind was my CFY, a research CFY within a large program project grant on hearing and aging. Although I was exposed to some of the vagaries of grant funding during that year, I also got to observe all sorts of research in hearing. I knew then that a research career was what I wanted, but also that I wasn't ready to go back to school yet. I was very fortunate to find another job that allowed me to be in the clinic as well as in a research lab, and stayed there for 2½ years. Working in a private practice within a medical setting helped me to clarify what I didn't enjoy about clinical work, and working as a research assistant cemented my desire to have my own research lab. The research experience I had during my master's program and in the ensuing years, combined with excellent training at my PhD institution, allowed me to go directly from my PhD program to my current position.

What were the key factors in your academic/research career decision(s)?
I'd say the key factor that kick-started my research career was doing a master's thesis. It led to the various opportunities I described above. It also put me in contact with people whose enthusiasm for research and for helping people with hearing loss infected me with the "research bug." At Maryland, I was influenced by Sandy Gordon-Salant, Pete Fitzgibbons, and Pat Balfour. During my CFY at the Medical University of South Carolina, Judy Dubno was my biggest influence, but I was also inspired by Jack Mills's incredible breadth of knowledge and by Rick Schmiedt's fervor for his work. I also remember meeting Arlene Carney and Lawrence Feth at an ASHA conference in 1994 and feeling very welcomed into the community of science within our profession. At the University of Maryland Medical Center, working for Craig Formby taught me a great deal about the research process, while Peggy Nelson and Maureen Stone served as excellent role models for me. Through all of these people, I learned what it is like to be a scientist, and knew without question that I wanted to be one too.

What do you like most about your career?
Well, not to sound flip, but "summers off" is really nice-of course, you don't really have them OFF, but what IS true is that you can change up your work routine every few months. If something or someone is really driving you nuts, it's usually true that it won't take long before you don't have to deal with that any more. Research also offers opportunities to do lots of different tasks-sometimes you're developing a new experiment, sometimes you're analyzing data, sometimes you're writing. You're not always doing the same thing every day for 8 hours a day.

What do you like least about your career?
There's ALWAYS something that needs to be done, and the things that really can't wait definitely take more than 40 hours a week, at least during the semester. I was in denial about this for a long time and am still coming to terms with the fact that I have to work a lot (50+ hours per week) if I want to be successful.

Who are your heroes/heroines?
I wouldn't be where I am today if not for my husband's support and flexibility. He gave up a good job and comfortable lifestyle close to family and lifelong friends on the East Coast to move to the Midwest for my PhD program, where we had much less money and I had much less free time. My career would never have worked if he'd been tied to a particular career track. He also does the lion's share of the chores around the house, which makes a huge difference in my ability to do work at night and on weekends.

What advice would you give to an undergraduate or master's student who expressed an interest in an academic/research career in communication sciences and disorders?
Get into a research lab as soon as possible! Faculty are always thrilled when students show an interest in research. You might be able to get a paid position as a lab assistant or to enroll for independent study credits. If you can, try to get experience in more than one lab, so that you can find out what most interests you. You can also uncover your interests by reading recent issues of journals like JSLHR. Jot down questions that come up while you read-they may be the seeds of future research projects.

What was the best thing about your PhD program?
My PhD program was so excellent that I find it hard to rank the things that were so wonderful about it. The three most important things were being part of a cohort of students (I was one of five PhD students to join the program the year I started, and there were usually three or four new ones each year), having access to courses in many other disciplines (linguistics, psychology, computer science, etc.), and being able to interact with faculty at various levels in their careers.

If you did your PhD program or your early career years all over again, what would you do differently?
While I still think that going directly into a faculty line was the best choice for me and my family at the time, I definitely feel disadvantaged now by not having had a postdoctoral fellowship. I would be in a much better position now in terms of publications and funding if I had done a postdoc.

How do you find balance between your professional activities and your personal life? What do you do to relax?
This is hard to answer because balance is such an individual thing. Everyone has different personal and family needs, so it's hard to prescribe a particular solution. I find my life works best when I keep a regular schedule and inform my husband in advance when I'm going to deviate from it in some way that impacts him. We make a point of having breakfast and dinner together and of spending time together on the weekends. Things will be more complicated, I know, if we're ever blessed with children.

I do a variety of things to relax-I sing in my church choir, I play the piano, I do needlework and crossword puzzles, and I exercise nearly every day. I'm realistic, though, about what I'm able to do in my non-work life. Our house isn't immaculate, and I don't keep a list of books I'd like to read anymore. But again, everyone will have their own solution. For me, what works is being at work from 8:15 to 5:15, spending a couple of hours at night (staying on top of the journals, mostly) a few nights during the week, and spending 3-4 hours on the weekend (usually on teaching prep-I have a new prep this semester). During breaks and the summer, I can usually drop the nights-and-weekends stuff. It's really quite doable.

What will you be doing 5 years from now? 10 years from now?
I hope to still be working at a research university.  It's really a great career, and I can't imagine anything else I'd want to do!


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