GeoLog

careers

Academia is not the only route: exploring alternative career options for Earth scientists

Academia is not the only route: exploring alternative career options for Earth scientists

With more PhD and postdoc positions than there are tenured posts, landing a permanent job in academia is increasingly challenging. For some, years of funding and position uncertainty, coupled with having to relocate regularly is an unwelcome prospect. A changing job market also means that aspiring to the traditional, linear career path might be an unrealistic expectation. Skills acquired by those striving for an academic career (analytical skills, time and project management, persistence – writing a thesis requires it by the bucketload!) are highly valued in other job sectors too.

During a short course at the 2017 General Assembly, a panel of current and former geoscientists discussed their experiences in jobs both inside and outside academia.  They offered tips for how to pursue their careers paths and what skills served them best to get there.

In this blog post we profile each of their jobs and offer some of the highlights from the advice given during the session at the conference.


During the panel discussion Victoria stressed the importance of building a strong professional network, both inside and out of academia.

Victoria O’Connor (Technical Director at Petrotechnical Data Systems)

Victoria gained an undergraduate master degree in geology from the University of Liverpool in 2007. Since then, her career has focused around the oil industry, but has seen twists and turns, which have relied heavily on her building a varied skill set.

For almost six years after graduation, Victoria worked at Rock Deformation Research Ltd (RDR),  a spin out company from the University of Leeds, which was eventually acquired by Schlumberger. She held various roles throughout her time there, eventually becoming Vice President. The role relied heavily on her technical expertise as a structural geologist, as well as people management and organisational skills. In 2013, she moved to The Netherlands to work the Petrel technology team at Shell, where she managed various geoscience software development projects.

Her experience eventually enabled her to set up her own geoscience consulting company which was acquired by the PDS Group, through which she now manages the Geoscience products and services division, leading a 40 strong team of geoscientists and scientific software developers, developing cutting edge technologies for the oil and gas industry in collaboration with various academic institutions. In addition she also holds a visiting researcher position at the University of Leeds where she provides teaching and consultancy support. In addition, she also edits the European region AAPG newsletter.

During the panel discussion, Victoria stressed the importance of building relationships and developing a network of contacts. The benefits of building a strong professional network, both inside and out of academia are far reaching: job opportunities, joint collaborations, career development prospects. In her current role, she is developing technology with academic partners she first met over ten years ago at the University of Leeds.


getting on the career To get on the career ladder make sure you have a well written cover letter and CV, says Philip.

Philip Ball (Strategic Planning and Optimization Team & Geological Specialist [Rifted Margins] at Saudi Aramco)

Philip’s career certainly falls in the windy road category, rather than the linear path. It has involved a number of switches between industry and academic positions which have taken him all over the globe. His positions have always had an oil industry focus. He has lived through a number of market slumps, resulting in redundancies and an uncertain career path at times.

During the panel discussion Philip, highlighted adaptability and flexibility (skills certainly gained during research years) as a key to his success. Landing his first position was partly down to his willingness to be flexible.  In addition to being proactive, publishing, attending conferences and meetings, maintaining a network, never giving up is also critical. For example, he applied three times to Statoil between 2013 and 2015 before he managed to get an interview.

Before progressing onto a PhD, Philip enjoyed a short stint at the British Geological Survey and was a geologist for Arco British Ltd. Since gaining his PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2005, Philip has held a number of positions at oil companies, including StatOil, ConocoPhillips, ONGC Videsh and Saudi Aramco.

His top tips, for getting on the career ladder is to make sure you have a well written cover letter and CV. This is critical whether applying for a student travel grant, research position or a position outside of the academic realm. Also do your research and do not expect chances to come to you. Use and visit the job boards online regularly to find positions in geoscience or other fields.


A career in the publications industry is a popular choice among researchers, like Xenia.

Xenia van Edig (Business Development at Copernicus.org)

Researchers are necessarily familiar with the world of academic publication (for more tips on how journal editors work take a look at this post we published recently), so it is hardly surprising this ends up being the chosen career of many former scientists.

Xenia Van Edig is one such example. Following an undergraduate in geography and PhD  in agricultural sciences at Georg-August-Universität-Göttingen, Xenia took a sidestep into the world of scientific coordination and management before starting her role at Copernicus (publishers of open access journals – including all the EGU publications – and conference organisers).

Project management was a skill set Xenia developed throughout her time as a junior researcher. It has been a pillar stone of her career outside of academia too.


Robert is an example of how a a hobby can become a new career direction.

Robert McSweeney (Science Editor at Carbon Brief)

Robert holds an MEng in mechanical engineering and an MSc in climate change. He worked for eight years as an environmental scientist for Atkins, a global design, engineering and project management firm.

For the past three years he’s been working as a science writer for Carbon Brief  – a website covering the latest developments in climate science, climate policy and energy policy – where he is now science editor. The role relies heavily on Robert’s communications skills, which scientists hone throughout their research career in the form of presentations at conference and to peers.

Robert highlighted how a hobby – in this case, writing – can become a new career direction. He also emphasised that scientists have a lot of opportunities to get involved with communicating their research, and commenting on others’, through blogs, Twitter, and developing extra materials to publish with new papers.


You don’t necessarily have to stick within your original field of expertise

Steven Gibbons (Senior Research Geophysicist at NORSAR)

Perhaps the best hybrid career for a researcher is to be able to continue to investigate, but not necessarily in an academic setting. It’s a nice compromise for those seeking a little more stability than life at traditional research institution might offer. But the notion shouldn’t be viewed with rose tinted glasses either: being an industry/foundation based scientists might mean less independence when it comes to selecting research topics and, often, securing funding is still an important part of the equation.

Nevertheless, it is can be a rewarding career which gives insights into a more commercial mindset and which draws on skills gain throughout academic research years, as Steven Gibbons described during the short course in April.

Crucially, his career trajectory highlights that you don’t necessarily have to stick within your original field of expertise. Steven has a PhD in core geodynamics and the Earth’s magnetic field, but now works as a geophysicist within the programme for Array Seismology and Test-Ban-Treaty Verification at NORSAR.

Steven has an undergraduate and PhD from the University of Leeds and has been working for NORSAR since 2002.


The EGU’s 2018 General Assembly, takes place in Vienna from 8 to 13 April, 2018. For more news about the upcoming General Assembly, you can also follow the offical hashtag, #EGU18, on our social media channels.

GeoEd: Career pathways and expectations in the geosciences – straight lines, wiggles and all out chaos.

GeoEd: Career pathways and expectations in the geosciences – straight lines, wiggles and all out chaos.

 ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ From a tender age, we are regularly asked that question, with answers ranging from the downright hilarious through to those kids who’ve got it all figured out. As we grow older the question of what career we want to pursue carries more weight and the outcome of our choices is scrutinised closely.  In today’s GeoEd column, Rhian Meara (a geography and geology lecturer at Swansea University), explores the notion that as young adults adapt to a changing working environment, it is ok to be unsure, to change your mind, and that pursuing the one-time holy grail, linear career path might no longer be a realistic expectation.

My role as a lecturer in the Geography Department at Swansea University includes participating in the university admissions process which includes organising and attending open and visit days, reading application forms and meeting with potential applicants and their parents. Time and time again, I’m asked about employability, work experience opportunities and career pathways – what sort of work will I get after graduation? What are the work experience opportunities? Should I go into post-graduate studies? Will the degree give me transferable skills? What if I choose not to work in the same field as my degree? Current and prospective students are under immense pressure to know what they want to do with their lives from an early age and often feel like failures if they don’t have a “plan”.  And as tuition fees continue to rise, the idea of having a post-graduation “plan” to justify the expense of higher education is becoming more and more important.

The inspiration for this post came after a recent school visit, where most of the students were 16 years old and had no idea what they wanted to study or even if they wanted to go to university. My colleague and I discussed these issues with the students and answered their questions. We explained our backgrounds, what we had studied and how we had gotten to where we are now. My colleague and I had been to the same high school and were now both lecturers at the same university, but our paths in between have been completely different.

Many of us grew up with the “straight line plan”. That is:

Finish school → Go to university (complete PG qualification) → Get a Career → Retire.

Where a university qualification should (in theory) guarantee you a job and a career in your chosen field until retirement. This plan or route is characteristic of our parents’ generation. My contemporaries and I came into play towards the end of the “straight line plan” era, we went to university with grand expectations of long term employment, careers and success in our chosen fields. However, the onset of the international banking crisis in the late 2000s, meant that despite our hard work, many of us found ourselves last in and first out. No job, no career, no funding. And so we began to think outside the box. We used our skills, knowledge, talents and contacts to develop our own jobs, our own careers and our own pathways. Some have carved out career pathways that have stayed relatively similar to the original straight line plan, while others have wiggled around a bit, gaining new skills and experiences from a wide range of opportunities. Being open to new ideas has allowed us to develop our own pathways and to succeed. Below are four examples of how career pathways have developed for my contemporaries and I.

Jo: the industrial straight linerhi_1

Jo is a classic straight liner. Jo graduated with a BSc in Applied and Environmental Geology and gained employment in the Hydrocarbon industry, where she has worked for the past ten years in geosteering. However, due to the current down turn in oil production, Jo has been made redundant. While Jo is investigating what to do next, she has been undertaking a part-time MSc and is open to the idea of moving sideways into a new field which would utilize the transferable skills she gained during her geosteering work.

Rhian: the academic wiggler

rhi_2

This is me! I am an academic wiggler! I initially followed a straight line career; I graduated with an MGeol in Geology and completed a PhD focussing on physical volcanology and geochemistry. I decided that academia wasn’t for me and wiggled sideways into science communication working for an international science festival both in Scotland and in the United Arab Emirates. While I loved the communication work, I felt I had to give academia one more chance and I went back to complete a one year post doc in tephrochronology. Although the post doc confirmed that a career in scientific research wasn’t for me, I discovered the teaching-focussed academic pathway where I could use my communication skills. I’ve now been teaching for four years. The figure above has a two way arrow between teaching and science communicating as I’m still involved with communication and do outreach, accessibility work and TV / radio work to promote my subject whenever possible. I have no major plans to leave my role in the near future, but academia can be a very fickle place. I am therefore continuing to develop my skills and interests to ensure that I am able to wiggle again should the need arise.

Laura: The wiggling communicator

rhi_3

Laura graduated with an MGeol in Geology and worked as an Environmental Consultant before returning to academia to complete a PhD in Geomagnetism. While completing her PhD, Laura began blogging about geosciences and her research and developed a passion for science communication and social media. Upon completion of her PhD, Laura gained employment at the European Geosciences Union as the Communications Officer, and is now responsible for managing and developing content for the EGU blogs, social media accounts, online forums and Early Career Researcher activities. Laura is a perfect example of how to use your interests, skills and passions to create new opportunities.

Kate: the chaotic accumulator

Kate is a chaotic accumulator, and I mean that in the best possible way. Kate is someone who tries everything and has developed a portfolio of transferable skills and interests from each experience.  Although slightly chaotic to the untrained eye, there are underlying themes in the figure above: Geography, Textiles and Education. Each job or qualification has built on one or more of those themes and in her current job as a university lecturer in Human Geography, Kate uses all three themes in her modules. There is an additional theme that does not show up on the figure: Language. Kate is a fluent Welsh speaker and in each position or qualification, the Welsh language has been central from museums to coaching to teaching to lecturing.rhi_4

And so in my future discussions with applicants and their parents, I will introduce the idea of straight lines, wiggles and all out chaos (although perhaps not in those exact words). I will explain that an undergraduate degree will train and prepare them, but that we should all be open to new opportunities and new experiences.

And as life becomes more complicated once again – the down turn in the oil industry, the impact of the UK leaving the EU, an overly qualified labour market – it’s becoming more important than ever for us all to adapt, to think outside the box, to wiggle.

By Rhian Meara, Geology & Geography Lecturer at Swansea University.

Looking for a job in the geosciences? Visit the job spot at EGU 2016

Looking for a job in the geosciences? Visit the job spot at EGU 2016

The General Assembly can be an excellent source of information for those looking for jobs or doctoral positions. The Job Spot, is located in the EGU and Friends area, next to the EGU Booth (Hall X2, Brown Level) has a searching station linked to the EGU jobs portal, so you can find the latest vacancies and who’s providing them. Check the session programme and see if they’re here too – what better place to meet them than at the biggest geosciences event in Europe?!

There are notice boards nearby, so you can put up your CV to let employers know you’re available too.

Employers may submit their job announcements free of charge here or by using the computer available at the General Assembly Job Spot.

If you’re looking to pick up some tips and tricks to boost your career, you might also consider attending some of the Short Course on offer at this year’s General Assembly. We recently published a blog post with a list of some of our top picks!