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Early Career Scientists

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.

GeoTalk: Meet the EGU’s President, Jonathan Bamber

GeoTalk: Meet the EGU’s President, Jonathan Bamber

GeoTalk interviews usually feature the work of early career researchers, but this month we deviate from the standard format to speak to Jonathan Bamber, the EGU’s President. Jonathan has a long-standing involvement with the Union, stretching back almost 20 years. Following a year as vice-president, Jonathan was appointed President at this year’s General Assembly in Vienna. Here we talk to him about his plans for the Union, how scientists can stand up for science at a time when it is coming under attack and how the Union plans to foster the involvement of early career scientists (ECS) in its activities.

In the unlikely event that some of our readers don’t know who you are, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your career path so far and also about your involvement with the EGU over the years?

I started out with a degree in Physics. I’ve spent the last 20 years in the geography department at the University of Bristol focusing on Earth Observation. In that time, I’ve covered a lot of topics: from oceanography to land surface processes, but glaciology is my core discipline and research area. Most of my work has broadly been in the area of climate change and climate research but also solid Earth geophysics.

I’ve been involved with EGU (actually, it was EGS then) since the late 90s. I used to attend the meetings and I realised there was a gap in the market for cryospheric sciences. I approached Arne Richter [the former General Secretary of EGS] to form the Division of Cryospheric Sciences. I put together a proposal and became secretary of the division at the time and later became president of the division when EUG & EGS merged to form EGU. I spent five years in that role, towards the end of which I proposed (and launched) the open access journal The Cryosphere, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary and publishes about 220 papers per year.  I’m very proud of those contributions to the community and feel that they have helped develop the discipline and strengthen it.

It was 2007 when I stepped down from the EGU Council all together although I still attended the General Assembly, of course, and convened various sessions. It was 2015 when the then EGU vice-president, Hans Thybo, suggested I stand in the next presidential elections. I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to take on the role, but decided to go for it because I think it is important to serve the scientific community and colleagues and EGU is an organisation that is close to my heart.

At this year’s General Assembly, you were appointed Union President (after serving as Vice-President for a year). What are the main things you hope to achieve during your two-year term?

There are two main areas that I am very keen to promote and foster:

First, I want to make the organisation [the EGU] more attractive to early career scientists (ECS) and offer them more opportunities, be that more and better short courses, career support and other benefits of attending. For some years now there has been a strong ECS network within the Union and there have been great advances in that direction already.

Second, I’d like to increase the EGU’s opportunities, and those of members, to be involved in policy activities.

Why those two in particular?

There are many things one could do; but having attended the General Assembly for 15 years, there is no doubt that ECS are the future of the discipline, so if we don’t make the meeting attractive and useful for them, what are we here for?

In terms of policy, there are a number of events which have happened in the past few years which make it come into focus.

Certainly, in the UK, it is important that the science we do has impact, and just as important is that we [researchers] understand what the impact of the research we do has. Ultimately, tax payers pay for the research we do, so it is important not to get detached from the role we have in benefiting society in broad terms but also through specific opportunities and activities.

From many years attending the AGU Fall Meeting, I am aware the American Geophysical Union (AGU) has a very well developed and successful policy related programme. It is, of course, simpler for them, as the policy landscape is restricted to one nation and AGU’s headquarters are in Washington. Nonetheless, despite those differences, EGU is not, currently, providing opportunities for engagement in the policy realm in the way we could, for example, with the European Commission and its funding instruments.

Science for policy is not suited to all scientists, and all disciplines that we represent. However, it is important for a large cohort of our membership.

EGU President, Jonathan Bamber (centre left) and EGU Vice-President, Hans Thybo (centre right), stand along side the 2016 EGU Outstanding Student Poster and PICO (OSPP) awardees. Credit: EGU/Pflugel

ECS make up a significant proportion of the Union’s membership. EGU is a bottom up organisation and there is no doubt that ECS have a say in many matters of the Union already, but how do you plan on including ECS further in decision-making processes in the future?

I wouldn’t necessarily classify ECS separately. They are simply geoscientists, just like the majority of our members. It is important, however, for us to show them and highlight the opportunities available for them to be involved in the General Assembly and the Union as a whole.

We have a Union-wide ECS Representative on Council – this gives ECS a good understanding of how the organisation works and gives the individual experience of the machinery involved in running all the activities of EGU. Roles like this give the next generation skills to take on leadership roles in the future too. How do they know how organisations operate if they don’t have opportunities like this?

There are also no barriers to them being involved in convening sessions, organising short courses and proposing activities for the Union to prepare.

It can be intimidating as a junior scientist to be involved in these activities, so it’s important that we make it accessible to them. I think we are making great progress in this direction.

As an established scientist, what advice would you give ECS starting out in their career?

Accountancy pays very well!

More seriously: get involved!

Also, look at your most successful and respected senior colleagues and identify what about them makes them successful and what do you admire in them. Positive role models are very important.

Recently, the scientific process has come under attack. Initiatives such as the March For Science have given scientists opportunities to make their voices heard. What role can the Union play in supporting members wanting to stand up for science?

We can put together advice for how scientists can get their voice heard. The Union’s Outreach Committee is quite active in this regard already.

Trying to make sure that the voice of the geoscience community is heard within Europe is another area where we can contribute. We’ve been involved in an EU Parliamentary meeting, representing EGU, where discussions focused on improving the integration of science and collaboration across Europe.

We also offer policy makers and institutions the opportunities to contact scientists, through our database of experts.  We need to make European policy-makers more aware that we can provide that service.

In terms of funding for scientific research, we’ve established links with the President of European Research Council. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon gave a talk at this year’s General Assembly and participated in one of our Great Debates. We also hosted a meeting where senior members of the EGU’s council met with Bourguignon to discuss how the EGU could support the ERC in the future.

As an organisation, it should be our goal to provide our members with a mechanism by which they can communicate with the European Commission and policy-makers.

Last month, the EGU issued a statement condemning President Trump’s decision to pull the USA out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Why is this decision so troubling and, in your opinion, what can Union members do to raise awareness of the challenges facing the globe?

We should communicate the importance of our science: what we know, what we understand, the evidence based facts.

In the absence of evidence based science, how do policy makers reach decisions? They rely on gut instinct, on beliefs, on prejudices… But they should be making them on evidence based science. So, it is crucial that we communicate what we know to the public and policy-makers.

In Europe, a large majority don’t question human influence on climate. They understand it is real and that it’s an issue of upmost importance.

Trump’s decision was about politics not science; it is important to remember that. He didn’t deny that climate change was real, but he was making the decision on an economic basis and that is something else again. Whether it was a wise economic decision or an entirely myopic one is another question altogether.  I speak about this in more detail in an open editorial I wrote shortly after the decision was announced.

Geoscientists are, perhaps, more important in terms of policy and the health of the planet than they ever have been before. All the work we are doing in the geosciences has huge implications for policy and for safeguarding our future on the planet.

Jonathan, thank you for talking to me today about a whole range of topics. I’d like to finish this interview by bringing the conversation back around to EGU. We’ve discussed, at some length, what the Union hopes to do for its members and highlighted that there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. So, how exactly do they go about taking a more active role in the Union’s activities?

One of the easiest ways to have your voice heard is by getting involved through your scientific division. Attend your division(s)’s business meeting. Each division has quite a few officers: a secretary, vice-president, secretaries for sub disciplines and so on. There are lots of opportunities there. In general, anyone who wants to put the time in will be welcomed by division presidents because it’s always good to have enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers.

When it comes to the General Assembly in Vienna, anybody can propose a session. If you want to organise a session or a short course, just fire it out there! The call-for-sessions is currently open [until 8th September]. You’ll find all the details online.

If you are interested in policy-related activities do complete the register of experts questionnaire.  It doesn’t take long and you’ll find details on our webpages. Make sure you provide as much detail about your expertise as possible. That way we’ll be able to match you up with those who make inquires and opportunities in the most effective way.

Interview by Laura Roberts Artal (EGU Communications Officer)

 

 

 

 

GeoPolicy: What are science-policy placements and are they for you?

GeoPolicy: What are science-policy placements and are they for you?

This month’s GeoPolicy blog will examine science-policy internships, fellowships, secondments and pairing-schemes in closer detail – highlighting the reasons for undertaking a placement and interviewing Dr Michelle Cain, an EGU member who participated in NERC’Policy Placement Fellowship Scheme

Science-policy placements provide scientists with the opportunity to use their knowledge within a policy-orientated organisation. This could include working with a local government, supporting an NGO or undertaking a project within a larger political body such as the UN or the EU.

There are many reasons that you may decide to take a temporary sidestep from your current career path to a science-policy placement. Undertaking a placement gives you a chance to try something new. Even if you are completely satisfied with your current position, working in a different sector is likely to expand your skill set, illuminate research topics you may not have considered and open up new networks and opportunities to share your research. Taking a step away from your research for a limited period of time may also allow you to look at it with fresh eyes or from a different perspective. Furthermore, it can prepare you for contributing to the policymaking process directly through processes such as the Register of Commission Expert Groups.

On a metalevel, science-policy placements can help integrate science and policy by creating channels for communication and generating a shared understanding about how both academic and policy sectors function.Science-policy placements come in many different forms. They can be as short as one week or as long as four years with variants suitable for researchers at all career levels. The four, primary science-policy placement categories are outlined below:

  1. Internships are normally aimed at students or early career scientists and are typically for a period of between three and six months. Science-policy internships can be found in a plethora of organisations and sectors. Despite not always being paid, internships are a great way to gain an understanding of the science-policy interface and the different roles that exist.
  2. Fellowships are aimed at early to mid-level career professionals who are able to contribute their knowledge and skills to the organisation that they join while allowing them to simultaneously learn new skills to enhance their own expertise. It should be noted that the term ‘fellowship’ is used very broadly and as a result fellowships schemes can range from a paid internship to a secondment in both functionality and fellow responsibilities.
  3. Secondments allow employees to temporarily change roles within the same institute or with a partner organisation. Secondments are believed to expand both the skillsets and interests of the employee, thereby increasing their motivation and ability. Secondments can last from a couple of months to four years and can be on a full time or part-time basis. The employer generally continues to pay the researchers’ wages although the hosting organisation may also supplement their income. This is an excellent option for researchers who are happy with their current position but would like to try something new.
  4. Pairing Schemes involve researchers and policymakers sharing their experiences by spending one week to a few months at each other’s place of employment.

 

Traineeships at the Parliament © European Union 2016 – European Parliament

Despite working as the EGU Policy Officer and with policymakers for the last couple of years, I have never undertaken a science-policy placement. So, I decided to interview Dr Michelle Cain, an EGU member who participated in NERC’s Policy Placement Fellowship Scheme, to get a first-hand insight into the benefits and challenges of being involved with a science-policy placement.

During her 18 month NERC Policy Placement, Michelle worked two days per week advising the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on air quality modelling while continuing her own research. Although she was taken on as the expert within the Department, Michelle was “[…] surprised by how knowledgeable the policy staff were on specific air quality models and the science behind the policy”.

I was surprised by how knowledgeable the policy staff were on specific air quality models and the science behind the policy.

Michelle noted that working in the government department was a “very different world to that of a Post Doc” with “very quick deadlines” and with research topics “determined by the upcoming needs of policymakers” rather than her personal interest. Michelle believed that many scientists may also struggle with the concise nature of the policy briefs as, “most research needs to be summarised in 1-2 pages”.

Despite some of the challenges, Michelle believed her experience with Defra improved her “ability to communicate to a wider audience and pinpoint the most critical pieces of information”. She believes this not only helps her to “communicate research more thoroughly to policymakers but also to the general public as well as friends and family”. The experience also connected her with people working in policy who she would not have known otherwise and who she feels that she can still communicate her research with even though the placement has ended.

The [NERC Policy Placement] improved my ability to communicate to a wider audience and pinpoint the most critical pieces of information.

Michelle believes “the process behind getting science into decision-making is usually too opaque” but by undertaking the placement she was able to “gain an insight into the potential opportunities and avenues that do exist to share my research”. Although it might not be for everyone, Michelle said she would “recommend a similar placement to anyone who was interested in the policy realm or who was thinking about moving in that direction”.

What else should you consider before applying for a science-policy placement?

A few other things you may want to consider before applying for a science-policy placement include: the location (e.g. whether you would like to stay in your current city or perhaps go to an area geographically relevant to your research), the type of organisation (e.g. local government, a regional level institution or a private but politically-orientated organisation) and the skills or knowledge that you would like to gain (e.g. how to present your research to policymakers, how science is used in policymaking or event organisation).

See the EGU Geoscience Policy Internship, Fellowship and Secondment Opportunities to learn more about specific science-policy placements in Europe and around the world. You can also email policy@egu.eu for more information or sign up to the EGU Database of Expertise for regular science-policy updates.

Cartooning science at EGU 2017 with Matthew Partridge (a.k.a Errant Science)

Cartooning science at EGU 2017 with Matthew Partridge (a.k.a Errant Science)

Most researchers are regular conference-goers. Tell a geoscientist you are attending the EGU General Assembly and they will most likely picture rooms full of people listening to a miriad of talks, many an hour chatting to colleagues old and new and you desperately trying to find your way around the maze that is the Austria Centre Vienna (where the conference is held). Describing your experiences to others (not so familiar with the conference set-up) can be a lot more tricky.

Cue Matthew Partridge, author of Errant Science, a blog which features (~) weekly cartoons and posts about the world of research.

With the aim to demystify what happens during a week-long conference, Matthew set himself the challenge of keeping a daily diary of his time at the 2017 General Assembly. As if that weren’t a tall enough order, the posts feature not only a witty take on his time in Vienna, but also cartoons! Whilst battling a huge sense of ‘impostor syndrome‘ (Matthew’s words, not ours), Matthew’s daily posts bring the conference to life.

With Errant Science (Matthew’s twitter alter ego is possibly better know) at the conference, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity of speaking to him. Video camera in hand, our press assistant, Kai Boggild, talked with Matthew about his motivations for blogging about the conference and that badger cartoon.

If you didn’t read Matthew’s posts while the conference was taking place in April, grab a coffee and get comfortable, they should be enjoyed repeatedly!

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