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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.

The best of Imaggeo in 2014: in pictures.

From the rifting of the African continent, to mighty waterfalls in Slovenia, through to a bird’s eye view of the Glarus Thurst in the Alps, images from Imaggeo, the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository, they have given us some stunning views of the geoscience of Planet Earth and beyond. In this post we have curated some of our favourites, including header images from across our social media channels and Immageo on Mondays blog posts of 2014. Of course, these are only a few of the very special images we highlighted in 2014, but take a look at our image repository, Imaggeo, for many other spectacular geo-themed pictures, including the winning images of the 2014 Photo Contest. The competition will be running again this year, so if you’ve got a flare for photography or have managed to capture a unique field work moment, consider uploading your images to Imaggeo and entering the Photo Contest.

Kilimanjaro from Mount Meru Credit: Alexis Merlaud (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Kilimanjaro from Mount Meru Credit: Alexis Merlaud (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Plate tectonics in East Africa created Kilimajaro and have also played a role in early human evolution, by shaping the local landscape and the long-term climate, thus modifying the environment of our ancestors. East Africa is the area in the world where most of the hominid fossils have been discovered, including Homo sapiens – the oldest fossil record is 200,000 years old and started to move out from Africa 100,000 years ago!

Peričnik waterfall, an amazing sight in Slovenia’s Triglav National Park. (Credit: Cyril Mayaud, distributed by imaggeo.egu.eu)

Peričnik waterfall, an amazing sight in Slovenia’s Triglav National Park. (Credit: Cyril Mayaud, distributed by imaggeo.egu.eu)

The picture above shows the lower Peričnik waterfall during winter season. This cascade system is composed of two successive waterfalls that stretch some 16 metres (upper fall) and 52 metres (lower fall) high and is one of the most beautiful natural sights in the Triglav National Park (Slovenia). The cliff is located at the western rim of a U shaped valley and is composed of a very permeable conglomerate rock, which is made up of glacier material that accumulated at the rims of the valley back when the glacier retreated.

Black Rolling.  (Credit: Philippe Leloup via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Black Rolling. (Credit: Philippe Leloup via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Polished slab of a mylonitic level of the Ailao Shan Red River shear zone (SE Asia) with an anphibole-rich layer showing left-lateral rolling structure (total width ~20 cm).

Hessdalen sky & Aurora. (Credit: Bjørn Gitle Hauge distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Hessdalen sky & Aurora. (Credit: Bjørn Gitle Hauge distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The night sky over Hessdalen Valley. Together with the radar an all-sky Nikon D700 camera monitors the whole night sky, covering the same area/view as the radar. The camera is equipped with an 8 mm fisheye lens computer controlled by Nikons Camera Control pro2 software, shooting simultaneous pictures with 30 seconds of shutter opening.

Men and children drawing water for irrigation during a sandstorm. (Credit: Velio Coviello via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Men and children drawing water for irrigation during a sandstorm. (Credit: Velio Coviello via imaggeo.egu.eu)

One of the winning images of the EGU 2014 Photo Contest, sheds light on the problems associated with conserving soils and water in Western Africa.

Desert fires feeding a convective cloud system over Mono Lake, California. (Credit: Gabriele Stiller distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Desert fires feeding a convective cloud system over Mono Lake, California. (Credit: Gabriele Stiller distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Wildfires frequently break out in the Californian summer. The grass is dry, the ground parched and a small spark can start a raging fire, but burning can begin even when water is about. When a blaze started beside Mono Lake, what got it going and what it may have started in the sky?

Moonlit glacier. (Credit: Marco Matteucci distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Moonlit glacier. (Credit: Marco Matteucci distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Early morning wake-up at the moonlit Alpine refuge Quintino Sella in the Felik glacier (3585 m). Mount Rosa ridge, Valle d’Aosta, Italy.

Air, Fire, Earth and Water. (Credit: Sabrina Matzger via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Air, Fire, Earth and Water. (Credit: Sabrina Matzger via imaggeo.egu.eu)

In the summer of 2001, southern Iceland, including the Reykjanes peninsula, was struck by a series of earthquakes, the largest of which was magnitude 6.6. Following the earthquakes, the water levels in Lake Kleifarvatn began to drop; by 2001 the water level had diminished by 4m. A fissure, approximately 400m long and 30cm wide, observed in the vicinity of the lake, was seen to disappear below its waters. It is thought the fissure is responsible for the draining of the lake between 2000 and 2001.

Glarus Alps. (Credit: Kurt Stüwe, via imaggeo.egu.eu

Glarus Alps. (Credit: Kurt Stüwe, via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Undoubtedly, the Alps are one of the best studied mountain ranges in the world. Appreciating their immense beauty and geological wealth can be difficult from the ground, given their vast scale and the inaccessibility of some of their more challenging peaks. Kurt Stüwe, along with alpine photographer Ruedi Homberger, set about changing this by undertaking the ambitious task of photographing the length of the Alps, from Nice to Vienna, in a small aircraft. The result is a compilation of stunning photographs that capture the magnificence of the Alps and contribute to a better understanding of their geological history.

Choosing amongst the 12 beautiful header images we’ve had this year was not easy! Here we highlight three; but in truth, they are all worthy of mention!

Morning Voyage. (Credit: Sierra Pope distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Morning Voyage, the April 2014 header image. (Credit: Sierra Pope distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Parque Nacional de Timanfaya – Montañas del Fuego, Lanzarote. Header image of September 2014. (Credit: Frederik Tack distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Parque Nacional de Timanfaya – Montañas del Fuego, Lanzarote. Header image of September 2014. (Credit: Frederik Tack distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Mount Moran. Credit: Josep Miquel Ubalde Bauló distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Mount Moran, October 2014. Credit: Josep Miquel Ubalde Bauló distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Mount Moran (12,605 feet (3,842 m)) is a mountain in Grand Teton National Park of western Wyoming, USA. Mount Moran dominates the northern section of the Teton Range rising 6,000 feet (1,800 m) above Jackson Lake.[4] Several active glaciers exist on the mountain with Skillet Glacier plainly visible on the monolithic east face. Like the Middle Teton in the same range, Mount Moran’s face is marked by a distinctive basalt intrusion known as the Black Dike.

As these highlights show, 2014 has spoilt us with an incredible set of images! We look forward to more in 2015. Best wishes from EGU for the new year!

 

If you pre-register for the 2015 General Assembly (Vienna, 12 – 17 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

Showcase your film at GeoCinema!

Every year, we showcase a great selection of geoscience films at the EGU General Assembly and after four successful years we will again be running GeoCinema in 2014. If you’ve shadowed a scientist in the lab, filmed fantastic spectacles in the field, or have produced an educational feature on the Earth, planetary or space sciences, we want to hear from you.

GeoCinema features short clips and longer films related to the geosciences, and from animations to interviews, all films are welcome. If you would like to contribute to this popular event, please fill out the submission form by 20 December 2013.

To get a feel for what we have screened in previous years, take a look at the online archive, with films that explore all facets of geoscience – from ocean depths to outer space.

Suitable films will be screened at GeoCinema during the EGU 2014 General Assembly in Vienna (27 April–2 May 2014). Note that you must be able to provide us with the film on DVD and you must have appropriate permission to show the feature in a public venue.

Just a Sample - GeoCinema

If you have any questions about GeoCinema, or the submissions process, please send an email to geocinema@egu.eu.

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