Continuing our mini-series on career profiles within the water management sector, this post covers the job of university researcher. For this I have the unenviable task of interviewing myself. I turned up late, wore sunglasses throughout, even though it was cloudy and was evasive and uncooperative in questioning. Thankfully the great production team managed to edit the interview very well.
So, silliness aside this is a profile of the job of Early Career Researcher in academia. Simon Dixon is a NERC Post Doctoral Research Fellow in the University of Birmingham Water Sciences Group within the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science.
What do you do during a typical day?
Most of the work I do day to day is computer based in an office. My current research project involves a lot of remote sensing work (processing and analysing satellite data) so I tend to work with GIS programs fairly extensively, as well as using/writing computer code. Apart from the actual work, the key currency in universities is publishing papers in academic journals so a fair bit of time is taken up with writing up and revising papers.
Depending on what area of research you are currently working on the actual day to day work can vary enormously. People working on ecological or water quality/chemistry areas may spend a significant portion of time in a lab processing and analysing water samples. In my research group there are seven post-docs and currently there are four who are mainly desk based, one mainly lab based, one heavily focused on field work sampling and a couple of people who mix field/lab and desk work.
One of the main attractions of a career in research is investigating new things and making new discoveries. Most of the time these aren’t big exciting breakthroughs though, more like small incremental advances in how we understand aspects of river functions. There are variations between research groups but typically researchers are given a certain amount of autonomy to pursue different research avenues with a project (or outside of it) so you do have a degree of freedom in what you are researching even early in your career.
How much time do you spend working with rivers in the field?
My current job involves very little direct time in the field, over a 24 month contract I will expect to spend around 4 weeks actually on/near a river, which averages out to about 1 day every three weeks. Other research jobs would have significantly more field time, but this would still typically average out no more than 1 day a week. Again it will depend on the role, but usually a researcher won’t be doing anything TO a river, but will be using various bits of equipment to collect data on the river as part of some form of survey.
What qualifications do you need to get into an entry level job in this/your profession?
It will depend on whether research is conducted in a university or for a commercial organisation, but usually you will need a PhD. There are research assistant posts which require an MSc, but it would be hard to do a more junior research role for a long period of time. Typically people may move into a research assistant role and if they want to stay in research use this as a stepping stone to starting a PhD either full or part-time. Depending on the institution you may also need a masters degree in order to get entry onto a PhD in the first place. However, many universities will take on people with a 1st in a relevant BSc, and will accept a 2:1 alongside relevant work experience and an application that shows an aptitude for research. Research Council PhD’s are much more restrictive than privately funded ones, as they have strict guidelines on funding eligibility. If you have a 2:2 or 3rd in your first degree it is not impossible by any means to get into research, but you will almost certainly need a masters degree, relevant work experience in some aspect of the water industry and to look for a non research council PhD.
To work as a research assistant or a laboratory technician typically a masters degree would be required, however these positions can often be very competitive and many of these jobs are filled by people holding, or working towards a PhD.
What other things are useful/essential to get into the profession (work experience, professional membership)?
Although a PhD is typically required to be a researcher, it isn’t the case that everyone doing a PhD wants to be one! So I’ll just talk about the step from PhD to research in water science. As mentioned above the key currency of academia is publishing journal papers so even an entry level researcher would be expected to have one or more publications to their name. Another important aspect is making connections with other researchers (the dreaded ‘networking’!), this may mean you hear about jobs which are coming up, chances to work together on joint projects and be invited to attend conferences (where you can network some more!)
Researchers are also expected to generate their own research money through grants, so any evidence of aptitude in this field is very helpful. Later on in their career researchers would do more teaching, but experience in this area would not really become important in successfully getting a job until this point.
In terms of getting a first (or subsequent) research position bankable skills can be very important, and in some cases could make up for a lack of paper publishing. High level abilities in programming/coding, GIS/remote sensing, taxonomic identification in ecology research and experience with specific advanced field techniques can all be very useful skills. These tend to be more uncommon and so someone with those skills already saves the employer training them up.
What skills and knowledge would a researcher pick up in the first few years on the job?
Specific skills are very hard to quantify given the vast range of water science related projects. In my current job I have gained a lot of new GIS based skills around processing satellite data, as well as improved my coding skills for data processing. In general a researcher would improve their technical writing skills, and ability to convey complex information concisely. Most projects involve large amounts of data so often a researcher would become well versed in managing, cataloguing and querying large datasets and databases. Linked to this, statistics are important in many fields, particularly hydrology related ones, so they would gain or improve maths skills. GIS is also becoming increasingly important so most water science researchers would have at least a basic knowledge of programs like ArcGIS, if not fairly advanced skills.
What would be a typical career progression for someone in this area?
Difficult! A typical career path would involve working as a post-doctoral researcher for at least 2-5 years before working as a lecturer. All post-doctoral work is on short, fixed-term contracts (12-36 months), so typically a researcher would need to relocate 2 or 3 times (to another part of the country or overseas) before getting a lecturer job. There is then a progression through grades of lecturer up to professor; although only a small number of lecturers would eventually expect to achieve a professor position. The number of positions in various levels of academia decreases very sharply from PhD to post-doctoral researcher and then again to lecturer, this means for any post-doctoral or lecturer position the competition is fierce. Many people who start off on a career as a researcher are not fortunate enough to gain a permanent position. If the time taken to complete a PhD is factored in as the ‘entry level job’ a prospective researcher in today’s climate faces 8-10 years of job instability, possibly multiple house moves, and I would estimate a no better than 20% chance of landing a permanent job at the end of it! So it is important to go into the career path with realistic expectations.
Universities are increasingly looking to improve the professional development and skills training for people working as researchers on fixed-term contracts, in order to increase the attractiveness of researchers to non-academic employers. This helps researchers market themselves to other parts of the water management sector. Researchers often gain unusual, highly technical and sought after skill sets and so it can be seen as a coherent path to another job in industry, rather than necessarily just a career in its own right.
Keep an eye on the blog for further additions to this series. If you are a professional in the water industry and would like to take part in this series, particularly if we haven’t covered your career yet, please get in touch with Simon via twitter or email.