PNAS: James Annan, Climate Change Researcher

i-e1aada3aef3a556feea8b5d0e60a12dc-james_tsurugi.jpg(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of James Annan)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I’m a research scientist at a Govt lab, working in the field of climate change research. Currently I’m in Japan, which is probably a bit off-the-wall for most readers, but previously I’ve worked in two UK labs and I’ve chosen my answers to apply generally.

2) What is your science background?

Maths degree and DPhil, both from Oxford University.

3) What led you to this job?

In general terms, after 6 solid years of rather abstract maths, I wanted to do something more useful, and I thought it would suit my skills rather better. Also, I didn’t really want to spend a large part of my life teaching, so continuing in a university environment didn’t appeal that much. My father worked in a Govt lab (although a very different field) so I’d always been aware of it as a plausible career.

In detail, my first job out of university was in an agricultural research lab (agroeconomics and mathematical modelling), followed by coastal oceanography, and now global climate change. Part of the reason for this diverse path is a typical academic 2-body problem – my wife has a physics background and for the latter two jobs we have worked at the same lab. Part of it is just that these places happened to offer me jobs when I was looking, especially my current position in Japan 🙂

Fortunately, I’ve found mathematical and computing skills to be very transferrable, and it has not been difficult to contribute across this range of fields.

4) What’s your work environment like?

Currently a cubicle in a semi open-plan office. In my first job as a junior scientist, I had an office to myself – it just depends on the logistics of the building, although that much luxury is probably rather rare. Plenty of scientists in similar jobs get out in the field but it’s never been part of my work.

In a broader sense, the working environment of most Govt labs is pretty good – they tend to have flexible and family-friendly working conditions, decent holiday entitlement, reasonable training and career development etc etc.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

My job basically consists of designing, testing and running numerical algorithms and computer models to simulate the climate system, including analysing the outputs of the programs and comparing to observational data, and writing up results for publication. In the UK an unreasonably large proportion of time was spent grovelling (unsuccessfully for the most part) for research grants, but that’s not the case for me in Japan. Typically in a job like this there is a mix of relatively “blue-skies” academic research where you can pursue your on ideas (albeit this needs to be aligned with the general mission of the lab) and more tightly directed results-oriented work that is directly focussed on responding to the requirements of funding agencies or commercial buyers.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

It is fundamental both to get the job, and to do it. My job is basically academic research, minus the teaching. In fact I was rather surprised to see Chad drawing the distinction between university and other research, as it doesn’t really feel to me like there is such a divide in the UK (or Japan for that matter). Many colleagues and collaborators are in university posts, we generally apply for the same funding streams, and there is a reasonable amount of labour mobility between the two types of institutes.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

They are advertised in the obvious places, I got my first two jobs from the back pages of NewScientist and there are more focussed mailing lists and websites like the met-jobs email list for weather prediction and climate. Obviously the more relevant your background is the better, but you *don’t* need any established connection through your current supervisor, and indeed UK labs are generally obliged to be as transparent and objective as possible in recruitment.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

How to spot to the crux of a problem among the mess of extraneous details.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Pick a famous supervisor who will get you some early papers in one of the glamour mags.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

In the UK, you might expect to start around 25k UKP with a PhD, rising to maybe 35-40k after a decade or so. Some may see 50-60k or more if they get to the higher levels of management, but not many will!