Between a Rock and a Hard Place; Being a Researcher with Industry Experience

Kirstie Wright


Most people assume that when you undertake a PhD, you are set on a career in academia. Nothing could be more uncertain, while an estimated 67% of PhD researchers want a career in academic research, within three years of completion 70% have moved on to careers outside academia1. It is also becoming more common for those who pursue postgraduate qualifications to not go directly from undergraduate degrees, but to enter employment and gain experience prior to returning to academia.

My career so far could be classed as non-traditional, with multiple forays back and forth into industry and academia. I am a Geoscientist with a deep passion for my subject and a slight obsession with rocks. I discovered geology as an A Level subject and since then I have been hooked, but it doesn’t mean I went straight to University. In fact, having gained my only ‘A’ at A Level thanks to geology and with an offer to study at the University of Leicester, I immediately went to Art College. This decision baffled friends, parents and teacher alike, but through it I gained key skills such as visual communication and spatial awareness. I admit it was unconventional and I never harboured any ambitions of becoming an artist, but it cemented by belief that science and art shouldn’t be mutually exclusive (but that’s for another blog…).

I moved on to undertake a four-year Masters Degree (MGeol) in Geology at the University of Leicester and a PhD at Durham University. Each of these qualifications was followed by a period in industry using the skills gained during my time in academia. The longest was following my PhD, where I was offered a job based on the knowledge and experience gained through my research. My PhD was focused on the Cenozoic volcanic stratigraphy and geomorphology of the flood basalts and a lava delta system in the Faroe-Shetland Basin, Northeast Atlantic Margin. Lava deltas are exactly as they sound – delta systems similar to those created by sediment but made from clasts of fragmented and brecciated lava, with modern examples seen on Hawaii (Fig 1).

Fig. 1. Lava flows entering the ocean and forming modern lava deltas during the 2018 Lower Puna eruption. Image of the Lower East Rift Zone, 14th June 2018, USGS.

Lava deltas develop where hot, molten lava encounters a body of water, cooling and quenching into hyaloclastites, and which is deep enough to form a wedge-shaped body that builds out with successive phases of lava flows. They often occur in extensional or volcanic rifted margin settings, which are characterised by continental break-up in Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs). LIPs are volcanic events that are extremely large in volume (>1 million km3), areally extensive (>100,000 km2) and typically of short duration (<5 million years), that can occur every 20 – 30 million years3. They consist of predominantly mafic extrusive and intrusive igneous rocks, including lava flows, sill complexes, volcanic centres and a range of volcaniclastic material.

Simply put, my research investigated the potential role volcanic rocks (lava flows, lava delta systems and volcaniclastic material) could have in recording key aspects of sedimentary basin development, specifically in an area called the Faroe-Shetland Basin between 63 – 56 Ma. During this time, what is now the Northeast Atlantic Ocean was rifting apart due to the presence of a LIP called the North Atlantic Igneous Province (NAIP). As the continents begin to break apart, it created sedimentary basins and provided the setting for a hydrocarbon-rich province north of Scotland. It is due to these resources that a significant amount of subsurface has been collected, including seismic reflection data (see Fig. 2). This helps to give us insight into the geology preserved kilometres below the Earth’s surface and was my primary means of investigation.

Fig. 2. Example of seismic reflection data with a combination of sedimentary and volcanic basin fill. I have used this type of data throughout my PhD, industry employment and postdocs, with my skills transferrable across my research areas and interests. Image of open access data in the Faroe-Shetland Basin, Oil and Gas Authority National Data Repository.

This work led to my employment as a Geoscientist for almost five years in the Exploration and Production department of a European-based national energy company. Don’t get me wrong, towards the end of my PhD I was interested in remaining in academia and looked for a research position, but there were few available. My PhD had not been easy (I mean whose really is?!) and I was ready for a break, so the idea of a stable job, regular pay and the potential to work on new and exciting projects was attractive.

Leaving academia did make me feel like a failure, and watching friends and colleagues go on to postdoc positions only intensified this. There was little advice for anyone leaving to pursue a career outside of research and the fact I was leaving for a job in the energy industry, was certainly frowned upon. This sadly was not a new feeling, given that my PhD was sponsored by the energy industry and as a result, I was often made to feel my research was less valued that that of “blue sky” research. However I have since learnt that industry is full of smart and innovative people who are no longer in academia for a whole variety of reasons. Their decision should not be seen as a failure, but rather branching out to demonstrate the practical use of a PhD. Without them, many amazing inventions and companies would not exist.

I believe academia could learn much from those who venture outside to create a career in industry and vice versa. We should see academia not as a pipeline, but as an ecosystem2 with each sector playing a part. Each can provide valuable skills and personnel to each other. For example while undertaking my PhD, I learned to think critically, analyse data and manage my time, while gaining an appreciation of collaboration and how to solve problems creatively. During my employment in industry, I learnt skills such as decision making, the ability to multitask and project management. I also gained a sense of professionalism and became better at communication by working with a wide range of colleagues, clients and service providers. These skills are complementary to each other and combine to make me a better employee, and an all-round better researcher.

In 2017, I made the decision to return to academia as a Post-Doctoral Researcher. While I knew several lecturers who had made the transition from industry to academia, I knew no one who had made the transition as a postdoc. Since then I have met only one other person who eventually returned to industry due the lack of stable employment. Coming back to research has been harder than I anticipated, and it sometimes feels like starting my career all over again. While I have been fortunate to work with those who value my industry experience, it has not always been the case when applying for positions or being recognised as more than cheap industry labour.

There is currently little help or advice for those transitioning from industry into academia, and it can feel like the game is rigged. Grants and fellowships are often geared to those who are finishing or have recently finished their PhD, and industry employment is not counted as a career break. So while my short time back in academia means my academic career is young and I qualify as early career, the time since graduating from my PhD disqualifies me from applying. There is also the lack of publications or academic track record (in comparison to my academic peers), due to the often commercially sensitive nature of industry which can present an issue when applying for positions, funding or fellowships. While I am working to improve my academic record and navigate the system, I believe the difficulties described above means that few industry experienced researchers consider returning to academia and there are no opportunities created for the potentially valuable skills they might bring to research.

Despite all this, I have not regretted the decision to return to academia as research is what I enjoy. I am now coming towards the end of my second postdoc and I am looking for my next position. I am currently at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, investigating tsunamigenic landslides and deep-water sedimentary systems in the Makassar Straits, Indonesia. While this work is quite different to both that of my PhD and any previous industry employment, I have been able to apply and expand my existing skillset to new research areas, continuing to develop as a researcher.

I have been unable to find any statistics on the number of people who enter or return to academia following a period of employment outside, either in industry or other research and development roles. I suspect this is because there are very few of us, but I hope this number will grow over time as we make great researchers, bringing a wealth of experience and knowledge that can benefit both the research environment and the students we engage with, giving them a wider perspective on their potential career paths. Therefore I encourage those of you thinking about gaining industry experience to gain some and not be afraid to return to academia when you feel ready. And for PI and project leaders, hire those of us with industry experience, you will be getting well-rounded and capable researchers!!

References:

1Cornell, B. (2020). PhD students and their careers. HEPI Policy Note 25. Link

2Tabassum, N., What on Earth?! Podcast, Nov 3 2020. Link

3Ernst, R.E., Dickson, A.J. and Bekker, A (eds). Large Igneous Provinces: A Driver of Global Environmental and Biotic Changes. Geophysical Monograph 255. Link

About Me:

Twitter: @rocksandwiggles

Website: www.rocksandwiggles.com

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