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Shifting your career path in a changing scientific climate

Published on: Oct 20, 2023

In December 1972, when the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, landed on the moon, I was an undergraduate working in a research group that used data from seismometers the astronauts installed and left behind. It was exciting to have even a very minor part in a group investigating the moon’s structure and evolution.  However, we knew the Apollo program would soon be ending.

President John Kennedy started the program in 1961.  By 1972, at least 400,000 people had been involved, and $23 billion (about $135 billion in today’s dollars) had been spent.  President Richard Nixon saw no reason to continue the effort, given political and budgetary considerations. I would have liked Apollo to continue, but recognized the counterarguments. For example, each Apollo mission cost about the same as the entire annual National Science Foundation budget.

Within a few years, our group dispersed. The professor leading the group became a leader in exploration geophysics. My supervisor went on to a distinguished career in nuclear explosion monitoring. The graduate students started successful careers in the oil industry. I went to grad school and studied the earth’s normal modes and the evolution of the Indian Ocean.

This experience taught me something all scientists learn—research priorities and hence funding change. Sometimes the reasons are political; many areas that were supported heavily during the Cold War were viewed as less crucial afterwards.  Some programs are victims of success; – their results are good enough that the case for doing more seems weak. Others, like the effort to predict earthquakes, end because they were unsuccessful.  Often changes reflect a fixed budget—starting new programs requires ending existing ones. Hence expensive programs that have been growing for a while are likely to level out and eventually contract.

President Trump and the new Congress may make policy changes. There is much discussion within AGU and the larger scientific community about the new administration’s possible priorities and their consequences for science. The resulting uncertainty is causing concerns, especially among young scientists starting careers.

Although it would be nice for those of us with decades of experience to offer profound advice to our younger colleagues, we can’t for the simple reason that we don’t know any more than they do about what will happen. However, some suggestions, although none very profound, may be worth considering:

Recognize that things usually change slowly

The government, universities, and other parts of the scientific ecosystem are heavily damped systems. The time from initial discussions to something actually occurring is typically years and often decades apart. For example, the Magellan spacecraft that mapped Venus was proposed in the early 1970s and reached Venus in 1990. Hence, uncertainty about the future will persist for a long time.

Appreciate that science goes on

During boom years when funding abounds, new data pours in. We can’t do as much in lean years, but lots of good work gets done on the cheap. There’s time to carefully think over data that had gotten only quick inspection before, develop new methods of analyzing data, and draw new conclusions. The resulting advances can set the stage for new programs to be launched when funding grows again.

Accept that scientists have to adapt

Whether we like it or not, we have to adapt as priorities and funding change. This is frustrating when budgets are cut, and exciting when new opportunities arise. We have to decide—with incomplete information—whether to scale back what we want to do and keep going, or to do something else. Scientists often switch research areas, which is tough at any career stage. Established scientists typically have more job security and resources, but less flexibility.  Younger scientists have more flexibility but less security.

Assess and diversify your interests

Ask yourself what you’d do if you couldn’t continue what you’re doing. You’ll quickly realize that there are many other problems that you might enjoy working on. If you’re not already working in several areas, consider diversifying. Branching out, especially when publications result, can help you regardless of how funding and opportunities evolve.  Most scientists don’t keep doing what they did in their thesis or as a postdoc, and many employers look to hire people based on their long-term prospects.

Consider plans B, C, etc.

Ask yourself what you’d do if you couldn’t get your dream job. You’ll quickly realize that there are many other jobs – some in geoscience and some not – that you might enjoy and be good at.  Some of these likely have distinct advantages compared to your top choice. It may make sense to explore some of these other options in addition to trying for your top choice. In thinking about options, listen to both your heart – what you want – and head – what’s realistic.

Assess and diversify your skills

Think about your strengths and skills. In addition to specific skills you’re using in your research, you’re acquiring a wide range of others. These may involve dealing with data, working with various equipment, field methods, communication and teaching, etc. These skills are likely to be useful whatever you decide to do in the future, so think about strengthening and documenting them.  For example, Northwestern offers a program for Ph.D. students in science that also yields an M.S. in applied statistics.

Consider your brand

Make it easy for employers looking for specific skills to identify what you know and can do.  A lot depends on how you describe yourself for a specific application.  The same work can be “natural hazards” or “earthquake recurrence”, “glaciology” or “climate research,” etc.

Advocate for science

Although elected officials make most science policy decisions, you can have influence as a constituent and an expert. Let your senators and representative know your views about policies under consideration – your vote is as good as anyone else’s. AGU has policy and communications related programs you can get involved with, such as  Sharing Science. Consider joining AGU at the March for Science in Washington, DC, or a sister march. AGU has joined a number of other partner organizations in this celebration of the value of science. Visit AGU’s March for Science page for information, downloadable posters, and other activities surrounding the event.

In dealing with changes in the scientific climate, think of how three apocryphal sailors respond when the wind changes to an unfavorable direction.  The pessimist complains, the optimist hopes the wind will change back, and the realist adjusts the sails.

Seth Stein is William Deering Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University and president-elect of AGU’s Natural Hazards focus group.