Jon – Soil Scientist

Think rock-eating mushrooms are your thing? Would you like to become a scientist who will help the world overcome the huge issues it is facing including climate change, food security and sea level rise? Jon could have more information for you on your future career so read on…

What attracted you to this job?

More generally, I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world – particularly geology, and that guided my choices of higher education without ever thinking specifically of a ‘job’ that I wanted to do. It was very much a case of wanting to spend my time working on things that interested me, rather than making money or seeking power (just as well really…).

What does your typical day involve?

Currently I’m working on mathematical and computer models of the way in which minerals are weathered, or slowly dissolved, by the action of fungi in soils. Yep – rock-eating mushrooms (sort of)! So I spend most of my time sat at a desk while colleagues in other departments (and other universities) get to do some cool experiments with radioisotope tracers and electron microscopes. But I do get to travel several times a year, to European and American conferences which is very nice. I also support other researchers doing varied experiments, including using a hospital gamma camera (usually used to look inside people’s bodies) to make time-lapse movies of radioactive chemicals percolating through rocks. And last year I spent a week in the Arctic doing fieldwork on a glacier with a colleague of mine who’s interested in my main area of expertise – the way small (microscopic) particles move through sands, soils – and ice! So the work is pretty varied, to say the least.

What gives you the most job satisfaction?

When after a lot of head-scratching and trial-and-error and disappointment and confusion and dead-ends and arguments about how a process might work, you finally hit the nail on the head and the model/experiment/equation you are working on springs into life, sometimes in unexpected but obvious-with-hindsight ways. That makes the pain worthwhile. Its also pretty exciting to see your name in print in scientific journals, especially when someone else has cited your work to support theirs. You feel like you are making a real contribution to the ‘small island of knowledge’.

What do your friends and family think about your job?

To be honest I’m not sure a lot of them really know what I really do, apart from that I’m a scientist working on ‘soils or contamination or something like that.’ I’m probably not that forthcoming about it, partly because about 80% of the time I’m in that ‘head scratching’ zone (see previous comment) and therefore I don’t really know what I’m doing either! It’s not a really controversial area of science and technology and at my current career stage I’m only just starting to see the edges of some ‘really big questions’ that will have impacts on everyone’s lives – things like whether our soils will be able to support the global demand for food in the next 50-100 years. I think if I can help ensure that, then my family will be quite impressed…

Tell us more about your environment in terms of work-life balance

I’ve managed to carve out a part-time research career, as my wife and I are both juggling work with raising our two pre-school kids. This is rather unusual I think and I’ve been quite lucky to have a supportive boss; however the big challenge will be maintaining this as I take the next step on the career ladder, which is *usually* into a time-demanding full-time (but permanent) academic position. The most frustrating thing at the moment is being on fixed term contracts (usually 1-3 years) which mean that I can’t apply for new grants to keep myself employed. Catch-22!

How did you get to where you are today?

I have a fairly standard set of basic qualifications for an environmental scientist – A-levels in Physics, Geography and IT, an undergraduate degree in earth sciences (well, Planetary Science in fact – thats a bit more unusual!), a masters in Environmental Science which led on to a PhD in Environmental Engineering (again that’s slightly unusual). I probably have a much more generalist background than many of my colleagues at work, who have come into environmental science/engineering from pure or applied chemistry/microbiology or more traditional geology backgrounds.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of following your path?

Go for it – but be warned it doesn’t make a lot of money, no-one really understands what you’re for and you have to be pretty self-motivated in the face of what can seem like pointless adversity! Crikey, that sounds pretty off-putting. Well, as I said, the intellectual rewards are worth it, and the international travel is also great. There are also some really big, humanity-threatening problems out there to solve – climate change, water supplies, food security, renewable and nuclear energy, environmental hazards, asteroid impacts, sea level rise… As for words of wisdom, be flexible, be interested in lots of different things so you have plenty of potential career paths. Keep your options open. But I suppose the best advice I can give (and wish I’d been given), through gritted teeth, is “learn to love maths” – or at least, to recognise its universal value in science. Find someone who can explain things like partial differentiation in terms that apply to a subject you really love, and suddenly it will start to make sense. Promise.

How well is your job compensated? What is the starting salary for someone in your field, and how much can this be expected to rise?

It is pretty reasonable, but not stellar, at least at my rung on the career ladder. If I worked full-time I’d earn about £30,000 per year, but I have to say that is pretty small fry compared to other people of my age (somewhere north of 30) and qualifications. The starting salary for a fresh young researcher straight out of a PhD is something under £25,000, and researchers or technicians pre-PhD perhaps £20,000 or less. However, once (if) you get on the academic career ladder the pay can start increasing quite fast through the £30,000s and £40,000s depending on how much you play the ‘promotions game’. A top professor with an international reputation, lots of research projects, a large research group and active involvement in professional and academic offices can earn anything between £60- and £100,000 plus: they are a very valuable commodity. But they work very hard for it.

Out of ‘office hours’, what lights your fire?

Ha ha! With two young kids and a house and garden there’s not a lot of time for hobbies. Plus, you do quite quickly get used to taking work home, not in a briefcase but in your head, usually… Once upon a time I played guitar, read loads (not just science books either) went running and walking in the Peak District.

Have there been any embarrassing moments?

Um… pretty much every conference presentation is an embarrassing moment. I get very nervous speaking in front of groups of any size – writing is more my thing, because it allows you to formulate ideas in several different ways quickly before fixing them on the page. You should hear the knots I get tied into when I try to do that during a seminar. Yuk!