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Recapping the APECS-AGU Cryosphere Career Panel: Applying for the Next Step

Photo Credit: Jana Asenbrennerova/

L-R: Dr. Asa Rennermalm, Dr. Twila Moon, Dr. Bob Rich, and Dr. Sophie Nowicki at the APECS-AGU Cryosphere Careers Panel, December 14, 2017. Photo Credit: Jana Asenbrennerova/

At the American Geophysical Union last month, APECS and AGU continued the tradition of cosponsoring the Cryosphere Careers Panel. The panel, which included a mix of both academic and non-academic scientists, was comprised of Dr. Åsa Rennermalm, Dr. Bob Rich, Dr. Twila Moon, and Dr. Sophie Nowicki.

From the academic side, Dr. Rennermalm is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University. Dr. Moon is a Lecturer at Bristol Glaciology Centre, University of Bristol. Dr. Moon has broad experience applying to jobs in both the U.S. and the U.K., where she recently moved and started a tenure-track position.

From outside academia, representing someone who has pursued what he calls a "non-traditional science career," Dr. Rich is Executive Director of the U.S. Arctic Research Consortium (ARCUS). While pursuing his PhD in Chemistry at UC Berkeley, he realized that he didn't want to be in a lab all day but he really wanted to keep working with scientists on a deep level. As a result, he sought out a career path that would help improve people's lives on a wholesale level using science. In May 2015, he began working at ARCUS as Executive Director, where he is responsible for a staff of 14 people, including scientists, project managers, administrative support, and technology experts.

Finally, Dr. Nowicki is a research scientist and deputy lab chief at the Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA Goddard. In other words, she's a civil servant doing science for the US government.

Applying for the next step

As the target audience largely included early-career scientists looking to make a jump from one stage to the next, the discussion centered on "applying for the next step." What follows is a summary of the questions, most of which came from students and postdocs in the audience, and the panelists.

Q: How did you decide on what jobs to apply for? What should people be looking for?

Dr. Rennermalm: I started looking for faculty jobs in the first year of my post-doc. I only applied to places where I was interested in working – I was picky. I was very lucky I got a job that year. That was in 2008. After that there was a financial crisis, and jobs became more scarce. You have to weigh how picky you can be. If I had known the world economy would collapse, I might have applied for more jobs. I recommend that you don’t just look for cryosphere jobs because your skills are broad and you don't want to limit yourself. You might have expertise in GIS, remote sensing, or other things institutions might be looking for that are not necessarily restricted to the cryosphere.

Dr. Moon: This is a very personal decision. My mentor told me she always wished that people know coming in that science can be a "gypsy" lifestyle. How important is it that you’re in a specific location or a specific type of job? Think as widely as possible about your skills and how you might be happy. We generally are in a system with fairly standard role models of work (i.e., graduate school to postdoc(s) to tenure-track faculty position), and I’m one of them. But the reality is we have many more types of jobs: faculty, industry, national labs, and other roles, like playing a role in policy.

And really, think quite seriously yourself about where you would be happy living, taking into account things that are not just related to your job. These can be more difficult decisions if you have a partner or family. I only thought about the U.S. and it wasn’t until someone approached me about the job at Bristol that I even thought about going to another country. Look widely and think widely. One thing that is underused in science but is maybe a well-recognized technique in business is the informational interview. Think of people who have jobs you want and get in touch with them and ask them those questions. You’re not asking for a job – you’re asking about their job, how they got there, and what they do with their time.

Dr. Rich: I would encourage people to consider the possibility of working in non-profit organizations. What I found as I started saying that government or industry wasn't what I wanted to do was that there are many non-profit organizations working on polar issues. What kind of person might want to take a job like this? Someone who is thinking big-picture all of the time, and not so much focused on very minute details.

I think there’s a really important role for researchers who can really understand a problem in depth, but the work we do (in non-profits) is much more broad: you need to look at the whole landscape of the field and figure out how to advance it collectively. I was always the kind of student who preferred to read the front pages of science rather than the back pages. If you like to do big-picture thinking, maybe this type of job is for you. Science policy, science journalism, science management – basically they're non-traditional careers that are real and important and really can make a difference.

Dr. Nowicki: I had gone to conferences for five years and there was knowledge about who I was. At a SCAR conference in Russia, a lot of people said we’re hiring -- why don’t you consider coming to work for us? I was really happy in London and wasn’t looking for a job, but finally, I said, "Okay. I haven’t seen a friend in D.C. and Goddard will fly me over." So I went thinking nothing of it. But then, I got offered the job and it was too fantastic to turn down. So, network a lot so people know you and what you can do. But don’t apply for a job that you’re going to say no to and only apply for things you really want to do. Or else you might be in a position where you have to accept a job you don’t want. What’s good for you is, in my mind, very important.

Q: What criteria did you use to find jobs you ended up applying to?

Dr. Moon: Largely location, but I was interested in a school where research would be a large portion of the job. I started quite early applying for jobs being quite picky, but as you get further along you get less picky, and there’s an end-date to your funding. You might either have to start with a location and become less picky about the type of work you do, or start with a type of institution and become less picky about location. I would encourage my previous self to start out with broader criteria and apply for more jobs because the interview process is the time to ask questions, be honest.

Dr. Rennermalm: I had no teaching experience as an assistant professor, so that took some time to learn on the ground. Rutgers hired me based on my research credentials and potential alone and just assumed that I would become a good teacher – and I did. Other universities may want to see some teaching experience. I am encouraging my grad students to get teaching experience – just some.

Dr. Rich: If the job involves some scientific competence, your potential employer going to look at your research. Is it substantial enough to empower you to think like a researcher, do science and get publications? That’s all really important. Likewise if what we are hiring is for education-type thing (like ARCUS’ POLARTrec) – we’re looking for people with strong educational skills – teaching, putting together a syllabus, etc. The most important thing is understanding the job description that’s put out and being very responsive to it both in your cover letter and your resume. That’s going to be what gets you in the door and gets you an interview.

Dr. Nowicki: I'd stress that you need to tailor. It never hurts you to publish as much as possible right now because you want to demonstrate that you can carry-out research and communicate through research. Publish, publish, publish, because once you get into a tenure-track system, you’ll be worried about teaching and developing new courses. You won’t have time to do your own research. So if you were my postdoc, I would want you to have a few publications that are submitted, so that once they are accepted, you actually are in the tenure-track system. Be creative and publish.

Q: How do you find non-academic jobs and network with people without it becoming an all-time consuming task?

Dr. Rich: The first thing to do is to generally get the sense of the things you enjoy doing and that you’re good at doing. Once you do that, have a conversation with someone working in one of these fields. Based on your interests and skills, that will allow you to winnow-down fields of interest. I'd also recommend some books, like the Guide to Non-Traditional Careers in Science. Networking can also be very valuable. Focus on people doing things you want to be doing. With LinkedIn and all sorts of tools, there are lots of ways to find people you might want to talk to, like through informational interviewing, too.

Dr. Moon: I got in touch with someone who lived close to me who worked for Nature Conservancy and then asked them, "Who else should I meet with and talk to?" I'd recommend looking at the different organizations and people you know, the friends you have, and asking for those introductions and being bold. People like talking about what they do.

Q: What opportunities are there for students only with a masters degree? Do you hire such people?

Dr. Nowicki: We do at Goddard. It might be more guided in a role where you help the scientist. Someone will tell you that you need to develop this and that. Having a Masters alone doesn’t stop you from coming to work at a federal agency, but it will be more directed in the sense that there will be a clear subject of research.

Dr. Rich: In ARCUS we have more people with Masters than PhDs. I’m the only one with a PhD and five have employees with Masters degrees. There are lots of opportunities no matter what level you’re at. Having that deep understanding of science is useful across the entire science sphere.

Q: How do you find research-only positions?

Dr. Rennermalm: There are research-only professors, but they’re mostly funded by grants. NSIDC and NASA might have such positions, too.

Dr. Nowicki: There are also university APL labs... so I think, if you want to just go pure research, no teaching, it usually just means you have to bring a salary.

Dr. Rich: Every university has research professor positions. They’re real positions but they’re what’s called soft money – you bring in your own grants.

Dr. Moon: You have to take evaluation of your own comfort with risk and financial stability. It’s the difference between looking at a salaried job and, if you’re willing to be a bit riskier, or have a spouse, etc., then that can you allow you to be a pure researcher.

Q: What do you think of the incoming administration’s impact on climate science?

Dr. Rich: What I would say is, at this point, there is no reason to fear for a career in climate science. The reality is that the science is what it is. And for a few years, or however long somebody in charge of the government, is saying this doesn’t exist, that’s eventually going to correct itself. In the meantime, I would not discourage people from going into this field. It’s incredibly important to study the polar regions and incredibly timely. I think about the release of the NOAA Report Card yesterday and Governor Brown’s presentation this morning. He was talking about changes at the federal level, but they’re not changing at the state-level in California, and they will oppose any cutbacks to science. How to contend in changes with public policy panel at AGU. This is not a time to give up on this kind of research – it’s tremendously important for the future of this planet and get at the truth, it’s the only way we’re going to get better.

Dr. Nowicki: Honestly, we don’t know yet how it will impact NASA. It may be that we get a hiring freeze, but maybe we won’t. The only thing we can do is do the best science we can do. Whatever you do, always give your best shot. Even if it’s uncertain times, don’t panic, do your best, really do what you believe in, and people will notice you.

Photo Credit: Jana Asenbrennerova/

L-R: Dr. Asa Rennermalm, Dr. Twila Moon, Dr. Bob Rich, and Dr. Sophie Nowicki at the APECS-AGU Cryosphere Careers Panel, December 14, 2017. Photo Credit: Jana Asenbrennerova/

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