Now I know why the job of CSEG president only lasts one year: there are only so many mildly interesting topics one can write about month after month in one’s spare time. I have been on the road for a few weeks, and I have received strongly worded emails and one concerned phone call from the diligent RECORDER crew, so I had better put metaphorical pen to paper. I thought I would pass on some advice from a slightly old and mildly crusty geophysicist.
I have two strategies that have worked for me in my career. In this incredibly diverse profession, there are as many ways to succeed as there are successful geophysicists, so your mileage may vary.
Publish or perish
One great way to keep career continuity from job to job is to publish your work. In this business we see layoffs, takeovers, headhunters – any number of reasons for deviating from a linear career path. Your trail of conference presentation and journal publications can be one of the few legacies from years of service at a company that no longer exists in any form.
If you like to travel, one way to justify travel to conferences is showing your boss/partner/client the successfully accepted abstract to an important technical conference. If that conference happens to be in Melbourne, then the venue should be tolerable. After one has travelled to a reasonable extent, the novelty may not be as appealing. For me, I like having a presentation to offer at a conference such as PETEX in London a few weeks ago, because it gives me an opportunity to meet new people and learn about other geoscience problems during discussions after the talk.
The process of writing and preparing a geophysical study is long and painful, but it is this process that lets us organize our thoughts and ideas. I know what I did, and I know why I did it, but wow, it is not easy to clearly and understandably explain what the heck I was thinking and how I made any sense out of the results. Organizing slides, planning sections, defining headings and the rest of the various steps in the writing process help me organize my thoughts and structure my ideas. I have had the process of writing one paper lead to an idea for the next.
Assess your skills and interests. Explore the topics that really hold your interest and where investing in further skill development would pay off in terms of setting you apart from other geophysicists. Then, look around and see where there are needs in our industry or in academia. There are many specializations that have only a handful of experienced practitioners. Structural geology is a good example of a rarified field, because of the scarcity of the raw materials: geologists unafraid of math. I love my oversimplifications, so bear with me on this theory. A scientifically minded student graduates high school with a vague interest in the Earth or rocks or the outdoors. In first year of university, that student either says, “Wow, I just cannot recognize or memorize all of those rock types, but I’m doing pretty well in calculus” or, “This math is brutal! Good thing I can tell a wackestone from a bafflestone.” We bifurcate our geoscience students in first year into the math/ physics geeks and the memorization nerds, so then when it comes time to study structural geology, the memorizer expresses outrage over the geometry and trigonometry. “This is not what I signed up for.” So, we don’t have many structural geologists, relative to the size of our industry, and those professionals in our local community are in high demand globally.
One can look for rarified specializations that have fallen through the cracks, or watch for new trends in our science and develop new specialties. Those people who, ten years ago, started specializing in the obscure specialty of microseismic analysis look like prophetic geniuses today. I wish I knew how to identify these future trends but, again in hindsight, the microseismic trend makes sense in a mature basin where there are so many opportunities to extract more hydrocarbons from developing fields. That seems like a clue.
Even though I am keen on specialization, I must add the disclaimer that it is dangerous to get too narrow in focus. I was fortunate enough to be able to combine my interest in seismic anisotropy with my enthusiasm for rocky terrains and structural geology. When I initially tried to enter the industry, it was difficult to find a job with a background in anisotropy, which was considered esoteric and academic at the time. Having more than one specialization gives you an opportunity to spin one area or another. Later in my career, after gaining some understanding of seismic imaging and structural geology, I found it much easier to get a job interview and the interviews had fewer awkward questions like, “Do you consider yourself a practical scientist?”.
Rob Stewart used to say that a geophysicist should be a “jack of all trades, master of one”, which captures the idea of balanced specialization.
So, I hope you find some useful nuggets in the above observations. One of my favourite things about this industry and profession is the range of opportunities for individuals to create their own career paths with as varied or as focused experiences as suits the style of the individual geophysicist.