Careers outside of academia

On 24 June 2020, the EGU hosted a webinar on Careers outside of academia. Originally planned as part of the EGU Conference in Vienna and rearranged in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the session aimed to provide an insight into the career paths available after academic study.

As JBA’s Process Architect, I was one of four panellists with a career outside of academia. My co-panellists included a teacher on the Researchers in Schools programme, a data scientist at a data analytics start-up, and a freelance science journalist.

For anyone interested in making a similar career move, or for anyone interested in learning more about the science-led environment at JBA, you can read the highlights from the webinar below.

My career path

I joined JBA in 2018 after completing my PhD in Geography. My PhD research designed and implemented a numerical model that reconstructed past precipitation rates and two-dimensional flow rates to estimate the age-depth profiles of ice cores originating from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

I now work as JBA’s Process Architect, designing technically enhanced templates of processes with a view to improving the efficiency of what we do without compromising on the quality. Joining JBA meant a career move from academia, but it also meant a move to a company where I can still develop software, conduct novel research and implement new methodologies whilst being surrounded by other scientists with complementary skills and knowledge, working together as a team.

Transferable skills

The topic of transferable skills arose early in the webinar.

As early career scientists, we are focusing our education on very particular scientific questions, but we are also developing soft skills to an acute level.

Firstly, a PhD is rarely a lone project – it seeks to answer a question that is one piece of a puzzle. In order to achieve a PhD, a researcher is constantly prioritising and triaging tasks: meeting deadlines, achieving milestones, collaborating with other researchers, teaching undergraduates, developing ideas, writing, writing, writing… The ability to prioritise your own work is often undervalued in academia, but this is a highly sought-after skill in other industries.

Secondly, a PhD researcher can sometimes feel like they are the bottom rung of a ladder in the academic hierarchy. However, once a graduate and in the private sector, you are joining a company as an expert.

The ability to assess decisions at a critical level is required almost daily – in my job I am expected to not only understand concepts but question them. Critical thinking has been honed during a PhD and academic career as we are often the judge of our own data and ideas.

Finally, one of the key skills that can be transferred is often the ability to read and write code. It is difficult to avoid learning to code these days, and quite often PhD students in the geosciences are highly trained in software development. However, if you are considering the move from academia, you should know that coding is something that the private sector excels at. One of the recommendations of the panel included attending some meet-ups to expand your coding experience with open-source software, git repositories, and complex unit and system test packages.

Work-life balance

This one was a no-brainer for almost everyone on the panel. Working outside of academia secures you a more stable work-life balance: I am not fixed to a one- or two-year contract; I do not have to look at only a handful of institutions across the country or continent that could provide me with a job!

I chose to search for a job within a fixed radius because I wanted to live closer to my family, and within close proximity of the Yorkshire Dales. Once arriving at JBA Risk Management in Skipton, North Yorkshire, I have laid roots, made friends, and cultivated hobbies. JBA are supportive of work-life balance, recognising that a healthy balance means staff are happier and more productive.

Although this may not always be the case depending on the role, for example a freelance science journalist working across different publications and time zones, work outside of academia typically affords a better work-life balance.

What is the biggest advantage in changing roles?

One of the main benefits in working outside of academia is the focus on personal development. My employer and I are equal partners in my personal development, while the personal development of an early career researcher is not often nurtured in academia where positions tend to be fulfilled by short-term contracts.

By choosing to work in the private sector, I have permanent role and therefore the opportunity for a long-term personal development programme. At JBA, my personal development is supported by an annual budget, with access to great training courses and conferences and regular opportunities for mentorship and secondments across the business.

My education and development has not stopped since I left academia - in fact, I have grown from the experience and additional training that I would never have accessed outside of JBA.

Contribution to the scientific field

At JBA, we attend many of the major conferences in the re/insurance industry, as well as conferences convening those working in geoscience, hydrology, and software development each year.

Pictured left: JBA panellist at industry conference.

This year, for example, JBA staff had five papers accepted for oral presentation at EGU. Our work is often collaborative – we work with university partners in all areas of our work. The JBA Trust also contributes to the academic funding of Masters and PhD students, with supervision and partnership provided by my colleagues.

Fundamentally, what I do every day is scientific research. JBA has been making cutting-edge risk intelligence usable for re/insurance, financial, and other sectors for the past decade. We were the first to make global flood maps available commercially, the first to develop flood maps for the US and Europe at 5m resolution, and now the first to release a probabilistic flood model on a global scale. Our products are novel and paradigm-shifting for the industry in which we work.

The difference between our research and academia? Our research leads to broad-scale application that impacts policy decisions at the highest level.

Do you have advice for how people can build relationships with professionals?

Don’t be worried about asking questions, and network, network, network! Organisations like JBA often attend conferences, but may not always be around for the full week, so act quick in speaking to them. We love a chance to talk about our work, the organisation and our science as we are keen to help further research in all sectors.


Many thanks to the fellow panellists for a lively and interesting discussion! If you would like to learn more about our work at JBA, or are interested in any career opportunities post-research, please get in touch.

The EGU Webinar: Careers outside of academia is available to watch on YouTube here.

The EGU Cryosphere division also wrote a blog detailing the webinar here.