How to build a career in climate and earth system sciences

There are clear paths that anyone can follow to develop a career in atmospheric science, meteorology, climate science, oceanography, Earth system science or climate system science. These paths will open doors to many other branches of science and give students key advantages when it comes time to start research as an Honours or PhD student.

All of these fields are deeply founded in “STEM” - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. With this in mind here are some tips to help aspiring students develop a path from high school right through to university.

Starting at high school, there is simply no substitute for maths and physics but by themselves they are not enough. Choose additional subjects like Earth and environmental science, computing, chemistry and biology. It's all about science, science and science. Students that do not like these sorts of subjects are probably not reading this anyway. 

For a career in this area, university study and a degree are essential. Degrees that lead to these careers should be rich in the following areas:

  • Maths. At least first and probably second year undergraduate study, including calculus, is particularly important. Many scientists working in these areas hold a maths degree, some an Honours degree.
  • Physics. At least first and probably second year undergraduate physics. Many scientists working in these areas hold a physics degree, some an Honours degree.
  • Computer Science. You will almost certainly need to be able to write computer code, so it helps to be proficient.

In studying some areas of science, undergraduates may do enough of these things anyway – a chemistry degree for example, or an engineering degree.

Some Universities offer Environmental Science, which has suitable foundations and a good focus on quantitative skills. Many Universities offer courses, majors or degrees in meteorology, climate science etc building on good foundations in maths and physics.

Specialised degrees in hydrology can contain all the necessary skills.

It is not uncommon to be able to do some degrees and skip second year maths and physics. This short cut is seldom good in the long term but that doesn't mean there aren't other options that can lead to fantastic outcomes. However, it is worth noting that admission to the Bureau of Meteorology’s graduate meteorologist program normally requires second year undergraduate maths and physics.

There are variations in career paths to these research areas. For instance, if you want to work on specific areas - for example areas around carbon cycling - studying biology and chemistry can be more important. If you want to build climate models or weather forecast models, then more computer science can be valuable. And there are always special areas that can prove hugely important, including statistics.

Most, but not all, people working in the weather and climate sciences have honours or masters degrees. These tend to be desired by employers from the Australian Antarctic Division, the Bureau of Meteorology, State and Federal governments, environmental consultancies and so forth. To do research in these areas it is likely that a PhD will be required, but that tends to come much later.

Finally, working in areas relevant to climate and climate change can be very diverse and include the areas of economics, psychology, engineering, urban design and planning, insurance, banking, financial risk, actuarial, manufacturing technology, business, medicine, biotechnology, media studies, and so on. If students are studying one of these, it may be worthwhile to add a little climate science to help link the chosen field to finding solutions to climate change.

Finally, seek advice. There is no substitute for contacting a researcher in an area of interest and asking what they think.

Students can seek advice from our Centre by contacting our Graduate Director- Melissa Hart.

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