|Higher Scientific Officer - Catchment Science|
|Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute|
|Science and research|
|Large business (250+ employees)|
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A day in the life of a Higher Scientific Officer - Catchment Science in the United Kingdom
I think the most memorable thing about my job is that every day is so different, it makes every day special!
Briefly describe the organisation you work for
I work for the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) in Northern Ireland. AFBI is an arms-length body of DAERA (the NI equivalent of Defra) and thus classed as public service. This means that, unlike the civil service, we receive funding from external grants as well as government and the organisation runs both government compliance/research programs and more typical "traditional" research programs, such as those that exist in universities.
What do you do?
I work on an EU-funded research project called Source to Tap. The project aims to determine whether financial incentives to farmers to change certain practices can improve the quality of the river water, which abstracted for drinking. We are specifically focussed on reducing pesticides, colour and turbidity in the river water. I am responsible for monitoring pesticides in the river, which involves a wide variety of tasks. Some days I drive out the catchment to collect samples, maintain the equipment or install new equipment; other days, I analyse data from the project, write reports and journal articles, share findings with other project members or talk to stakeholders - every day is different!
Reflecting upon your past employment and education, what led you to your current career choice?
Although my PhD at York was in Environmental Science, my undergraduate degree was actually Biology (with a Year in Industry), also from York. From my year in industry, I knew I enjoyed research and so progression to a PhD felt like a natural step (spurred by the fact that the science job market in 2012 when I first graduated wasn't great!). My PhD confirmed that I enjoyed research and wanted to continue so, whilst completing my thesis corrections, I applied to a lot of jobs, both within academia and academic-like organisations (basically anything that offered some kind of research). The majority of jobs I applied to were on similar topics to my PhD (greenhouse gas fluxes, carbon cycling, peatlands). The job I eventually got was largely unrelated! On a whim, I applied to a job at Ulster University in Northern Ireland about effects of financial inventive schemes on colour and pesticides in rivers, having only touched upon water colour in my PhD. I thought that applying would be good experience for further applications. Unexpectedly, I got an interview. Knowing I wouldn't get the job, I asked for a Skype interview. Not only was I offered the job, I received the offer within two hours of completing the interview in my slippers! This job directly lead me to my current job - I work on exactly the same project, just within one of the other organisations in the partnership.
Is your current job sector different from what you thought you would enter when you graduated?
Yes! Well, no in that I thought I would enter a scientific research job but yes in that I always assumed that I would be employed by a university and that it is in a different field from anything I had done before (see answer to previous question).
Describe your most memorable day at work
That's a tough one to call... It could be the first day we finally overcame problems with the electrical supply to our autosampler and found all bottles were full with the correct amounts of water; it could be the day we started seeing a difference in the water quality; or it could be the day another organisation I collaborate with offered the funding for me to publish a paper as open access... I think the most memorable thing about my job is that every day is so different, it makes every day special!
Are there any challenges associated with your job?
Many. Briefly, there are lot of practical challenges associated with fieldwork such as equipment breaking down, not doing what it's supposed to (possibly user error!) and the weather often causing plans to change. There is also the challenge of being part of such a large project - it is made up of 6 organisations with a variety of people from each. Whilst this can be great to have such a diversity of people from different backgrounds, it can also be difficult to communicate concepts to people with different levels of knowledge of certain areas and that each organisation has its own rules and expectations about the work, which don't always match up.
What’s your work environment and culture like?
I work in a large office which is both very friendly and very noisy! However, some of my colleagues have individual offices so it is possible to have either. I usually go on fieldwork about once a fortnight but sometimes get out weekly and occasionally also spend a few hours in a lab. We use flexi-time so can start and finish work when we want (as long as we average 37 hours per week and are usually available between 10am and 4pm), although many people try to work 9-5 most days. Given the variety of jobs within AFBI, the dress code tends to be whatever you feel is appropriate for the tasks you are doing that day!
What extracurricular activities did you undertake at university and what transferable skills did you develop through these?
The activity I did at uni that had the biggest impact on my career was undoubtedly having a year in industry. I did a 13 month placement at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust in Scotland, mainly radiotracking black grouse and doing habitat surveys. This taught me many transferable skills, such as how to search literature, practicalities of research and fieldwork and how to work as part of a research team. It also taught me I wanted to do research. Other activities I did included learning to scuba dive (relaxation, practical safety, first aid and being constantly aware of others), being treasurer of the sub-aqua club (budget management and organisation of people), playing cricket (team work) and YSIS (communication to people with different levels of knowledge).
What top tips do you have for York students preparing for today’s job market and life after graduation?
When applying for jobs, go for anything you think you might enjoy and don't be worried if it doesn't seem to be on a topic directly related to that which you studied - transferable skills and enthusiasm are valued far more in the real world than textbook knowledge!
If you want to know more detail about a job before applying, ask. Most potential employers don't bite - and if they do, it's probably not a place you'll enjoy working.
What topics from students are you happy to answer questions on?
I will try to answer questions on anything anyone wants to ask. I have expertise on research, particularly of catchment-scaled processes, but also peatlands, carbon cycling, ecology, conservation, pesticides and water quality. I work very much across disciplines so please ask about anything that doesn't seem to fit a particular category!
If you like the look of Phoebe’s profile, the next steps are down to you! You can send Phoebe a message to find out more about their career journey. If you feel you would benefit from more in-depth conversations, ask Phoebe to be your mentor.