Finding a new kind of science: Academia to the Civil Service

My biggest fear when I thought about stepping away from academia was that I would no longer be able to conduct research and answer the questions of the unknown. That aspect to academic life is a privilege and I always felt you were unlikely to find such a niche and flexible job outside of a research institution.

I spent the last half of my PhD looking at postdocs and where to go next. This may seem crazy to some but getting into the circle of post-doctoral opportunities takes a fair bit of planning if you want to follow your specific line of interest, building the networks and shaping the opportunity.

But I could never quite put my finger on the next specific project or institution. I wanted to do research, to answer the unknown, but I also wanted the structure of a permeant job while having a flexible work life balance.

After taking a break and doing some travelling, I joined the UK Hydrographic Office last July as a Senior Marine Biologist in the Ocean Environment Team. What does my job look like? Well my day to day is very varied as there are lots of opportunities across the business to be involved in.

Steph2

My ‘desk job’ is to provide operational support to our primary customer, the Royal Navy. For me this is providing environmental advice, as they have a legal obligation to protect the environment, and I analyse a range of biological and oceanographic data to support them in their future operations. This ranges from compiling data for our environmental products, creating new research lines and partaking in workshops to develop our existing lines of operation.

Often, we get bespoke requests for information from the Royal Navy, which for me is the super interesting aspect of my job. These are like a mini research projects which have tight deadlines. The Royal Navy provides the question then a subject matter expert, such as myself, digs deep into data to find the answer.

Outside my ‘desk job’ our team provides briefings to VIPs, in January I briefed the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Rear Admiral of Command Strike Force. I work with other teams in the office, most recently the data science team who have been using machine learning to model and identify mangrove forests from satellite imagery. I have collaborated with the business product department advising on marine data that can be utilised in the UKHO’s new Marine Data Portal. I’ve even been able to attend the Marine Science Coordination Committee meeting when the UKHO hosted the event last year.

I never envisioned a job in the civil service to be so diverse but everyday there is collaboration, innovation and analysis.  So why am I loving being a scientist in the civil service?

  • You always have the back up of a team.
  • Work life balance is key, hours are very much 9-5 and across the business there is flexible working.
  • Overdoing it is discouraged and if this happens, managers look to bring in help from other teams or provide help from fixed term appointments where possible.
  • You’re expected to learn and grow. Your development plan is a key part to planning the year, giving you ample opportunity to attend courses and to create time to self-learn.
  • The civil service has ‘expressions of interest’ that are like mini jobs to do along side your day job. This is a great way to try out other areas of the business or to trial run a new role like in management.

I am aware that this is still the beginning of a very long journey in life. Who knows where this role will lead and which direction development will occur in. But if I’ve learnt anything over the last 10 years, it is to follow what interests you. Find a niche of fascination, follow it into the excitement of the unknown. I believe there is job satisfaction in that method that will stay with you forever.

Blog post written by Dr Stephanie Allen – Senior Marine Biologist at the UK Hydrographic Office. For more information please contact Stephanie on Stephanie.allen@ukho.gov.uk or @dr_stephallen

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