AOS 405 Career Blogs
Academia jobs in Atmospheric Science
Do you want to be a professor? Do you enjoy sharing your excitement about all things atmospheric science to those around you? Do you wish to advance the science through research? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then a career in academia may be for you.
What exactly does being a professor entail? There are the obvious responsibilities, such as teaching and conducting research, but professors often balance their time doing much more than that. They also have an unwritten commitment to the community and often give public talks to increase public awareness and education. Within the university they sometimes serve on committees or have other administrative responsibilities. Some even work at multiple universities.
After earning an undergraduate degree in AOS, those wishing to pursue a career in academia must move on to graduate school. The first choice prospective graduate students must contemplate is what kind of degree to pursue. Most atmospheric science/meteorology graduate school programs offer a master of science degree as well as the doctor of philosophy degree. At some programs students can go straight from undergraduate school onto the Ph.D. path, while other pupils get a master’s degree and then decide whether or not to continue on to a Ph.D.
The next step for a lot of scientists on the road to a career in academia is doing a postdoc. A postdoc, or postdoctoral researcher, is a Ph.D. graduate who is conducting research under a mentor for a temporary period of time. This helps new doctorates build credibility in the field while gaining more experience in the research world. A postdoc is not required for all faculty positions, but most people who currently aspire to work in academia go this route after graduation.
If you are interested in pursuing a career in acadamia, here are links to some helpful resources:
Past AMS Conference Recorded Talks
List of Schools Offering AOS Degrees
Master’s Degree or Ph.D.?
A PhD is Not Enough!
AMS Job Listings
Guide to Scientific Writing
Associate Professor of Meteorology at Western Illinois University
Dr. Marcus Büker, a University of Wisconsin-Madison alum, sat down with us to talk about life as a graduate student and life in academia post-graduation. Dr. Büker is currently an associate professor of meteorology at Western Illinois University and conducts research in mesoscale meteorology.
It took time for Büker to navigate his way through the AOS program. He spent five years as an undergrad, three years earning his master’s degree, and was here seven years working towards his Ph.D. The average time to earn a master’s degree, however, is two years and a Ph.D typically takes four to six years.
“You have to be serious about it,” Büker said. “Once I got serious about it, it went pretty straightforward. It was not my strength to have an organized plan of attack on a research topic, and you need that in order to be able to fix your eyes on the target.”
Büker’s Ph.D. advisor was Dr. Matt Hitchman and he assembled his committee with people he had a good working relationship with, having been a TA for a few of his committee members in the past. He remembers it as being a positive experience, saying, “We all gelled together pretty well, both in our working relationship and all their research interests aligned with what I was doing.”
When asked about challenges that he faced in graduate school, Büker mentioned the process of writing about his research and its findings. On top of filling course requirements, graduate students pursuing thesis-based degrees (e.g. the M.S. and Ph.D.) need to conduct research and publish a thesis or dissertation on their work. In addition to documenting their research, the thesis demonstrates that each graduate possesses a tool kit of the critical skills needed to succeed in atmospheric and oceanic sciences, or in a variety of professional careers.
Dr. Büker took his tool kit with him to his current position at Western Illinois University.
He says that working at a smaller university isn’t much different than the feel of UW’s department. Both are smaller, tight-knit groups where students have good relationships with their professors. The only difference may be that there are fewer resources at smaller universities (and he talked about how the restaurants in Madison are better).
One challenge facing the world of academia and science research in general is the lack of funding at the university and research levels.
“It’s very depressing,” Büker noted. “There’s a war against general higher education right now. What’s happening is that because of the ever-decreasing state funding of universities, schools are now competing fiercely with each other for student enrollment and their tuition dollars.”
Although some states are making it hard for universities to flourish, Büker has been successful at securing funding through the National Science Foundation for his original research.
“Organizations like the NSF love to spread the wealth around to the smaller schools. I’m glad to have had that opportunity.”
Büker had a couple suggestions on how to smooth relationships between academics, scientists and politicians.
“I think more community-oriented outreach needs to happen,” he said. “I think scientists need to get much more politically involved and do things like run for office and form support. It’s not just science; it’s higher education in general.”
So the truth is that a career in academia is similar to other careers in that there are exciting opportunities and challenges. Some opportunities that Büker highlighted include being able to conduct original research, help educate and inspire the next group of young atmospheric scientists, and work in an environment chalked full of new ideas and scholarly people. Some challenges include seeking funding, and time management.
To wrap things up, Dr. Büker gave a few words of advice for those interested in pursuing a graduate degree in atmospheric science.
“Know what you want to do,” he suggested. “Research what’s out there, have a target, and streamline your program towards that target. Also know the job market and take that into consideration.
“As far as resources available if you are interested in becoming a faculty member at a university, the American Meteorological Society has a lot of great stuff. Go to the AMS conference as many times as you can and see as many talks as you can and make as many connections as you can.”
Büker emphasized this last piece of advice.
“Get published before you graduate.”
Professor of Agronomy at UW-Madison
To learn more about using your atmospheric science degree interdisciplinary, we talked to Dr. Chris Kucharik, a Wisconsin alum currently working as a professor in the UW-Madison agronomy department and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, about his grad school days and life working in academia.
Kucharik started his higher education at a two-year UW institution in West Bend, Wisconsin (UW-Washington County) and then transferred to UW-Madison as a junior. After earning his undergraduate degree, he and a couple other classmates went on to graduate school while a majority of his colleges went into private industry or government. Even though he applied to a number of graduate programs, deep down Kucharik’s roots were here in Wisconsin.
“I really wanted to stay here,” he explained. “There were other classes that I didn’t have the opportunity to take yet and kind of just felt like the Bachelor’s was very short, especially after transferring from another school.”
Dr. Kucharik entered the AOS master’s program with faculty member John Norman (emeritus) who had a joint appointment between Soil Science and AOS as an environmental biophysicist. This is when he got his first taste of field work in northern Canada on a project called BOREAS (The BOReal Ecosystem Atmosphere Study). This changed the trajectory of Kucharik’s career.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d like the field work, but it ended up being nice to work with your hands and be measuring things. I think that part of the meteorology, taking observations and measurements, is where my excitement for the field came from.”
It is also important to be flexible as a graduate student and really seize opportunities as they arise.
“During the first year of my master’s it became apparent that it was a really large project and my particular component was growing. My advisor had four years of NASA funding and he asked if I would just transition and think about doing a Ph.D.”
And that’s what he did. Kucharik was hesitant to accept the offer at first, but after doing some research to figure out what being a Ph.D. student entailed he gave it a go. It ended up being the right decision.
“At the time I had sort of a non-traditional AOS dissertation because of its interdisciplinary nature,” he noted, “but it opened the door to the idea of biology and ecology being a part of my training and interests moving on.”
Not knowing exactly what he wanted to do after graduating, Kucharik wound up being a postdoc for a member of his Ph.D. committee, Jon Foley (former AOS alum and faculty member), who was a revolutionary force in the world of ecological modeling.
“The postdoc gave me some time because I was open to working on the modeling to also think about if it was really what I wanted to be doing because it wasn’t really what I did my Ph.D. on.”
“That was really where I got introduced to hardcore modeling,” Kucharik said. “My role for that year-and-a-half was to build representation of soil biogeochemistry in a dynamic global vegetation model.
“That lead me into the realm of agriculture eventually, because we were ignoring ag in those models. It was just potential vegetation in those models.”
The need for a more accurate depiction of the agricultural landscape in the ecology models is what he built the next nine years of his career on. So now on top of studying the interactions between soils and weather and climate, Kucharik added ecology, biology, and agroecology to his list of specialties.
This led Kucharik to his current position as a professor of agronomy and environmental studies. Even though he doesn’t necessarily research on the atmosphere or oceans, his background as an AOS student still comes in handy.
“For this department of agronomy to have a meteorologist, climatologist in terms of training is huge,” he explained, “because of the importance of weather and climate to agriculture.”
His understanding of the ocean and atmosphere system allows him to help his colleagues who may not have that background, especially when it comes to forecasting, and it also proves valuable when conducting field research. The research itself may not parallel what he learned as an AOS student, but the skills needed to be successful in agronomy are not much different.
“Having both backgrounds is definitely a bonus. It opens up the door for me to apply to other programs in the federal government for funding opportunities. It keeps coming back to being able to be an interdisciplinary team player and adding a little extra to some projects.”
When asked about what advice he would give to AOS undergraduates considering graduate school outside of the atmospheric science world, Kucharik pointed towards taking a more diverse set of classes.
“I think my advice would be to try and learn a little bit more about what interdisciplinary science might be in connection to weather and climate.”
Specifically, don’t be afraid to venture out into other science departments and take an agronomy, soils, geology, or any other hard science course.
“Don’t overlook agriculture as a potential connection in terms of using your skills and your knowledge. If you can kind of get over the hurdle of that’s plants, that’s soil, what the heck is agronomy, you’ll see that the number of professionals in field are rapidly decreasing while jobs and pay are rapidly increasing.”