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Adapt or die!

kjhJonathan Paul* thinks universities are out of touch with young people and losing the plot over student recruitment.

As an enthusiastic undergraduate at the Royal School of Mines (Imperial College London) I became closely involved with outreach programmes aimed at recruiting young people to geology. Now, after having pursued a career in academia (while many of my friends chose industry) I feel the need to vent a little spleen about university recruitment and the problems of choosing a career path after a geoscience degree.


First – recruiting. The old aphorisms I used to trot out to sixth formers (‘a conglomerate of all the other sciences’; ‘our undergraduates spend the most time in the field’ etc.) no longer pass muster. Many students nowadays do not find the prospect of fieldwork attractive, equating it with manual labour and preferring to stay home. The folly of using fieldwork as bait becomes clearer when we consider the ubiquity of computers in most professional geoscience jobs.

Finding a well-paid, comfortable industry job (clean, indoors, no heavy lifting) is fast becoming the deciding factor in university choice. Departments are nowadays rated more highly for their industry links than they are for the brilliance of their academics. From a recruitment point of view, the battle is lost if all you can think of as an inducement is fieldwork.

So what else can we do to attract students to geoscience when education in itself is no longer valued, except as a three or four-year conveyor belt to a job?

There had to come a point when, asked about one’s attraction to geoscience, those old stories about rock and fossil collections metamorphosed into egregious interview-speak (‘skillsets’, ‘deliverables’). Perhaps the greatest problem I faced at the end of my first degree was the massive bifurcation looming ahead: to academia or industry? There were no other options, and their mutual exclusivity was implicit.


Academia affords a priceless measure of independence, to work in areas of personal interest. But it is a treadmill of its own. Even a small break from the cut-and-thrust of research could disrupt the stultifying progression from PhD to Post-Doc to Lecturer. Henry Kissinger once famously noted that academic politics is so vicious because so little is at stake. But still, many academics would never dream of recommending industry to their students.

And what are the prospects for young geoscientists who do enter industry? Again, in their own way, industry careers can also be remarkably inflexible. Initial, often faintly embarrassing, ‘assessment centres’ - becoming the norm these days - usually lead to some form of graduate scheme; and swearing fealty to the almighty company for the duration. Industry’s need for geoscientists (especially geophysicists) stands at an all-time high, yet it is important to remember that the job market goes in sync with cycles in commodity prices, and that a collapse in Brent Crude prices might well put you on the dole.

Nevertheless, forging new links between industry and academic geoscience departments must be the key to recruitment success. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, unusual among the Romantics for his profound appreciation of geology, wrote: “Mr Lyell's system of geology is just half the truth, and no more”. I am concerned that fewer geoscientists are being made for the dual ‘truths’ of academia and industry.

Jonathan Paul is a PhD student, Bullard Labs, University of Cambridge