Name: Matthew England, PhD - 1992
What is your current job/who do you work for?
I’m a Professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. My job is mostly about undertaking research and PhD supervision, but there’s also some outreach and communication of science, and teaching.
What is your background – how did you get to this point in your career?
Kind of by accident. I was studying Maths and Physics at the University of Sydney, with no clear career choice ahead of me, when I stumbled on a course in Physical Oceanography – quite by accident. I was hooked immediately – I had always loved the oceans, including open ocean swimming and surfing – and suddenly I found a profession, and in particular a branch of science, that combined my academic background with seawater!
What do you enjoy about your job?
I love curiosity-driven research. It feels like a real privilege to be exploring how the oceans behave, why they circulate the way they do, how they influence climate, and so on. I feel very lucky to be given the chance to pose the questions I’d like to answer. In many jobs you just get told what to do: a career in science involves wondering about what you want to do, and hand-picking what you think will work best.
What don’t you enjoy about your job?
Thankfully this doesn’t affect me a lot, but when it does, the sense of discovery in science can get lost. If ever an organization loses itself in red tape, or gets weighed down by clunky management, scientists stop being creative. So wherever I can, I try to streamline my admin burden.
What is a typical day like in your job?
A bit of research on my own, reading a journal paper, some time chatting with people in my group, some time taming the influx of emails, and so on. Probably the most enjoyable part is sitting around a table with other colleagues or students, gazing at diagrams and trying to make sense of what we see.
What are the key skills involved with your line of work?
Academically oceanographers are best equipped with an undergraduate Maths and Physics background. Computing and statistical analysis skills help as well. But in addition to these foundation subjects, scientists need to be creative in their thinking, as eventually you have to come up with the questions that need answering. And of course, down the track, to be open to being wrong about something you poured your heart and soul into.
What top tips and advice can you offer to other people who may want to follow a similar career path to you?
Take a Maths and/or Physics major through University and be patient about starting specialist oceanography courses until later years. The Maths/Physics foundation is irreplaceable, and oceanography courses are best tackled once the Maths and Physics background is established. Later on, as a graduate student, follow a research topic that sparks your interest and work hard at uncovering something new. And lastly, don’t be afraid to tell your advisor that you don’t understand something, and when you think he/she is wrong, let them know...