Case study

Observations-based research scientist — Sian Lane

Sian loves the fact that the science she works with is relevant to many people's lives, given the national obsession with the weather...

After my undergraduate degree in physics and natural philosophy, I decided to do an MSc in applied meteorology to see if I liked it, as I wasn't sure I wanted to go straight for a PhD. I then applied for a PhD project with my MSc dissertation supervisor.

My PhD thesis is on assessing the performance of numerical weather prediction models using observations in urban areas. I'm particularly interested in urban meteorology because it's complex and has applications in many areas including weather forecasting, transport, health and construction.

I decided during my PhD that I wanted to pursue observational meteorological research as a career and I saw the position of research scientist at the Met Office Meteorological Research Unit advertised. The job description almost exactly matched the kind of research I do for my PhD, so I applied on the off-chance that I'd get an interview, even though I didn't have a PhD yet.

I was offered the job on the condition that I started in the summer before I was planning on submitting my thesis. I changed my registration at the university to part time (with the support of my supervisor), and I now work 50% of my time for the Met Office and 50% on my PhD. I'm based almost entirely at the Met Office, with occasional visits to the university.

I spend most of my time analysing data from the instruments at our research site. I work particularly on using observations to understand the formation and development of fog, to support the improvement of fog forecasting.

I also look after the instruments that we use to make observations of fog events (setting them up, collecting the data, etc.). One of these instruments is experimental and undergoing development, so I take part in discussions with the university group who are developing it.

More infrequently I take part in larger field campaigns with other scientists and technicians at the unit. Our current campaign is focused on understanding enhancement of rain by hills, which involves carrying out regular maintenance of instruments located on Bodmin Moor - this work is shared among everyone in the team.

I enjoy constantly learning new things and working in an area of science where the answer often starts off as 'I don't know', until we do some experiments to find out what the answer really is.

I also like working in a small group with highly-skilled people, and I find the opportunity to spend some of my working time outside or in a lab/workshop very refreshing after nearly nine years at university. I get to play with some pretty cool kit and just enjoy the whole process of research, although I won't pretend that it isn't frustrating sometimes.

The learning curve is pretty steep, in terms of both science and computing skills. Balancing my work and my studies can be challenging, although if you must have a job whilst finishing your PhD, I thoroughly recommend having an arrangement where you can spend half your time on your thesis and be paid at the same time.

If you're thinking about meteorology early (i.e. when applying for an undergraduate degree), I'd start off with physics and go into meteorology after you graduate, either through postgraduate study or a graduate scheme/job. This gives you a good grounding in physics and maths - meteorology involves quite a lot of both.

You can also get into meteorology with a degree in a variety of other subjects and if you come in via geography, you need to be prepared to learn some extra maths. Having a relevant PhD helped me, but it's not always necessary even when a PhD is a requirement for the job.