Geoscience Career: preliminary observations

October 2018

Plot showing how an individual’s career has changed by mapping ambition (as an expression of the motivation for change) through time, navigating sometimes complex paths between technical and managerial aspirations.

Plot showing how an individual’s career has changed by mapping ambition (as an expression of the motivation for change) through time, navigating sometimes complex paths between technical and managerial aspirations.


A brief article was published in August to announce the launch of a quicklook career health-checker, created to provide the basis of an informal conversation with Young Professionals.  That conversation was planned around what a successful career in the geosciences actually looks like to the future of our industry.  Thanks to your survey responses (200), the tool has now been calibrated and has thrown up some interesting observations summarised in brief here.


How it works…

At the heart of the tool is a simple survey that takes 2-3 minutes to complete and is accessible to anyone interesting in establishing what a successful career might look like and whether they are on track to achieving success for themselves.  Respondents are asked 18 questions, some to capture their aspirations, others to establish what is most important to them in defining success.  15 of the questions are subjectively scored against managerial and technical outlooks, as well as personal drive, sense of realism and incentives.  The scores are summed and plotted to visualise these metrics illustrated in three formats below.

Peer Ambition.jpeg

The chart above (called Peer Ambition, because it registers the drive to change for self-improvement) shows how these dimensions can be visualised on a single plot.  The peer group displayed here is "anonymous respondents", who represent about a quarter of the total number of those who have so far participated. The plot displays demographics (level of experience) as different coloured bubbles, with the size of the bubbles defined by achievability, the colour of the bubble rim illustrates the sense of optimism for, or confidence in, the future, with career directions managerial versus technical axes and motivation or drive along the diagonal.  The latter has been subdivided in to 4 zones describing how individuals are sometimes inspired to change by being driven at one extreme through to motivated, cognitive and dissonant at the other extreme.  “Cognitive” describes those who may be demotivated by having made the wrong career choice or the opposite: are so happy where they are right now that they have lost the motivation to change. The difference is in how they feel about where they are in their careers (rim colour). “Dissonant” individuals can be as determined to achieve success as ambitious respondents but are rare in a population sampled from those aspiring to work in industry (non random). These four words have been carefully chosen to describe different states of personal drive but take care not to be misguided by the language of numbers.

The written statements at the bottom of the plot compare the direct claims of respondents (percentages in red) with what the observational scores calculate as achievable given their responses.  In this case, 52% of anonymous respondents claimed they wanted to achieve a technical career but only 71% of those have the scored outlook to support that aspiration.  91% of the smaller group of respondents who aspire to follow a managerial career have the outlook to achieve their target.

The next plot explores another dimension entirely: incentives behind ambition.

Peer Incentives.jpeg

Just as before, the bubbles themselves are coloured and sized by demographics, sense of optimism and achievability but the axes are now “financial security” versus personal or “career fulfilment”.  There is a central diagonal zone (defined by the 3 faint diagonal red lines) where financial and intellectual gain are mutually re-enforcing but some people are clearly motivated by one or the other extreme.  Understanding incentives has potential value if it can be demonstrated that there are differences in peer groups, although how such insights might be used is not so obvious.

The last of three formats is a roll-up of scores in a one-pager (below), which summarises who you are as a peer group (in this case, anonymous respondents), what your preferences are as a group, where you are now and what motivates you to aspire to succeed in your career. Finally, the most popular definition of failure for your peer group is stated, which may be completely different from your own as an individual within that peer group.

Peer summary.jpeg

Peer comparisons

The sample population is modest but sufficient to make some simple generalised observations.  These are shown below - five demographic groups have been distinguished here: young professionals, early, mid and late career professionals, and retirees.

Ambition peer groups.jpg

The first group is “Young Professionals”, who are clearly highly motivated and technically orientated with the majority actively seeking technical careers.  There is a broad consensus on confidence in the future however, from anxious to excited.







Those with 6-12 years’ experience (early-career professionals) are weighted towards excited with a more even spread of technical and managerial outlooks, although the clear majority aspiration is still technical.







Mid-career respondents represent the most stressed demographic, with many deeply concerned about their futures, though none anxious (they are in employment).  Many are now showing a swing towards managerial outlooks although the majority is still aspire to a technical career, which represents a mismatch (gap between aspiration and outlook).







The grey hairs at >24 years’ experience is probably the most comfortable group – they know where they are going with their careers mostly behind them having largely set their goals, despite potential concerns around redundancies.







The retirees have a new set of goals and are generally quite comfortable where they are, no longer driven to achieve using old incentives but excited new challenges ahead.

Incentives peer groups.jpg

When it comes to incentives, the Young Professionals overwhelmingly strive for career fulfilment above financial security.








The lack of concern around financial well-being continues in early-career as student loans become a things of the past.








But by the time you are in your stride (13-24 years in to your career), financial security takes over, perhaps as families expand and create ever increasing demands on your earning power, which could be part of the cause increased stress in this demographic.







Later on, financial worry are gradually replaced again by career interested but there is quite an even split between the two with the arrival of grey hairs.









Financial pressure ease in retirement for some but that is part of the measure of success for many.

These are very broad-brush collectivised statements based on demographics alone.  It becomes a little bit different if you start to group differences in outlook :whether respondents register that they are excited, comfortable, ambivalent, concerned or anxious about their future.

Ambition excited.jpg

Those who are most excited are dominated by individuals at the beginning and at the end of their careers, fairly evenly split between managerial and technical orientations.







Those who are content with their choices are the most common peer group and are overwhelmingly technical, largely mid to late career.








But there is a very large group of people who are ambivalent about their career choices dominated by early career and dominated by technically orientated individuals.








Less common are those who are worried about the future, and are evenly spread between managerial and technical in outlook (dominated by technical aspiration).







The small group of distressed individuals are all technically orientated, with mixed early and late career, which will become more polarised by incentives.

Incentives excited.jpg

What seems to excite people most is career fulfillment, irrespective of early or late career position.








People are equally content whether pursuing wealth or fulfilment, although early career tends to satisfy fulfilment (late career earning power).











Those who are ambivalent seems to be insensible across the demographic divide as well as career fulfilment versus earning power.







Those who are more distressed are polarised between financial security and career fulfilment but with no demographic split.







Distressed individuals are polarised between early careers, who just want to have a career and late careers who have financial concerns for their future.

The distribution of the total scores is widely scattered, reflecting the uniqueness of individual perception and experience, never clustering in to repeatable groups. There are, however, variations in distribution that can be seen from demographic splits that may merit further investigation.  

Young professionals (graduates and professionals with <6 years industry experience) are highly motivated, predominately technically orientated but express a broad range of confidence in the future.  Young professionals are motivated by the hope of career fulfilment above financial security and believe that if at the end of their career hadn’t allowed them to achieve their full potential, then they would have failed within their definition of success. This sentiment is strongly present through all levels of experience with different emphases.

Early-career professionals (6-12 years’ experience) are much more spread in their aspirations.  The majority remain technically orientated but more are also looking to a managerial future as they become more experienced in the professional culture of their choice.  This has meant that some are more “cognitive” in their approach as they weigh up their choices but this group is amongst the most excited of all the demographics, seeing real opportunity within reach.  The distribution of incentives has now shifted, being evenly balanced between those who are motivated by financial rewards and those who are still driven by intellectual fulfilment.

Mid-career professionals (12-24 years’ experience) are the most stressed demographic group.  Despite being in their stride professionally, many are concerned about their futures, though none anxious (the sample population are all in employment).  Many more are now showing managerial outlooks but what probably contributes to their stress are increasing family burdens: financial security takes over as the primary incentive and many are starting to worry about whether their efforts will ever make the “difference” that they had hoped for.

Late-career professionals (>24 years’ experience) have overcome their mid-career difficulties; they are the most content of the demographic groups because they know where they are going and have largely set their goals, despite concerns around potential redundancies.  Financial concerns have given way, to some extent, to career fulfilment but doubts about making a difference or creating something new have now become the primary concern over achieving full potential.

Retirees have acquired a new set of goals, are predominantly comfortable where they are, no longer driven but excited by the new challenges - released to a large extent from financial concerns but with new concerns around creating something new or different and remaining relevant.


Summarising the peer grouping based on confidence in future careers, those who are most excited are dominated by individuals at the beginning and at the end of their careers, fairly evenly split between managerial and technical orientations.  What seems to excite people most is career fulfillment, irrespective of early or late-career position.  Those who are “comfortable” with their choices are the most common peer group and are overwhelmingly technical, largely mid to late-career regardless of whether incentivised by financial or intellectual well-being.  Far less common are those who are worried about the future, evenly spread between managerial and technical in outlook (dominated by technical aspiration) but strongly polarised between financial security and career fulfilment but with no demographic split.  The few individuals who felt they could participate in the survey who are clearly distressed (anxious) are all technically orientated, with mixed early and late-career, polarised between early-careers (who are struggling to find a job) and late careers who have financial concerns for their future (possibly because they have been offered redundancy).

Observational Limitations

The survey has been conducted by volunteers, at least a quarter of whom were inspired to contribute by altruistic motives, leaving their entries anonymously with no thought for reward or self-gratification.  The majority of respondents wanted to visualise their results, with a minority requesting more detailed personal assessments.  The truth is that none of the assessments have any verifiable validity because the survey was designed to promote a conversation, not to test any hypotheses. Further, the sample population is very small and non-random and is almost certainly not statistically representative. The weightings applied and the terminology used are subjective and could be misleading: Julian Barnes quoted Flaubert as saying “Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” The language of numbers is an even more imprecise medium and can be equally misinterpreted, with no basis in psychology.  Those who completed the survey and wanted to know more about their results were sent a personalised narrative explaining what their outlook on career aspirations looked like and what that meant to their chances of achieving success.  Those who received these narratives generally found them scarily accurate because it is a narrative scripted from the participants’ own expectations and fears - just reworded, giving the appearance of a deeper insight.  It is not.  It is a trick that mystics have used for centuries (telling people what they have already told “the mystic” about themselves) and should be received in the same spirit of light entertainment.  Personal narratives will be phased out in favour of visualisation, which is more powerful when making comparisons with peer groups. Narratives resonate more at a personal level, where the language of numbers is subjectively assigned to adjectives using mathematical transforms but they set false expectations.  This article presents a preliminary interpretation, which will change as more people participate in the survey and more real-life experiences are applied to that language.


Participating in the survey is a bit of fun with the assessments almost reduced to the level of “reading the tea-leaves”.  The survey itself is genuine and the data are real.  If nothing else, this preliminary sample provides the material for conversations around how success evolves and is seen by different groups.  We can all have an entertaining look at how we compare with our own peer group but it can only influence us if we know the direction our career is taking us and what our alternatives are. To do that, respondents need to build their own career path, which is illustrated at the top of this article. The veracity of peer group comparisons can only increase if more people spare the 2-3 minutes needed to provide more contributions to the overall view - have you participated? What comes out of this is not even remotely scientific.  But if it provides the basis for a plenary discussion around what success looks like in career building, then the effort will have been worth your time.

Add you experience to the survey by clicking HERE.