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NASA JPL geophysicist, Tom Armitage, on arctic expeditions and career transitions

Tom Armitage: Consultant at Boston Consulting Group

How many of our guests can regale you with tales from the northernmost settlements in Greenland, or aboard an icebreaker cruising through the Baltic Sea, or campgrounds located on sheets of ice in the Arctic?  As of this week, the answer is at least one! This week’s episode features an interview with Tom Armitage, an earth scientist who uses satellite images to study changes in polar ice.

The Icy Route to an Earth Sciences Degree

Tom tells Nick about his graduate studies in Physics and Earth Studies at University College London, including his stories from northern expeditions with his lab to measure polar ice more directly.  We learn about how pilots land their prop planes on ice, about the Danish Dog Sled Patrols which scout the northern part of Greenland for months at a time, and about how to keep warm when it’s -35 degrees Celsius.

Tom admits that, up until recently, he didn’t have a long-term plan for his career.  “I’ve never been that directed with what I’ve done next. There’s always been an array of options, and I pick one that seems best at the time and I do that.”  When it came time to choose a field for his graduate studies, he looked through a booklet of every topic he could pursue to earn a Master’s in the same field as his Bachelor’s — physics — but he didn’t think that he was interested in any of them enough to work on them for even half a year!

If I hadn’t sent that email, my life would be completely different.

Tom Armitage

While the offerings in that booklet weren’t especially appealing, Tom did enjoy his coursework on the physics of the earth. His roommate was able to recommend two potential advisors in the UCL Earth Sciences department who liked to hire physicists.  Tom emailed one of them, who ended up advising his master’s project. “If I hadn’t sent that email,” he says, “my life would be completely different.” A similar approach led Tom to pursue a series of prestigious academic appointments: first a PhD in Earth Sciences at UCL, then a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.  

It’s Time for a Change

That laissez-faire attitude toward his employment transitions changed recently, as he came close to finishing his work at Cal Tech.  “I was at a make or break time in my career,” he says. It can be incredibly difficult to get a tenure-track academic position, and Tom realized that he wasn’t sure if that was what he wanted.  “I realized that some things I enjoy about academia weren’t paying off,” he says. “I enjoy thinking about big problems in an analytical way, but I get frustrated about working alone and chasing things on years-long deadlines.” He began a dedicated search for a career which would allow him to pursue his favorite parts of academia without any of those hangups.

During that search, Tom realized that he might enjoy working as a consultant.  He would be able to methodically answer questions using the scientific method, but — unlike his previous occupation — he would be able to work in small teams and on brisk deadlines.  Since then, he’s accepted an offer to join the Boston Consulting Group! He looks forward to beginning his new position soon.

Tom’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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