Meteorology: Always take the weather with you

In today's changing climate, meteorology is a very hot topic. By Catherine Quinn
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The Independent Online

Thunder, lightning and hurricane might be a mercifully rare occurrence for most postgraduate students. But for those studying meteorology or atmospheric science, it's all par for the course. In fact, would-be meteorologists learn about all kinds of dramatic weather, from tornados to long-term climate change. As unpredictable as the elements might be to other mere mortals, a meteorology qualification trains students to analysis climate in a measured way, which makes at least some of it a predictable science.

Many students who go into careers researching the weather have taken a meteorology degree, but there are also options at MSc or PhD level. These courses do tend to favour graduates who have qualified in meteorology or climate-related subjects, but that's not to say a good science or maths degree won't hold you in good stead. There are also a number of courses with a geological focus which can usefully lead into meteorology, and students who have taken a degree studying climate change or physical geography will find they have a useful qualification for further study in weather.

"We get a very eclectic mix of students," says Dr David Viner, who oversees the MSc in climate change at the University of East Anglia (UEA). "A lot come from atmospheric science backgrounds and social sciences, but we also have a range of people who have taken a year out, or who have come to take the MSc later in their careers. Generally we attract people who are interested in issues such as global warming and climate change, and are very driven."

As the Government finally starts to wise-up to their obligations, climate change is an increasingly high-profile subject. And the more natural disasters of the Hurricane Katrina or tsunami ilk the world and its people suffer, the more people are turning to studying the weather to find out how we can predict and prevent such tragedies and ultimately reverse global warming.

UEA boasts a top range of scientists who are all highly qualified in climate change studies, so entrance criteria for the course are necessarily high. The admissions department usually asks for a First or a 2.1, although exceptions are made in cases of extensive practical experience. Most other similar postgraduate qualifications will demand the same entry grades, but it's worth checking with individual universities. You should also bear in mind that as a taught course, you'll be committing to many hours a week.

"It is hard work," says Viner. "It's a modular course and 40 per cent of the final grade is a course dissertation. Depending on the student's choice, this can be very diverse and involve a lot of fieldwork. We had one this year, for example, which looked at the impact of diving in Trinidad and Tobago."

So it's fair to say that there's a lot of scope for exploration within the MSc. But there are also other postgraduate degrees that qualify graduates in various aspects of climate and meteorology. For many students, the latter is the obvious option, but you can team pure meteorology with an option in oceanography, climatology or mathematics. All of these offer the chance to add real niche skills to the broader ones you'll be learning.

Oceanography, for example, will teach you about a number of complex tools with which to model and predict water movement. Although a job forecasting flood or mapping dam logistics might seem a natural career choice, the ability to predict fluid paths could lead you to an entirely different field. In the Disney film Finding Nemo, for example, an entire team was employed to mathematically model the bubble animations. The sequences were so complex that each bubble had a name and was charted individually, and required in-depth knowledge of water movement. So a degree using oceanography could see you working anywhere from an oil rig to a film studio.

Don't underestimate the mathematics involved though. As with most subjects that rely heavily on physical science, mathematics is the cornerstone of any meteorology course. You might also be surprised to learn that a meteorology MSc is not about knowing when it's going to rain next. Forecasting is usually not taught directly, as this is something you'll be trained in should you go on to predict the weather professionally.

"It's not about learning forecasting, but you do learn forecasting by osmosis," says student Dan Peake, who is currently studying meteorology at the University of Reading. "You learn about climate change and weather patterns, and a lot of maths. Certainly not everyone on the course is interesting in going on to predict the weather. But personally, I am one of those people who want to stand in front of a blue screen!" Peake is well on his way; last year he won a competitive place on the Met Office's scholarship scheme, which saw him working there during his summer holidays.

"A lot of our students who take the meteorology degree go into further study with us, either at MSc or PhD level," says admissions tutor Ross Reynolds at Reading. The university is one of the top destinations in the country for meteorology, offering a prestigious exchange programme with the University of Oklahoma. "We have students who go into environmental consultancy, the Royal Navy or mathematical roles such as accountancy," he says.

For students who are keen not to spend too much time in labs and classrooms, the course is a welcome hands-on option. Those with a real passion for learning about the environment will find their studies provide a great opportunity to get stuck in with practical experiments. At MSc level you'll be designing your own trips - so the world will literally be your oyster. You could be investigating tornados in Oklahoma or flash floods in the UK.

If you're considering a postgraduate qualification in meteorology, there are some good sponsorship options available. The National Environment Research Council offers full sponsorship of course fees and living costs to 290 Masters and 1,200 PhD students every year, so it's well worth applying for funding if you've graduated with a good grade.

The Met Office is also keen to encourage students to apply for further study. Although this is by no means the only destination for those with metrology qualifications, it is the Holy Grail for many who go on to further study. They offer sponsorship placements for students on relevant courses, and extensive training should you be fortunate enough to gain employment with them.

After a turbulent time submitting lengthy dissertations, however, some students are happy to take their new-found skills into the less tempestuous environments of accountancy or insurance.