Calum Baker

Senior Manager, Commodity Research, at leading diversified global mining company.

Former research staff in earth sciences, University of Grenoble, France and University of Keele, UK.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Calum Baker

Research staff experience

Immediately following completion of my UK doctorate, I was awarded a French government research fellowship to continue research with a collaborator at the University of Grenoble in France. I spent around eight months there, with research focusing on the mechanism of earthquake activity in the western region of Greece, and the consequent interpretation of the tectonic forces at work. 

Following this I gained a Natural Environment Research Council research fellowship to join a newly formed research group back in the UK at the University of Keele, with research focused on the application of seismology and rock mechanics to engineering applications (e.g. mining, petroleum extraction and civil engineering). My own research was focused on developing methodologies for understanding the mechanisms driving rock fracture around underground tunnels – with applications in the mining and civil engineering sectors (such as underground nuclear waste disposal). I worked in this laboratory for four years.

The work at the Keele research group led to opportunities to undertake consultancy work for commercial clients.  My research group leader, a number of other colleagues and I then started a small spin-out company to serve these clients’ needs. I took on the role of general manager, responsible for a wide range of activities from day-to-day office management, to business development and project management. 

My main, and immediate, reason for leaving the higher education sector was the excitement of the challenge of starting a new business venture and all the opportunities that brought. Underlying that, I had already decided that academia did not offer me the overall variety of experiences that I wanted from my career. 

Transition to new career

The transition from academic research to spin-out consulting company was quite a natural one in many ways. The technical work we were doing was very similar (albeit with less of a research focus and more of a focus on meeting specific client needs). I had already been looking at jobs that offered the opportunity to use my technical expertise in a commercial setting (e.g. in engineering consultancy firms, oil companies, etc.) but hadn’t found exactly the right role by that stage. 

In terms of making the transition, the biggest challenge was to develop sufficient commercial acumen so that clients had confidence we could deliver a timely professional service. As with any small start-up, resources were tight and everyone had to chip in at all sorts of levels (and make sacrifices) to make it work – but it was exciting to be part of something genuinely new and cutting edge. 

Support was provided by a number of colleagues and contacts from my network (including those met through working as a tutor on career development courses for doctoral researchers - GRADschools!) Just having people to bounce ideas off and share some ‘war stories’ with was very helpful. It gave me confidence that others had experienced similar challenges and that the hard work and patience would pay off. 

Another career shift

After working for the technical consultancy for around five years, I was looking for a new challenge and decided to take time out to complete an MBA. This was very instrumental in opening my eyes to a wider range of career opportunities that might be suitable for me – not just relying on specific technical skills, but also on the broader range of transferable skills – data analysis, project and research management, communication of complex concepts, and so on. 

On completing the MBA I joined the strategy consulting arm of a leading consultancy and data provider specialising in the mining and metals sector. I worked in various roles in this company, from working on and leading consultancy projects to, finally, managing a research team of twelve, responsible for a key sector of the company’s coverage. 

Five years later I was offered a position undertaking research into the commodity markets with a large global mining company, based in Singapore. I spent three years there before returning to the UK for a more senior role in a different company – my current employer. 

Current job – and how it compares

I’m now Senior Manager, Commodity Research, in a global diversified mining company. My role is to understand the fundamentals of supply and demand for various commodities and metals of interest to the company and thus determine the future prospects for these materials. This work is a key input into the companies’ strategy and business development decision-making process. 

The actual work involves building and maintaining databases and economic models and undertaking basic research to understand the technological limitations and possible future developments that may impact the prospects for a given commodity. I then prepare reports and presentations for key stakeholders in the company. 

The highlights of my job are doing meaningful and interesting analysis that has a direct impact on company strategy and investment. There is never a dull moment and the pace is quite fast, switching quickly from one topic to another as the market changes in response to global events and economic drivers. 

The lows are the flip-side of that coin – there is often not enough time to do everything one would like. We live by the ‘80:20 rule’ – doing just enough to be fairly confident of the correct answer, without going through all the fine details and covering every possible base. 

In many ways the research work is similar to the academic research I did previously, in the sense that we deal with ambiguity and uncertainty and have to manage data that is often conflicting and incomplete. Generally though, the answers are out there somewhere and it differs in that there isn’t much totally new ground to uncover. Given the time frames we work to, we generally don’t have the ability (or in fact the need) to go into the very fine detail and break new ground. 

Competencies old and new

As well as employing those data analysis and interpretation skills learnt in academic research, I often still draw on the ability to develop and manage research plans. Keeping things on target through milestones and project reviews was familiar from previous academic research work. 

Competencies I’ve had to develop include the ability to communicate succinctly, whether by written note/memo or in a presentation. Senior managers rarely have more than minutes to review work, so everything has to focus on the very high level implications, while having all the background ready in case of follow-up questions. It’s also important, in my experience, to think through the implications of the results of any work and engage at a very early stage with any stakeholders impacted, as this saves extra work later on. 

Reflecting on my career path

I’m not sure I would have wanted to miss out on any part of my career to date. I may, on reflection, have spent a bit too long in some of my early roles (spending more than four years as a postdoctoral researcher before deciding an academic career wasn’t what I wanted was maybe too long!), but it’s never felt boring: I’m lucky to have always had interesting work and very motivated and interesting colleagues. 

In future I will likely remain in the mining sector – perhaps exploring other roles in strategy, research and project management. 

Suggestions and advice

Work out what it is that gets you up in the morning – is it the thrill of researching new areas, the enjoyment of working in a research team with a common goal, the pleasure of sharing ideas and results with a broader audience…or something else? Think how these aspects of being a researcher will develop in your career and think where you want to be in five years. Then keep in the back of your mind a ‘plan’ of how you might get there: what skills will you need, what experience will you have to get, what people and contacts can provide you with the advice that could be helpful? Take every opportunity you can to add to the skills and experience that might help. 

In my view, some of the skills and experience gained through academic research are actually not so common in the commercial sector and are highly valued there. So it’s not too late, even after five or so years in research (as in my case) to make a transition if that’s what you want. You may just need to help the recruiters outside academia understand what skills you’ll bring with you.