On the Job with a Meteorologist at the Bureau of Meteorology

GradAustralia met with Naomi Benger to learn about life on the job as a Graduate Meteorologist at the Bureau of Meteorology
Erin Delaney
Team GradAustralia
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Naomi graduated with Honours in Pure Mathematics from The University of Adelaide in 2007 and a PhD in Computer Applications from Dublin City University in 2010

What's your job about?

I work for the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) as part of the forecaster team in the Adelaide branch, we produce the official weather forecasts for South Australia.

I work two types of shift: public weather and aviation weather. Weather watching is a constant part of both shift types. On a public weather shift I work on producing and communicating the forecast. Producing the forecast involves working closely with the senior forecaster to develop the forecast policy for the following week. We examine a few different types of computer generated guidance then draw on our local knowledge and experience to decide what we expect will happen. To communicate the forecast, I do radio interviews and advise TV weather presenters and general media (TV, newspapers). We use a specialised software program to format the forecast for publication on our website and app. This forecast process is done every day of the year.

During aviation shifts we forecast weather elements which could be hazardous to aircraft and those working in the aviation industry. We forecast cloud heights, wind, turbulence and storms, for example, amongst other elements. We produce larger forecasts which cover the whole of SA and over some of the coast, and specific forecasts also for particular locations with aerodromes and airports within South Australia. These forecasts are for, at most, 30 hours in advance. Pilots call to consult with us about weather; we often receive calls from RFDS pilots, hot air balloon pilots and pilots of smaller aircraft. This is a 24/7 service and requires shifts overnight, weekends and public holidays.

What's your background?

I grew up in Whyalla and Aldinga (south of Adelaide) in South Australia. I studied Mathematics at Adelaide University. I did an exchange year to Germany and then took a break from study to work in Switzerland for 1.5 years. After completing my studies I decided to go to Ireland to do a PhD. I worked in academia in Ireland, France and Australia for a few years, before deciding to change my career and become a meteorologist.

Usually, becoming a meteorologist requires a background in maths and physics or atmospheric science. I was taken on by the BoM because my extensive studies showed that I had the capacity to be trained for and perform the job well. I have been working for the BoM for nearly three years now.

I never really thought about a particular career during school or uni, I just kept studying what I found interesting hoping that things would work out in the end. When I finished uni I found it hard to decide which career path to take — I had so many varied interests, so I just kept studying and researching. Although I didn't really have a plan, this path gave me the opportunity to travel and live overseas. Travel, learning languages and learning about new cultures are things I am passionate about and pursuing these interests has made my life much fuller. I could never measure the extent of the positive impact an appreciation for other communities in the world has brought to my life.

Could someone with a different background do your job?

Yes. I don't have the typical background of a meteorologist. The grad program is 10 months’ training to become a forecaster. It’s important to have studied related topics, such as maths and physics, and show the aptitude to complete the training course and do shift work.

Aside from the academic abilities in science, good communication skills are very important. Producing the forecast is only one aspect of the job, we need the forecast to be communicated and understood. You also need to be able to work well in a team and adapt to shift work.

What's the coolest thing about your job?

The weather is the coolest thing about my job! The weather impacts everyone.

The moments in which I know I am playing an important role are during extreme weather events when we provide support to the State Emergency Services and the South Australian Country Fire Service, and when advising the Royal Flying Doctor Service late in the night, for example. These are sometime the most stressful but rewarding times, when I know that I am contributing to a valuable service.

Each shift has the same set of tasks and deadlines but the weather changes constantly so I’m always thinking about and engaged with my work, especially during extreme/unusual events — but even when there is no apparent weather. I also appreciate the strong team environment and the constant learning: weather is such a subtle and detailed entity, forecasting is something that has to be practised, and working with other more experienced forecasters means I am constantly learning.

What are the limitations of your job?

The biggest limitation in my job is being a shift worker. It is hard to nurture relationships when you don't have the same days off as friends and family. Some people find it difficult to adapt physically to shift work also, and lack of sleep is an issue to always be aware of. It’s necessary to be able to perform well while awake, not just stay awake — this makes the job mentally and physically demanding.

The one best piece of advice you’d give to keen students

Don't hold back at any stage, it doesn't matter if you don't know where you want to go in your life or career, always give your best effort. Most of the opportunities I have had in life came about through seemingly unrelated avenues, so no matter what you are doing always strive for excellence because you never know what opportunities can arise from what you are doing now. Don't let your goals get in the way of seizing every opportunity to enjoy life.