Inspired by PAC staff members Mr Klose and Mr Ray Smith, Alan James enrolled at the University of Adelaide in 1941 to study mathematics, physics, and chemistry. He graduated 4 years later with an Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Physics. Further studies and a position as an Assistant Research Officer at the CSIRO in the Division of Mathematical Statistics led to the CSIRO awarding James a 2-year studentship to Princeton University, who awarded him a PhD and an Assistant Research position for another year.
In 1958 James accepted a visiting lectureship at Yale University; this was followed by an Associate Professorship, and he became a Full Professor in 1963.
He returned to Adelaide University 2 years later to take up the Chair of Mathematical Statistics, which he held until his retirement in 1990.
The contribution made to the field of Statistics by Alan James was acknowledged when he was awarded the Pitman Medal of the Statistical Society of Australia in 1992.