Jack F. Higginbotham was born in 1958 in Kansas City, Missouri. Because his father was in the Air Force, Higginbotham moved around several times until his father retired, at which point the family returned to Kansas City. Throughout his childhood, he was involved in Boy Scouts and aviation was another strong interest. Higginbotham originally intended to join the Air Force Academy, but failed the physical and was consequently unable to pursue that path. Instead, he began attending Kansas State University in 1976, majoring in nuclear engineering.

A strong student, Higginbotham, after his second year at Kansas State, received an internship with Black & Veatch, a consulting engineering firm based in Kansas City. Higginbotham spent two summers at Black & Veatch, and during this time he conducted work that anticipated the accident sequence that struck the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in March 1979. In fall 1979, Higginbotham began working as a neuron activation analysis technician for KSU's Nuclear Engineering department. He held this position until he completed his bachelor's degree in 1981.

From there, Higginbotham chose to stay at KSU and pursue a graduate degree. During his master's studies, he was promoted to reactor operator at KSU's Nuclear Reactor Facility - he was later bumped up to reactor supervisor and, ultimately, senior reactor operator. He completed his master of science degree in nuclear engineering in 1983, and his Ph.D. in 1987. All told, Higginbotham spent eleven years studying at Kansas State, a time period during which he married and started a family.

Higginbotham's association with Oregon State University began in 1987, when he accepted a position as assistant professor in the Nuclear Engineering department. Higginbotham also worked as the university's senior health physicist at the OSU Radiation Center, overseeing the process of shipping radioactive material, among other duties. The following year, 1988, he became OSU's senior reactor operator.

Throughout his OSU career, and especially during its early phases, Higginbotham has been heavily involved with consultancy work for a number of outside entities, including the Oregon Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of the Interior; Battelle, Pacific Northwest Laboratories; Hewlett-Packard; Oregon Health Sciences University; and several additional universities outside of Oregon. He also conducted research measuring the contamination of foodstuffs shipped out of eastern Europe following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and has studied probabilistic risk assessment as well.

In 1994, Higginbotham began his administrative career when was named chair of the OSU Radiation Health Physics Program. Four years later, he became the associate dean of the Graduate School at Oregon State, a position that he held until 2000.

In 2000, Higginbotham found a new administrative home when became the associate director of Oregon Space Grant, a state-wide program based at OSU. He became the program's director in 2002 and continues to serve in this capacity today. In 2008, he joined the Board of Directors of the National Space Grant Foundation, and in 2012 he was named director of Space Studies in OSU's College of Science. Higginbotham has likewise been an active member of the Faculty Senate at OSU, serving a three-year term as senator beginning in 2006, and leading the Senate as president in 2011-2012.