Post Ph.D. possibilities…What next? By Morgan Jones

You’ve handed in your thesis (best feeling ever!), you’ve celebrated accordingly, and you’ve rested after one of if not the biggest achievements of your life. Your mind may turn to your viva but that might be a while yet, but what is likely to start making its way into your thinking is what next?! You may have been lucky enough to land a great job or training position somewhere that you are going to seamlessly transfer to from your Ph.D. without a break, but you may also not have a next plan. Nine months ago, that was me.

I handed in my thesis in September 2017, in the field of glaciology, and was in a great position with a number of published journal articles and a fair amount of teaching experience. My supervisors had been really supportive and made sure I knew the job market was difficult, but that I had the experience and work ethic to be OK. I knew I wanted to be in academia or something equally interesting, but there didn’t seem to be many academic jobs about.  However, some job adverts trickled in and I applied, getting rejected from some and interviews for others. Then, in December I got a great little six-month position at the University of Cumbria as a Lecturer in Physical Geography – an amazing opportunity to get lots of teaching experience and earn some money!

What ensued was a really great four months (still got two months to go)! I was thrown in at the deep end teaching a variety of students across the whole physical geography spectrum, some of which I had never done myself before as I did geology as an undergraduate degree. I was used to teaching in a team, but due to the small class sizes I was on my own, which was both daunting and great experience!  It has been full on and a bit of a shock – being responsible for the whole teaching process takes dedication and time. My boss was nice enough to give me teaching material to build on, but I still had to put in a lot of time to get them into something I was happy to teaching. This didn’t leave a huge amount of work time to do research, but after passing my viva in February I shared my spare work time (and a lot of evenings) between thesis corrections, finishing papers and applying for the next job.  The last of these is still undecided, but what I am learning is that whilst I thought I was only trained for a specific job, my Ph.D. had actually led me to develop a huge range of skills, to be dependable, to have a good work ethic and to be passionate about I do. That meant that the range of jobs I am now applying for is in a far broader area than research and lecturing, and with the last job behind me I have the confidence that I can get one of the many jobs I am applying for.

My experience is only one of many. Some of my peers have landed a job before the end of their Ph.D., some got the first one they applied for. Some have become teachers, or expedition leaders, or gone travelling. The end of your Ph.D. is scary, but you are highly trained and have worked hard – that will lead to something. However, here are a few tips I picked up along the way that might be useful:

  • During your Ph.D. say yes: My supervisor always told me to take every opportunity that arose, and I did. There were instances that didn’t feel right, but those extra things (teaching, outreach, reviewing papers) all helped me to broaden my skill set, which is so handy for future job applications and for broadening the jobs you can apply for.


  • Save up some money/ have a backup: Don’t assume you’ll get a job straight away after your Ph.D. Try and save some money along the way so it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you have to take a bit of time off or wait to be employed. I needed some time off because I was exhausted after working hard for four years, and I anticipated this so had kept a bit of money aside each month to enable me to do that.


  • Apply for everything: a rule I’ve heard in academia is that you should only apply for jobs where you meet all the criteria. I agree with this, but even if you only have a slightly tenuous example of how you fit one of the criteria, apply! You can only get rejected and as long as you are ready for that by being realistic, you might as well apply. You’ll learn about the application process along the way and build up a bank of covering letters, research statements and answers to criteria, which will make the process increasingly easy.


  • Keep talking to academics: your peers, your supervisors, anyone you’ve been in touch with during your Ph.D. If you’re looking for an academic job they will let you know if they hear of anything, but I’ve also found chatting to such people keeps you interested in academia. Ideas for further papers or grant applications also might appear in these chats, which are always good to follow up, and get them to read your job applications too!


  • Think about your own research: Job applications will ask about your future research, so you need to be prepared for that, but it is also a great idea to have a go at writing a grant application yourself. It will force you to come up with and refine ideas for your future research, and you can then also add you have grant writing experience in applications.


  • Look beyond academia: You may be dead set on being in academia, but realistically it may just not happen. That doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just means you are trying to get a job in a very competitive sector and you sometimes just have to be in the right place at the right time. Have a look what else is out there – you might be able to use your skills in another equally interesting role.


  • Keep at it! Something will turn up – you are highly qualified with a great range of skills.



One paper, thirty thousand axes measurements: Eleanor Pearson, University of Leeds

Prior to starting my PhD at the University of Leeds I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to undertake a Masters by Research. Although its origins began in looking at the geomorphic and biotic effect of in-stream wood using 3D high resolution topographic modelling, my main efforts drifted more towards quantifying whether or not Structure-from-Motion (SfM) could be used to accurately estimate grain size at patch scale for a number of patch facies. Many people have experience undertaking Wolman sampling strategies to estimate grain size and hence many people know it is a relenting, time consuming and occasionally painfully dull process. For your efforts, you get an estimated grain size from one hundred pebbles across a selected area, not the most reliable! Instead, SfM could provide a time efficient, easy and data rich approach to estimate the size of every pebble in the same area selected for Wolman sampling and give an average of grain size within the area. Using SfM, or similar topographic survey methods like Terrestrial Laser Scanning (TLS) to estimate grain size requires a relationship to be established between grain size and the surface roughness. To do this, a parameter for surface roughness needs to be identified, which in previous research, has most commonly been standard deviation of elevation. This relationship is complicated by patch characteristics, for example, whether there is a variation in grain size within the patch, whether there is imbrication, how large grains are packed with smaller grains and the shape of each grain. These factors are also limiting when trying to use a summary value of particle axes such as D50 to measure flow resistance. Understandably, the surface cannot be defined fully by a few descriptive parameters, so as much as using SfM would speed up the process, there will still be a little uncertainty behind the values. However, previous research using SfM or TLS to estimate surface roughness has not quantified the effect any patch characteristics have on surface roughness values. This is where I focused my research efforts, in evaluating the differences patch characteristics have on surface roughness, and where the pebble measuring began.


Variation in the relationships between standard deviation of elevation and grain size in previous research

Measuring so many pebbles takes a team, mostly to stop yourself from going insane. Our approach was two-pronged, firstly, we brought 2000 pebbles with b-axes between 4 and 128 mm back from the field site in the Yorkshire Dales, gave them unique numbers, and measured all three of their axes. 6000 axes measurements later, and you can see how the number gets so high! Using these pebbles, I arranged small patches within a tray, georeferenced using a total station, depending on size, shape, imbrication and sorting. The measured b-axis D50 of each patch was related to the standard deviation of elevation calculated from SfM models created of each patch and relationships were established based on combinations of shape, sorting and imbrication. The pebble size differences were used to create the relationships. These relationships were compared with each other and to a relationship founded by using smooth, spherical balls, reducing the implications of patch characteristics to a minimum, and to the theory of how diameter would differ standard deviation of elevation for hemispheres.


A sad looking pebble, it must have known my feelings after measuring so many being one of the last of the 2000 collected pebbles

Understandably, manually manipulated patches are not representative of real world gravel bars or river beds. Therefore, the second part of the analysis involved two field sites, the original one where the pebbles were collected and another, downstream where the gravel was better sorted. Here, thirty-one 1m x 1m patches were established, and the corners were surveyed using the total station. An SfM photo survey was undertaken, and the surface was spray painted (so only surface gravels would be collected). Once this was complete, the measuring began once again, where all surface gravels had their three axes measured. Again, the D50 of each patch was compared to the standard deviation of elevation derived from the SfM point cloud. These field patches were split into well sorted and poorly sorted, and were compared to the manipulated patches of the same type.

A contrast in weather- mid 2016 summer heatwave versus the typical set up nearing the end of the pebble measuring experience on a very cold February day


A flow diagram of how the different patch types relate to each other

An issue with field patches was the underlying topography skewing the derived standard deviation of elevation. We investigated this by removing the form roughness through a variety of methods including fitting a plane, fitting a 2.5D quadric, and using 7.5cm and 10cm DEMs, then differencing the point cloud from them. We also looked at whether using a different metric for roughness had an effect, these metrics included summarising local standard deviation using a moving window (2σloc), and summarising the deviation from a fitted plane of all points within a given radius (rh), both of which had been used in previous research by other authors.

Our analysis showed that using SfM as a survey technique for surface roughness can provide accurate grain size estimates. Of the patch facies tested, sorting had the largest effect on whether or not SfM could accurately estimate grain size, with the relationship for manipulated patches having a reduction in R2 from 0.97 to 0.012, for well sorted and poorly sorted spherical gravels respectively. Particle shape effects were particularly pronounced from oblate-shaped particles, as to be expected due to their flat nature. Imbrication effects caused an increase in standard deviation of elevation for oblate patches, but not for the prolate patches, as the imbrication effect was balanced by the obscuring of the lower end of the particles, reducing topographic variability. In terms of form roughness, only minor improvements were seen in the use of DEM-point cloud subtraction for the moderately well sorted field patches, with no improvements being seen to the poorly sorted field patches. Regarding roughness metrics, all three tested were very similar, and were highly correlated.

To summarise, SfM or other high resolution surveying techniques may provide a method for estimating grain size, and for the first time, this paper looked at the effects different patch facies have on the ability of the technique to estimate grain size accurately. Previous work has used roughness-grain size relationships with little regard for factors that may be influencing the patch roughness and thus, many different relationships were found. Finding a method to quickly but accurately extract grain size information would be of great use to those working in river management, particularly now river restoration is highly prevalent. This research aimed to be the first to consider patch variation, but has not answered all questions, and thus, currently, work still needs to be done before SfM can be used to estimate grain size. Issues around further patch variation factors such as burial and hiding effects, as well as the interactions between patch factors need to be examined. Full validation of the relationships found will then be required, with data from many more field patches. This has the possibility of leading to a suite of empirical equations of use to river practitioners (see the example created from work done in this project), with the process of identifying the correct equation having the potential to be fully automated.


The decision tree of empirical equations found in this study as an example of what may be possible in the future

If this work is of interest, please look at the more detailed paper in Geomorphology which has been granted open access, and can be found using the URL:

Pearson, E., Smith, M.W., Klaar, M.J. and Brown, L.E. 2017. Can high resolution 3D topographic surveys provide reliable grain size estimates in gravel bed rivers? Geomorphology. 293(A), pp. 143-155 Continue reading

Beyond your PhD: Tim Meadows, Lecturer in Physical Geography, The University of Manchester

If I had to describe the approach I’ve taken to my career so far I would have to go with ‘decisively indecisive’: decisive because I’ve made a couple of bold decisions without really questioning myself or thinking twice; indecisive because those decisions have resulted in a couple of significant changes in direction, both geographically and professionally. Let me explain…

I ended up doing a PhD much more out of luck than judgement. Throughout my undergrad geography degree at the University of Nottingham, I’d always really enjoyed the rivers modules. This was in part due to my seemingly innate love of all things rivers, as well as some genuinely inspirational teaching at Nottingham and several memorable field trips to glamorous mid-Wales. So I always thought I wanted to do ‘something about rivers’, but that was as far as my career plan had developed. That was when a couple of chance conversations with Colin Thorne around Easter of my third year put me onto the PhD trail. Unfortunately, our first application for funding was promptly rejected, forcing me to hastily develop and execute Plan B – this turned out to be doing an MSc in GIScience, again at Nottingham. In retrospect this was a pretty good move as I developed some key skills that have turned out to be quite useful further down the line.

With my MSc all but secured, Colin and I submitted another funding application – this time to do some modelling work aimed at assessing flood risks caused by elevated sediment yields from catchments that were severely disturbed during the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens. This project was deemed worthy of funding, and I consequently embarked on my PhD in the autumn of 2010. Looking back on my PhD now, it was an enjoyable and ultimately rewarding experience and I’ve come to realise just how much of a privilege it is to spend three years researching a topic that you have a genuine interest in. As a scientist, there’s really nothing better you could be doing. However, by the end of my time at Nottingham I had become fairly convinced that academia wasn’t for me. So keen was I to leave, in fact, that I took up a job with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in Edinburgh long before I was ready to submit. In retrospect this was a bad idea and resulted in a fairly painful year of late nights and seven-day working weeks – not something I’d recommend.


The North Fork Toutle River draining the north flank of Mount St Helens: my PhD study site.

Despite the poor timing of my move to Edinburgh, the two and a half years I spent at SEPA were great and I learnt a huge amount about rivers and practical river management. I worked as part of SEPA’s Hydromorphology Technical Group to provide advice regarding the potential impacts of proposed river engineering works on fluvial forms and processes. This advice was used to inform decisions regarding licence applications and, ultimately, to protect and improve Scotland’s rivers. It was really rewarding to be able to apply my knowledge of fluvial geomorphology to real-world problems and to contribute to environmental protection in this way. I covered the southern half of Scotland and another great part of the job was having the opportunity to go out and visit rivers in such a diverse and beautiful country.


Bank erosion on the River Tweed at Drumelzier: my first case as a Senior Hydromorphologist at SEPA.

However, a little while after I finally submitted my PhD at the end of 2014 I began to realise that I was missing academia (this is what I mean by indecisive). In particular, I missed the relative freedom to define my day-to-day work and the ability to keep up with (and participate in) new and exciting research – I longed to go to a research seminar or to read a journal article! So I started looking for new jobs…

After a short while I came across a job posting for a Geomorphologist at the Environment Agency in Nottingham. Although this was a very similar job to the one I was already doing at SEPA and not the move back into academia that I’d hoped for, the opportunity to return to my University city was one that I couldn’t pass up. I was lucky enough to be offered the job and this prompted another rewriting of my career ‘plan’. It was another really interesting job but after only a few months my hankering to get back into academia returned. The rivers of the East Midlands are also somewhat less exciting geomorphologically than the Scottish ones I’d been dealing with for the past two years, so I was once again on the lookout for other opportunities.

A short job hunt later and I landed my current position at the University of Manchester where I’ve been working as a lecturer in Physical Geography since September 2016. Although this has probably been the busiest job I’ve had so far, it’s also been the one I’ve enjoyed the most. My main responsibility at Manchester has been to develop and deliver a first year course on river catchment science and management from scratch. Although this has taken a lot of work and has left me with little time to further my research agenda, it’s been a really rewarding experience that has enabled me to further hone my knowledge of rivers and to develop my lecturing skills – I have a newfound respect for all academics who make delivering a two-hour lecture look so easy! I’ve relied quite heavily on things I saw and learnt while working at SEPA and the EA to develop my course, so these experiences have been incredibly useful and have enabled me to promote the ‘employability’ side of geomorphology – something which I think can be lost on students sometimes.


Second year UoM students having a think about a geothermal (and pretty degraded) river in Iceland: helping out on field trips is another great perk of the lecturing gig.

I guess that brings me to my future prospects and career plans. Unfortunately, I’m on a one-year fixed-term contract here at Manchester which means that I’ll soon be restarting my job hunt again. Although short-term contracts seem to be pretty common in academia these days, particularly for those of us at the start of our academic journeys, they are, of course, not unheard of in other sectors too – I was on fixed-term contracts at both SEPA and the EA. Whilst the lack of job security is not ideal, I try to think of the exciting opportunities that might present themselves during my job hunt that I would have otherwise been oblivious to. There’s always a silver lining… My experience is that something will tend to come up, provided you are flexible and keep an open mind – geomorphologists have a great skill set that is valued both within academia and beyond.

I think this is the final point that I would like to leave you with: geomorphologists are highly employable and there are many people out there in several different sectors looking for good geomorphologists. Like me, you may have to move around a little bit and take a few risks, but doing so is likely to yield some great rewards. I feel genuinely privileged to have been able to do the jobs that I’ve done so far, and I think the odd change in location is a small price to pay for that privilege. If my experiences can tell us anything, it’s that you don’t need to have everything figured out by the end of your PhD – embrace any opportunity that presents itself and see where it might take you, you can always change your mind later! Good luck!

A summer of boats, bears and bugs

Last year my summer was filled with adventures: June was occupied by a hiking expedition across a remote part of Swedish Lapland, whilst late July and most of August were filled with my first visit to new PhD field sites in South East Alaska. Although I had never visited the region before my supervisors had and there is a wealth of academic and lay literature about the region, its geomorphology and ecology. So before I had even boarded a plane, let alone the ferry or small landing craft to be used throughout the field season, I believed I knew what was to come.


Figure 1. Three young brown bears fishing for pink salmon in a stream mouth. Bears posed a major logistical challenge as sites were often inaccessible as a result of their presence.

However, accessing sites through thick willow and alder scrub, where the only passable route is along the tracks forged by brown bears, is hard. Tracking the thalweg of a waist deep, boulder laden stream whilst recording on a cumbersome GPS unit… and watching for the aforementioned bears is harder. That’s before you mention the accidental dips into the freezing waters of the bay; the pieces of kit that are lost downstream after slipping on slimy boulders in the middle of a stream; failing to buy suitably water resistant electronic scales and dodging icebergs as we cruised up the bay towards its remaining glaciers. Nonetheless my first taste of the wilds of Alaska and of fieldwork in such a changeable environment were addictive.


Figure 2. Field team disembarking the research vessel the Capelin. Credit Dr Lee Brown

My research catchments are located in Glacier Bay National Park, which was first established as a National Monument in 1925 under pressure from a number of eminent conservationist including John Muir and William Cooper. Now the national park is part of a UNESCO world heritage site and a United Nations biosphere reserve. The region has experienced rapid deglaciation since the 1700s, exposing a bay 150km long and 20km wide. Research here has focussed on glacial retreat, changing environmental conditions and the succession of ecosystems from bare ground through to coniferous forests. This succession of communities from bare ground to forests results in a diverse range of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems within the bay. As you move up the bay (and streams get younger) streams display a decrease in habitat complexity and a shift from slow flowing habitat types (such as pools and glide) to fast flowing habitat types (such as rapids and riffles).


Figure 3. Map of Glacier Bay with principal research catchments marked in white. Age of streams in brackets.

The summer of 2014 saw atypical, persistent, heavy rainfall across much of South East Alaska, driving sustained and repeated flood events in Glacier Bay throughout June, July and August. These floods form the primary focus of my PhD, which is interested in how stream ecosystems respond to extreme flooding and the role habitat availability and complexity play in conferring resistance to, and resilience following floods.

To understand how an ecosystem responds to a disturbance event it is important to understand how habitat availability and complexity, before and after the event, may drive ecological processes and community change. As such my project has two main aims: to quantify habitat change and availability associated with the floods and to quantify how the ecosystem responds over a number of years.


Figure 4. Waterfall and plunge pool holding over 1000 pink salmon at Wolf Point Creek.

There is a long history of stream research in Glacier Bay, focussed on ecological and geomorphological succession. As such I have access to a broad range of secondary datasets collected, in the main by my supervisors, over the last 40 years. My task was to identify the most relevant pieces in these datasets and then collect data to allow for comparisons of pre and post flood conditions. Understanding how habitat availability affects response in a diverse range of species with drastically different life history traits (think fast moving juvenile Coho salmon versus tiny midge larvae clinging to a rock) requires an equally diverse approach.

Consequently, my habitat mapping work has three main strands; mapping channel geomorphic units (CGUs) along 1km long reaches; repeating regularly collected cross sections at study sites and sampling sediments in an attempt to understand variation in microhabitat availability for aquatic invertebrates. These activities were pursued at all of my study sites in an attempt to elucidate the role of both meso and microhabitat in ecological response to disturbance.


Figure 5. Dr Megan Klaar resurveying longstanding cross sections. Credit Dr Lee Brown

Mapping CGUs is a slow process which occupied the majority of time at each field site. The process requires an individual to identify CGUs based on a hierarchical system, combining visual and physical characteristics of the river channel and flow at any given point, and then to walk the thalweg of the CGU with a mapping grade GPS. The process is then repeated for all CGUs along the study stretch to produce a CGU map of the river. This presents a number of challenges. Walking the thalweg through deep pools is often dangerous, and at times impossible due to their depth, whilst the thalweg of rapids can have such a high flow rate it is almost impossible to walk with or against it the flow. Secondly, consistently allocating CGUs to the correct category across sites with numerous physical differences and ensuring this is repeatable from one year to the next was challenging. Reaches were mapped from the tidal extent of the stream in an upstream direction until at least 1km had been mapped or to any structures (high falls) impassable to salmonid fish (a group of particular interest to the study).

Due to the time consumed mapping CGU’s there was less time than anticipated to focus on other fieldwork goals. The field team successfully rerecorded cross sections which will add to long standing datasets. Additionally some microhabitat data collection was possible, however only a limited number of sediment measurements were taken at each site, instead of a comprehensive analysis originally proposed. This will now become a major focus of future field campaigns.

In addition to this habitat data, aquatic invertebrate larvae, fish and algal samples and data were collected to allow us to map how ecosystems and communities of these organisms respond to the floods through time. These samples represent another core topic of my PhD.


Figure 6. Collecting aquatic invertebrate samples. Lawrence Eagle (Author, far right), Prof Sandy Milner (Centre) and Captain Todd Bruno (napping, far left, after safely guiding us up bay in his vessel the Capelin). Credit Dr Lee Brown

Now I am beginning the arduous task of processing geomorphological data and biotic samples (this requires me to identify thousands of individual bugs – before dissecting them and identifying their stomach contents!) in advance of a proposed second field season through the summer of 2017.


Figure 7. Channel geomorphic unit map of Wolf Point Creek.

The field season was supported by the BSG, water@Leeds and the Staffordshire Educational Endowment fund and I offer my thanks to each of these organisations for their continued support.

By Lawrence Eagle, University of Leeds

Windsor Workshop 2016

Many months have passed since the Windsor Workshop at the beginning of December, so we thought it was about time we post a short blog on it to encourage PhD students who may have started in January to attend the workshop this year!

The annual British Society for Geomorphology Postgraduate Windsor Workshop was held once again for 2016 at the Cumberland Lodge in the Windsor Great Park. This year’s newest group of geomorphology PhD students met for 4 days of networking and preparation for the next 3 years of their PhDs.

The week started with an introduction and the nature of the PhD – letting us know what we had let ourselves in for during the next 3-4 years! Over the course of the workshop we covered a range of topics covering the variety of geomorphological PhDs we were researching between us; from programming code to using social media to gain exposure of our research projects – all useful techniques to carry into our PhDs. We also had the opportunity to present our research projects to small groups and receive useful feedback and questions from others with different backgrounds and perspectives.

The location was lovely – a picturesque and historic location with views towards Windsor Castle. A great way to relax was going for a walk in the grounds after the information packed sessions. The food was plentiful with three course meals for lunch and dinner and substantial breakfasts – no one was going hungry! Along with a plentiful supply of tea and coffee to keep us well fuelled!



The week at Cumberland Lodge gave us the opportunity to meet with other new PhD students and experienced researchers. It enabled us to network with potential future collaborators and friends who I hope will be able to meet up at future events and conferences. It was a great week and I would recommend it to any new geomorphology PhD students!

By Anne Stefaniak, Windsor Workshop Deputy Chair.

Second year blues and how to beat them

The second year blues is often something that you hear about in the first year of your PhD, but is difficult to fully grasp until it creeps up on you. It may not happen in your second year, but this seems to be the most common time that PhD students experience a dip. There are many blogs that have described this period in the PhD process, and for me, the most useful one is from The Thesis Whisperer. If you are feeling like everything is getting on top of you, just take a few minutes to read about ‘The Valley of Shit’, it will help.  I’m not going to use this post to describe the second year blues using a clever analogy as it has been done many a time. For me, it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere with my work and that caused me to lose motivation and confidence. Any work I did wasn’t good enough in my eyes, even if my supervisors said it was. I just didn’t believe them. But the important thing to remember is that you won’t feel like this forever. The PhD process is fraught with highs and lows, and there are plenty of things that you can do to help you through the bad times.


Firstly, it is vital to look after your own health. Working long hours in the office takes its toll, and can often make you feel more stressed. This is because it takes longer for you to get work done because you are tired from working so many hours. It is counterproductive, and can be a vicious circle. Try not to work weekends unless it’s absolutely necessary. Eat healthily, have a good amount of sleep, and do some exercise. Exercise is a great distraction from work, and gives your brain a rest. Make sure you also have time off. Treat the PhD like a 9-5 job because this means that you are allowed to have multiple holidays during the year. N.B. Fieldwork does not count as a holiday! Finally, talk to other PhD students around you. They may be going through something similar, or will have done in the past. Just knowing that you are not on your own can feel like a weight off your mind.


In terms of work, the way to get through is to keep ploughing on. It is common to feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall when you are doing a PhD, but something will change. You’ll find a paper you had missed that leads you onto a new line of research, or a landowner will finally get back to you with permission to access a vital field site. Don’t think about the project as a whole because this is overwhelming, focus on doing the little things. Lastly, remember that you are being paid to research a subject that you enjoy (unless you are self-funded, but that’s another story) and you are not working in a boring job that you hate where you have to be in work at specific hours.


Fran Falcini

PhD student at the University of York

Beyond your PhD: Dr Daniel Schillereff, Teaching Fellow, Department of Geography, King’s College London

We asked Dr Daniel Schillereff, a former member of the BSG postgraduate forum to tell us about his academic journey leading up to and after his PhD. Thanks to Dan for sharing this!

Growing up in Newfoundland, where much of my childhood was spent on rocky coasts and in conifer forests, it was perhaps inevitable that exploring why the world looks and works as it does would appeal to me as a subject to study. Looking back, I have said ‘wow, that is fascinating’ about so many different themes that could be classified as geography since I first set out as an Undergraduate on a BSc Geography degree at the University of Liverpool. In my opinion, its comprehensiveness is one of the greatest strengths of the discipline, and there is unlimited scope to chop and change and merge your interests. If I was to describe my specific discipline, I suppose I am a palaeobiogeochemorpholimnologist. Or something like that. Similarly, it would be difficult to put a finger on a specific piece of advice I received or could offer about moving through a PhD and beyond, but there are some common strands: an open mind, a bit of luck and don’t restrict where your interests lie.

Choosing to do a Master’s degree was really a function of personal interest. I had become hooked on collecting sediment cores as an undergraduate and the MSc Environment and Climate Change at Liverpool offers many opportunities to collect cores! As I progressed through the programme, I really gained much more insight into the world of academia, which made me seriously consider a career as a researcher and I started looking for PhDs. It took many applications over the course of a year and a half to secure PhD funding, and the project ended up being back in Liverpool. My thesis explored whether palaeoflood laminations could be detected in sediment sequences from lakes across Britain, and was a great blend of geomorphology, hydrology, palaeo and contemporary limnology and integrated field, lab and computer-based work.


Mist lies over Brotherswater (one of my PhD field sites) and the Patterdale Valley.


The view looking south over the catchment of Brotherswater.

Since I submitted my PhD in September 2014, I’ve spent a year working as a PDRA on the NERC-funded ‘long-term, large-scale (LTLS) macronutrients’ project, split between the University of Liverpool and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Lancaster, and I’ve been employed as a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Geography at King’s College London since the start of the 2015-16 academic year. These positions have been tremendous, not least because I have learned so much and done so many new things. That is something I will continue to strive towards.

As one example, part of my postdoc work involved exploring macronutrient cycling in peatlands. The visual appearance of minerogenic lake sediments has always absorbed me, whereas I was less keen on the homogeneous browns and blacks of peat, and I suppose I presumed they were less interesting… How wrong I was! Having been ‘forced’ to analyse peats, I quickly realised there are so many fascinating and important questions that remain unanswered; I am now hooked. More broadly, this idea of being open-minded definitely applies to identifying opportunities to branch out from your PhD research by securing funding. You can achieve a huge amount with a good idea and a modest amount of money, and that money is out there! Most societies have Postgraduate or Early Career funding schemes – the BSG, for example! There may also be competitive institutional or faculty pump-priming pots. You probably will not be eligible to apply directly as a PhD student but approach your supervisor, and take the lead on writing the application. There is also growing impetus among institutions and external bodies alike to fund innovative teaching activities; these can lead to productive research outputs too! King’s colleagues and I secured money from our Faculty for the coming academic year to enable a student team to design and building Arduino-powered sequencing sediment traps. These will be tremendous upgrades to the hand-made traps we have installed in several Cumbrian lakes! There are also lots of opportunities and funding for outreach initiatives; BSG colleagues and I convene the Communicating Geomorphology Fixed-term Working Group, for example.


Another nice core sequence successfully recovered


Must maintain our energy levels…

I also mentioned luck. Finding that balance between PhD writing, job hunting and putting together the strongest applications you can is tough. I admire (but also do not envy!) friends and colleagues who took up a position before submitting their PhD. As my PhD submission deadline approached, I had had had several failed applications before the luck came through, in terms of timing. A colleague at Liverpool was co-I on the LTLS project and his Post-doc went off on maternity leave two years into a three-year position. That suddenly opened up a one-year post, that conveniently began one month after my submission date. So, I learned that positions crop up at the most unexpected times through a lucky set of circumstances.

Fixed-term teaching contracts are becoming more and more common. Having completed a full academic year at King’s, I believe that Teaching Fellowships are great, although that endorsement comes with three major caveats:

i) Friends’ and colleagues’ experience of such positions varies enormously from institution to institution, not least the number of hours you’ll be expected to teach (and thus not do research). Make sure all parties are clear on this front and don’t be scared to say no!

ii) Obviously this is easier said than done, but my advice would be to complete a Postdoc before applying for a teaching position. My one year as a researcher has led to papers and new research ideas that I am taking forward.

iii) Aim to undertake new teaching duties each year. This was sage advice from a senior colleague some time ago, and makes a lot of practical sense. If you enjoy the teaching, that’s great, and you can take a lot of pride and job satisfaction from the role. Ultimately, though, you are looking to bolster your CV and duplicating teaching responsibilities year after year will not do that.


The team extracting sediments from a forest hollow in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.


The heather in full bloom and excellent peat recovery makes for a happy team.


An innovative field sampling technique in Brunei Darussalam.

In summary, my experience of academia thus far has been wholly fulfilling. I’ve strived to remain open-minded, in terms of identifying interesting opportunities but also the realistic fact that forging a career in academia is highly competitive and my long-term success is uncertain. There have been tough and stressful times along the way, but they are vastly outweighed by the remarkable experiences, many of which are unique to academia: fieldwork in exciting locations, working with like-minded and enthusiastic colleagues, teaching and engaging with students and ultimately discovering new things.