Beyond your PhD: Dr Ann Rowan, PDRA

I‘m a research fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield investigating how climate change affects mountain glacier dynamics and catchment hydrology in the Himalaya. I finished my PhD at the University of Manchester in 2012, and before that studied BSc Geology, also at Manchester. My PhD investigated the impact of Quaternary glacial–interglacial cycles of discharge and sediment flux in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. I collected field data, learnt useful technical skills (luminescence dating, numerical modelling), did an industry internship and took part in interesting summer schools. While I was writing up, I applied for an advertised fellowship at Aberystwyth University, which I started five months later after submitting my thesis.

 DSC_5797-1A great view of Everest from about 5400 m accompanied by pretty horrible altitude sickness at the start of fieldwork in May 2014.

I started the Aberystwyth fellowship with lots of big ideas for new projects, which I now read back and wonder if I could achieve some of them by the time I retire, rather than in a couple of years. It took some time to get up to speed in a new field, so I published another paper from my thesis, and did the classic postdoc trick of spending much more time than expected producing an epic paper that I considered very important and that isn’t (yet at least) anywhere near as well cited as it should be! Fieldwork is one of the most exciting parts of being a glaciologist, and getting a Royal Society research grant of £15,000 transformed my project by supporting two field seasons in Nepal for me along with two colleagues and our PhD student. What would have been a modelling-based project instead also involved working at Khumbu Glacier in Nepal for two field seasons last year, getting a much better understanding of the environment, and collecting a lot of valuable data in the field. As an added bonus, this grant showed that I could get my ideas funded and run a collaborative research project. One of the best things about research is working with a great group of interesting and entertaining people from lots of different countries, particularly in the field when there’s so much to learn each day and we can bounce ideas around over meals.

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A short fieldtrip to look at glacial landscapes in the Teton range, Wyoming USA, with PhD supervisor Simon Brocklehurst and Mitch Plummer.

After two years at Aber, I worked at BGS for six months, but realised that wasn’t for me. I moved on to a 12-month fellowship in the Ice and Climate Research group at the University of Sheffield in 2014 to keep working on Himalayan glaciers and look for a way to make this research into a longer-term project. There’s been a lot of writing and travel for seminars and conferences this year to finish papers and publish data from last years’ fieldwork. I’ve spent quite a bit time developing new research ideas, planning new fieldwork and applying for fellowship funding. This worked out well, and in October this year I’m starting a Vice Chancellor’s Fellowship at Sheffield—a four-year research post that leads into a permanent lectureship. This is the dream job, and professors ask if I would like to swap jobs with them (the answer is no). Over the next four years, I’ll be trying to develop my Himalaya project into something bigger by testing out new ideas, working with new people, and hopefully finding funding to develop new projects from what I do at the moment. The potential opportunities in these four years feels like an exciting challenge and I’m planning to make the most of this time, so the first thing to do is apply for externally-funded fellowships to extend the time that I have for research.

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Important fieldwork strategising with Duncan Quincey and Morgan Gibson before doing some digging through the debris layer on Khumbu Glacier in Nepal (Photo credit: Tris Irvine-Fynn)

One bit of advice I would give to an early-career researcher; academic career successes don’t seem to be reproducible, as there are so many paths and such as range of possible ways to work (with different intensities of focus on research, technical skills, leadership and teaching). Much advice given on blogs and Twitter is likely to be very specific to the author rather than to you, and often seems to be pretty negative in tone. I’d strongly recommend finding an awesome mentor who is where you want to be, and work with them to develop your career. Mentoring was a really important part of my progress over the last three years. Formal mentors (academics about ten or so years senior to me at the same university) were great to talk to regularly about the all-important strategy stuff, such as which grants to apply for and when, job applications, how to find great people to collaborate with, and how to develop research projects using new and existing methods. Informal mentoring has also been useful and I’m really grateful to those people who have kept an eye on my progress and offered good advice when needed in the queue for coffee at conferences. I’m trying to offer my support by mentoring PhD students at Sheffield through writing their theses (we have a formal program for this as part of the research mentoring service), and am always happy to discuss my view on geomorphological academic careers at the BSG AGM if you fancy a chat.

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