Beyond your PhD: Dr Emma Shuttleworth, Research Associate

I’ve had a funny old route to where I’ve ended up. I started out doing a Maths degree at University of Liverpool in 2001, but realised in my second year that multidimensional space and financial futures weren’t my thing and transferred over to Geography where I’d done some subsidiary modules. I graduated with a respectable 2:1, but didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life so I took a couple of years out working in various admin roles before deciding to head back to Liverpool to do a MSc in Environment and Climate Change. This is where things started to come together. I managed to get a bit of teaching experience demonstrating on undergrad field trips and set myself up with a really interesting dissertation on archaeological soil samples (it was interesting, honest!). I started to realise that I wanted to pursue a research career. However, towards the end of my MSc there wasn’t really anything that I was interested in on offer, so I spent another year out of academia. In amongst the travelling and temping jobs, I spent a lot of time Googling the kinds of thing I might be interested in researching (erosion, geochemistry, environmental magnetism) and up popped the research profile of Martin Evans at Manchester with a list of postgraduate opportunities that included all of my key words. After a couple of emails, a meeting where I turned up an hour late, and a hasty read of Geomorphology of Upland Peat, I had submitted my research proposal, and a couple of weeks later was told that Ihad been granted a teaching bursary to support my PhD tracing sediments in the eroding peatlands of the Peak District.

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Sediment sampling in the Peak District

My final thesis was very different from the project that I proposed back in 2009. Initially I was very methods driven, and focussed on trying to answer a very specific research question about the timing of contaminated sediment release, but as I progressed opportunities came my way which changed the shape of my research. I applied to the Moors for the Future Moorland Research Fund to cover some of my fieldwork costs, and ended up spending a considerable proportion of my PhD looking at the effects of peatland restoration, which is something I hadn’t initially considered but almost certainly helped me secure my current job. Early in my second year, one of my supervisors introduced me to The Nicest Man in Geography, Simon Hutchinson (a moniker that is well deserved and almost certainly true), who introduced me to the wonderful world of field portable XRF. This led me to write my first paper and began an invaluable collaborative and mentoring relationship that is still in place today.

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Martin, Simon and the XRF

I submitted my PhD in September 2014, and I’ve been working as a Research Associate in the Upland Environment Research Unit at the University of Manchester since August 2014. My job is linked to Tim Allott’s tenure as Head of School, so while he’s being a big cheese, I’m keeping his existing projects going, helping to develop new research agendas for the Unit, and covering his teaching. Those eagle eyed temporal statisticians amongst you will notice I actually started my job a month before I submitted my thesis, which meant I applied and interviewed for the post and started teaching when I was in the throes of writing up. This possibly wasn’t the best way of timing things, but I couldn’t have passed up the opportunity. Luckily, Tim was very understanding and didn’t pile on the work straight away… that came later!

When I first started, Tim had been working on an extensive peatland restoration hydrological monitoring programme called Making Space for Water for more than 5 years, and Phase 2 of the project was months away from wrapping up so I had to hit the ground running! The project had generated huge amounts of data that needed collating and analysing before we could report to the funders, so I had to get my head around the numerous field sites and monitoring campaigns, and more importantly learn everything there is to know about peatland hydrology (I am a simple geomorphologist after all!). At the beginning I felt like I was drowning in spreadsheets and constantly being whisked from one deadline to another without really knowing what was going on, but by the time we produced the final report I’d got to grips with everything and felt like a proper member of the team, and am now helping to plan MS4W Phase 3.

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Making Space for Water: Kinder Edge before and after restoration

In addition to working on MS4W, I’ve also had time to continue to develop my own research and outreach interests and get valuable lecturing experience. Now that MS4W Phase 2 is over, I’m concentrating on writing up the final papers from my PhD and moving into new research areas. I’m still involved in the BSG, sitting on the Outreach Committee through my role as the Society’s Press Officer and coordinating the Communicating Geomorphology Working Group, and I’ve also become the EGU GM Division ECR rep. While most of last year was spent covering Tim’s teaching, this year I’ve branched out and am co-convening a final year undergrad module on the British Uplands and I am part of a team which is developing a new residential fieldtrip to the Spanish Pyrenees. I’m also hoping to introduce a new geomorphology module to our teaching programme next year.

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The Dream Team, Pyrenees 2016 recce (Christine Lane, me, Will Fletcher, Gareth Clay, Abi Stone)

So, if you’re still with me, why have I just given you a potted history of the last 15 years of my life? I suppose the overarching message from the way I’ve done things, is that it’s OK to not have it all figured out and it’s OK to change. I’ve gone from being a mathematician, to a soil scientist with a side-line in archaeology, to working in the press office of Hollyoaks (that’s a whole other story), to becoming a geomorphologist with a healthy respect for hydrology. It’s good to be flexible – like I said; my PhD ended up a very different beast to how it started out, but by embracing the unexpected I extended my research interests, developed my network, and ultimately made myself more employable. I used to think that a lot of my success had been because I happened to be in the right place at the right time (funding calls that suited my research, happening to know someone who knows someone who could help me out, things cropping up just when I was in a position to take advantage of them) but I’m increasingly realising that I was only in the right place at the right time because I put myself there. There is a certain element of luck and timing when it comes to postdoctoral work, but you massively increase your chances of finding and being a considered for jobs by putting yourself out there, being adaptable and taking advantage of all the opportunities that come your way. It’s worked for me so far anyway!

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