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.