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!