As I have said in a previous blog post, I really didn’t want to stay at Royal Holloway for the Masters degree I undertook in Quaternary Science. I looked elsewhere, but to undertake this sort of course within the UK, you’re pretty limited. For a number of reasons, I ended up returning to Holloway for 1 year to undertake this course and I am glad I did. This blog post explains why.
One of the great things about the course was that it was small – some Masters that I had a look at were far bigger. We were a large cohort and we only had 20 people in it; this provides an excellent opportunity for intimate learning and an ability to ask questions if you’re not following a lecture.
Generally, students had come from Geography backgrounds, but we had an archeologist and a few who had more Geology based backgrounds – if you are considering the course and worried about what background you come from, you should email the course co-ordinator. The first module in term one is designed to help bridge any gaps in education and allows fully for training and questions to be asked. Offices are open and students are actively encouraged to drop by for advice – it’s a very accessible course for all backgrounds.
Come September, the core modules commenced. Initially, they were relatively easy and straight forward. However, as you would expect, they begun to increase in complexity throughout the year. The workload, I thought was quite challenging. Essentially, you have lectures 9-5 and then should aim to continue undertaking coursework once you arrive home after dinner, apparently also managing to find time for socializing and maintaining hobbies. I question the latter part and found that you would either do one or the other and one of these would not happen as often as previously. That said, one of our housemates successfully pinned down a job; while she found it hard and worked especially hard to compensate for lost time spent working, she managed it for Terms 1 and 2. I would not recommend anyone doing this Masters degree to have a job.
The fieldtrips were really good fun: we went to Norfolk, Swansea, Yorkshire and Scotland. They were an excellent opportunity to really get to know your peers and lecturers. In addition, they provided a good basis for learning on which the modular options of term 2 could be pinned upon. I did feel that they were too Geology based, but I think that it was necessary – subject modules such as stratigraphy and sedimentology are crucial to many aspects of climatological research and any future career in this field will inevitably require the understanding of these subjects which is explicitly covered throughout the teaching of these fieldcourses.
This term focuses on selected modular courses and therefore your classes become even smaller – some of the modular groups can have as few as 5 people in. Tephrochronology had the largest group numbers in my year group, with 18 / 20 students taking it. Generally, these modules took the same form as Term 1: 9-4 or 5pm lectures, followed by the need for coursework generation. However, what was more exciting about these modules, I felt, was that some of them included a small lab element – for example, chironomids involved microscopy work and thin section micromorphology involved the analysis of thin section slides.
Throughout term 2, you can expect to be undertaking multiple courseworks at once as you may be doing successive modules, although in many cases you have a week or more between modules. It is important to not only select your modules carefully because you will enjoy them, but also to consider the time implications of impending coursework as a result of choosing them.
This term culminated with the fieldtrip to the Scottish Highlands. I drove myself and 3 others to Roy Bridge. If I am honest, I didn’t enjoy the educational elements of the fieldtrip. I really do not enjoy glaciology and I felt it was too heavily focused on palaeoglacial features. Part of this module allows for the choosing of a project whereby you go into the field and undertake 2 days research which forms part of your field write up – I felt that this fieldwork was much better suited to myself, but was still too rigid to the needs of the staff. Despite this, I enjoyed the bonding with my peers and I did learn a lot about the area during the LGM.
While I enjoyed the course and felt that the workload was okay, I was made angry throughout the year that the course is equivalent to other MSc’s in the department and yet the workload is so much more. To exemplify, life in the second term went something like: wake up at 7am, go to uni for 8.30am, have lectures until 4pm, begin coursework until 2am, go to sleep at 3.30am and wake up at 7am. There will be no weekends and there will be no end of term. If you’re looking for a course that offers these, I advise you look elsewhere.
End of Term 2/Thesis
You’ll be provided with the option to do pretty much anything that you want to do. You’ll piece together a proposal after speaking to your chosen supervisors and you’ll undertake a presentation in front of your cohort and perhaps your supervisors as well.
I had been planning my thesis in conjunction with the University of Adelaide since December the year before. I flew in May (2014), the day after I handed in the Scottish Fieldtrip. I landed at 8pm AUS time, went to bed at 12am and woke up 6am for labs. The day I got back to the UK, it was my birthday and the day after that, I was back in labs starting my thesis. I hope you understand, there really is not much opportunity for time off, particularly if you choose an intensive thesis with one including fieldwork or one including lots of lab work, for example. I would argue though, that these self-motivated projects and extremely work intensive periods are immensely rewarding – you and your peers will push each other harder than you ever thought possible through your sleep deprivation and you will come out feeling great (although knackered)!
I had an amazing time in Adelaide. My research was funded by the Adelaide Environment Research Institute and I initiated the collaboration between RHUL and Adelaide. The actual undertaking of the thesis though? I’ve never cried so much. It was grueling. My advice would be to pick your supervisor carefully, find out if they have any pre-booked holidays or time off, and arrange any meetings in advance so they can block book time for you. Manage your workload and establish what is a reasonable amount of work for you – ask questions like: How much sediment is reasonable for you to process across the three months? How many slides can you count per hour on a good day/bad day? How long will photographing the cores take? Will I need help with Photoshop? What problems could I encounter? Make a list of these problems and detail what you would do to overcome them if they did arise.
I enjoyed the thesis more than any other part of the year. This was because it allowed me to really explore what I enjoy and allowed me to look into avenues of research that not I or anyone else had touched before. It involved initiative that coursework just doesn’t allow you to use. It involved extensive use of labwork, including evening labs; it involved the use of illustrative programmes which consequentially improved my abilities in things like Adobe Illustrator; moreover, it meant I has to self-teach myself things such as palaeoclimatic modelling using various softwares.
I would argue that the course lacks outreach training (i.e. getting research to the public) – the website design course was archaic and classes were put on too late in the year. In addition, the course is poorly linked with the careers advice service; I doubt they are even aware of what this course is about. I also think that the Scottish Highlands fieldtrip should not be weighted at 20% and believe that this should be the same weighting as the modular options. The course may also benefit from the teaching of coding (e.g. R or Python) for modelling or graph production.
However, I have undeniably learnt a massive amount. I, personally, could not in a million years, have undertaken a PhD straight from an Undergraduate. I feel I would have lacked a lot of critical, basic information that performs the foundation for the more complex issues we often read about in journal articles. I think the lecturers at Royal Holloway, mostly, have an exhaustive amount of time to offer to their students: you can see how excited they get when someone is interested in the same things as them and this enthusiasm runs in circles.
I would recommend this course to anyone thinking of undertaking a PhD in climatic change and palaeoenvironments, but I would struggle to recommend it to anyone unsure of what they want to do. The course will certainly reduce your sleep intake, but I think you’ll feel you can do anything you put your mind to afterwards.
If you are still interested, here is some information on private accommodation as Halls of Residence in RHUL is extremely expensive:
The course supervisor will likely share all of your emails so that you and other confirmed applicants can email one another. I did just this and as a result myself and 3 other students in our year arranged to live together from September. This was great, as we all ended up getting on like a house on fire. We also lived with another housemate who I knew from my undergraduate and everyone just loved him.
One of the difficult things that a Masters student has to face is housing. You’re either in Halls, or private accommodation. RHUL is located in a small area, with private housing at the bottom of the hill in Egham itself, or in the Green (Englefield Green).
Pros of living in Egham itself:
- It’s close to the station and Tesco
- It’s close to Geography as this is located at the base of the campus, so ideal for 9am lectures
- Housing is more expensive
- If the backgate shuts (~11pm) you will be walking the whole way round, adding a lot of effort to your return journey
- The local pub is a total dive (although The Crown is nice, it’s a short walk from most town houses)
Pros of living in Englefield Green:
- It’s cheaper than the Town
- Housing is more abundant
- It’s a student village, so you’re going to be close to other students, and that means it’s ideal for house parties
- You’re close to Village Pizza, Ruby Wines and almost ALL of the pubs in Egham
- You’re so much closer to Virginia Waters
- Distance from the station
- 15/20 minute walk from Geography, depending on where you are
Acting on the Hollowegians advice (mine and Nathans), we located ourselves in Englefield Green. For reference, we paid ~£350 a month (per person, plus bills) for a 5 bed house with a living room and separate kitchen. We went with an estate agent called Mullbery’s. And we had problems with said Estate Agent (typical student estate agent out for money). I would recommend Browns – they’re much better.
Good luck if this is the path you choose!
If you need any further information, please don’t hesitate to drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org.