Quaternary Science MSc – A Taster

So, I am almost a term into the Quaternary Science MSc at Royal Holloway (UoL) and despite having coursework to do, I feel it’s high time I provide a quick taster of what the Quaternary Science MSc is all about.

I really wanted to leave RHUL after doing my undergraduate there. Not because I didn’t like the department – it’s an amazing place. It just has this vibe… there is so much support, encouragement and enthusiasm from all the staff; it’s just a truly fantastic place to be. I wanted to leave because Egham is quite a small town and after three years, I felt I had outgrown the area. However, I couldn’t justify leaving the Centre of Quaternary Research (CQR) to do an MSc elsewhere that would not even begin to touch the Quaternary in ways I wanted to… so I stayed. And I am so glad I did, because the past 3 months have been fantastic and i’m learning a lot and I feel like I am part of a special community: the Quaternary community.

The course is intense. People are shocked at the amount of contact time that we Quaternarists receive. It’s 10am-5pm each day for term 1, which equates to ~30hrs p/week. Obviously you then have your coursework on top and any readings you need to do to understand the course content. You also have fieldtrips in the first term which may reduce your time to complete coursework assignments. So far, I have been to Wales, Norfolk and Yorkshire. In April I will go to Scotland. I’ve handed in one piece of coursework, which was work 5% of the MSc; it was a sedimentology and stratigraphy report discussing our findings from Wales and Norfolk. Although a great piece of work, I found it challenging as it wasn’t exactly what I am interested in, but was great as it has provided me with the essentials that I need to understand stratigraphy… the results come out next week, so wish me luck!

Courses so far have been compulsory (i.e. everyone has attended). These include:

– palaeoclimatology

– sedimentology and stratigraphy

– principles of Quaternary research

– palaeoecology, dating methods, quantification

Right now, I am writing up my coursework for the palaeoclimatology coursework (due on Friday 6th Dec 2013). This is a NERC-style grant proposal with a max. word count of 3,000 words, exceeding no more than 4 pages or 3 figures, including size 10, Arial font. I have chosen the title ‘Regional variability of abrupt climate shifts across Great Britain: How does the magnitude and expression of the 8.2kaBP event vary across Great Britain?‘ I’ve chosen this project as I am interested in abrupt climate change and the use of oxygen isotopes in carbonate rich lacustrine sediments. Moreover, recent research by Lane et al. (2013; Geology) has highlighted the importance of studies in the future to investigate the variability of rapid climate events and how their magnitude of expression differs across small-scale regions. I’ve enjoyed this project a lot and it’s definitely given me full peace of mind that I am doing the right thing and that a research career is the way forward for myself.

During the write-up for this coursework, I have also applied for a PhD which utilises isotopes. So another thing I will need some considerable amount of luck for! Although we are encouraged to apply for PhD’s this academic year, it is highlighted that we are fighting against people who have already got an MSc grade under their belt. It seems it doesn’t matter what career route you go, there will always be some level of competition. At least I am enjoying myself and will end up in a career that I am passionate about and love.

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John Lowe’s retirement – London Quaternary Lectures at Royal Holloway 2013 – Quaternary Science MSc: old and present

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Chris Turney and myself with Antarctic ice, aged from the Younger Dryas at the London Quaternary Lectures at Royal Holloway

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Myself on the stratigraphy fieldtrip in Norfolk, November 2013

Course details here: http://www.rhul.ac.uk/geography/coursefinder/mscquaternaryscience.aspx

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Yesterday, I was graduated

I was going to finish writing my blog post on climate change, but have decided that this is more suited to the recent graduation ceremonies that Royal Holloway has put on. 

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It was a fantastic day. A gloriously sunny, warm and breezy day. Everyone was in good spirits and it was well organised. I collected my gown and felt great. Loved wearing the hat! There’s something special about the Geography department. The department funds a full reception with food and drinks (and, may I add, complete with glass champagne flutes as opposed to the plastic ones post-ceremony)! The technical staff and departmental staff in general were so, so amazing putting it all together and everyone was up for fun. David Gilbert excelled himself in his speech! I’m pleased to have at least one more graduation speech from him! Alice clearly put a lot of thought and effort into the day and it just made it more memorable. And, of course Win managed to let our parents see Gilbert’s beautiful speech in another room.

I apologise for digressing. Graduation was brilliant for many reasons, for example, it was so good to see all my friends again and meet or catch up with their parents. It was brilliant to let my Grandad’s wife come to her first ever graduation. And it was great to be one of the first in the family to gain a degree. I enjoyed chatting to the lecturer’s and letting my parents actually hear from a grown up what it is a degree and a MSc is all about, as often they think I big up how much work I do.. It was amazing to wear the gowns and throw our hats in the air (although, my hat was covered in straw like grass post-throw..). It was just a joyus occasion and one that I have worked so hard to get to – both in a practical sense and in the sense of overcoming so much personally.

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I knew that the graduation took place in the chapel, and I have to confess, I don’t like churches; they just freak me out a bit – especially organ music.. And while the organ music (a cross between a wedding and funeral song) was way too much for me, the chapel at Royal Holloway is beautiful. It’s less of a religious temple (although, obviously that is exactly what it is), but it’s a room of splendid detail, of time and craftsmanship, of history and memories and experiences. I am lucky to be a Royal Holloway graduate and able to strut my stuff through a divine picture gallery and chapel. Through quads where Queen Victoria and Thomas Holloway look so fondly down on us. We are a fortunate group of people who do not have to stand in front of a stage, or wear a regimented uniform – that was a lovely final gift of Holloway for many.

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Clearly, I am staying on for the Quaternary Science MSc at Royal Holloway. However, I think that it can’t possibly get better than these 3 years. I have made best friends and been through so much personally. Next year is my time to shine academically. No more juggling 1, 2 or 3 part time jobs, with geogsoc commitments and two chronic illnesses. The next year is a chance for me to be selfish and focus on my career – the rest of my life. I need to do the best that I can possibly do. And, if my best still isn’t good enough, then I suppose I should just resign my Quaternary dreams. While I believe that if you try, you can achieve anything, sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’ll never get there and in which instance you should just accept that this route wasn’t your intended one and you shouldn’t waste time trying to fit a square into a circle. Life is for living and life is short; it changes in an instant and there is nothing wrong with being in control and changing it if it won’t go the way you think it should go. Sometimes there are pleasant surprises around corners.

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I’m pleased to be where I am and I know that I will get to where I need to go… I just need to believe it a little bit more and not fall off the wagon again.

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Royal Holloway, UoL – Geography – Class of 2013

I can’t believe that my undergraduate life is almost over!

I have two months left of my undergraduate life. It’s gone so quick… actually, that is an understatement. It’s disappeared in the blink of an eye. So much has happened in that time – both personally and academically. I don’t feel that this is the place to disclose my personal mishaps, challenges, encounters and successes, but it is the place to address academic changes.

Let’s start with choosing universities. I was at college, deciding which subject to take further. I didn’t even know if I wanted to go to university. My initial instinct was to study Psychology because I wasn’t smart enough to take up climatology (you know the film ‘The Day After Tomorrow’? Well, I want to be that guy that says ‘the climate is changing…’). But, I realised that you need to choose a subject that you love, that you are passionate about, and that you enjoy. It can’t just be what you’re good at. Because, university is a different ball game to school. It’s self motivated study.. So, geography was my favourite A-level course (when we weren’t talking about regeneration and urban developments and all the other human geography stuff). And therefore, I decided to apply for that. So, I was left staring at the wall of university prospectuses. I had a serious long term boyfriend at the time and decided that I wanted to be a maximum of 2 hours away from home so I could head back to see him and my family, and my doctor (being a type 1 diabetic is a pain!). So, I knew the key ones I wanted to apply to: Portsmouth, Brighton, Bournemouth, Winchester and… So, I was looking for the last one. It was basically a filler. I assumed I would end up at Brighton or something, and I was in a rush. So, my name begins with R. So, I pulled out the R selection. Then I saw Royal Holloway. It looked beautiful and had Royal in it. So, I jotted it down and applied, not even really thinking about it.

The time came to check out the universities. First was Brighton. Now, I actually really liked the staff at this university, and I decided that if I chose this university, I wouldn’t do geography, but would take Environmental Hazards. However, the halls of residence put me off and 2 hours seemed quite far for me. So, I visited Portsmouth. It was far too busy for me, and it seemed very geared towards partying (something which I wasn’t keen on at the time). I visited Winchester, but decided the course wasn’t for me (primary ed with geography specialism). And, I never went to Bournemouth because I had a friend there that I could visit. I started crying at Portsmouth, because I was hoping it would be ‘the one.’ I have big confidence issues and the ABB entry requirements from Holloway made me not want to put it as a 1st or reserve. The lower requirements at Portsmouth meant that (in my head at least) this was the university I was going to, and I had hated it. So, me and mum made a visit to Royal Holloway. We drove in and I said ‘this is it, this is the one.’ I didn’t even look at the geography dept to know that this university was the one for me. I suppose I was looking for a campus university all along and just didn’t know it.

After getting an offer at Royal Holloway, I went to a departmental open day. We had a lecture by Dr Ian Candy and I had a meeting with Dr Varyl Thorndycraft. This overran by about 30 minutes and then I had a personal tour of the dept as everyone else had gone home! I got talking with Pierre Schreve. He really sold it to me: talking about the megafauna that roamed the British Isles during the last glacial maximum (LGM). So, I put RHUL as my firm choice on UCAS. I put Winchester as my second because I had decided if I didn’t get into Royal Holloway, I didn’t want to go to university at all and would just go for the career move. When I got my A-level results (English Language A*, Psychology A, Geography B) I was so happy that I got my firm choice. It was unbelievable. But, because Geography was my lowest grade, I had doubts and wondered whether I should be doing a linguistics or speech therapy course at university instead. This was a natural worry, but I remembered what I said earlier: do what you enjoy, not what you’re good at. So, off I went to university!

Founders

Founders

In first year, my essays were…well, at the time they were masterpieces. First class, diagram ridden masterpieces… with 4 – 6 references. I look back on them and just think: ‘oh wow.’ But I loved first year. Living in Founders, partying, working, meeting people, studying, Spain fieldtrip…The Spain fieldtrip was a particular highlight. I obviously had great friends from Founders, but I hadn’t really gotten friendly with people on my course (bar the drinks reception in freshers where I probably made use of one too many free glasses of wine!). But, for me, first year was about making the transition from learning a multitude of subjects (in my case English Language, Psychology and Geography A-levels) and homing in on one specific topic: geography… although, to what extent geography can be called specific is debatable due to it’s synoptic and interlinking subjects. In first year though, John Lowe’s lecture on the atmosphere and oceans sold it to me. It confirmed my belief: this is what I wanted to do. I was mesmerised and loved the reading as well as the lectures. I have never regretted choosing RHUL as my university.

Spain fieldtrip

Spain fieldtrip

Spain fieldtrip

Spain fieldtrip

In my second year I got glandular fever. University was a real struggle. My diabetic control was awful and I was sleeping 16 hours a day and working at the shop 12 hours a week. It took it’s toll and the grades I received were, while good, not as good as I wanted or was obtaining in first year. I really enjoyed second year, but made a mistake of choosing a human geography course because I did better in the human geography exams in first year. I suppose second year went without any major hitches though and the Ireland fieldtrip was awesome. I had an amazing time and it was so good to get stuck into physical geography for an entire week (and drink Guinness on St Patrick’s Day!). The peat bog day was definitely my favourite, whereby we cored a peat bog/fell into pools of water covered by sphagnum moss.

Liffey Head Bog

Liffey Head Bog

Ireland group

Ireland group

Stratigraphy

Third and final year. It’s been challenging to say the least. It started straight after exams in second year, really. I was so excited to start the lab work for my dissertation. I did all my lab work over summer (calcimetry, TOC, mag sus, Troels Smith, d18O and d13C isotopes and thin section micromorphology) on my sediment core from Llangorse, Southern Wales. I loved every second of the dissertation – even when it was hard and I had a rough day working on it. I went to Copenhagen for a week to work at the Niels Bohr Institute (Centre for Ice and Climate) and study ice cores. I had the most amazing time and carried out one of my childhood dreams: to touch an ice core! But, I came back, and while most people had had a week of catching up on sleep, I had 5 written deadlines in 5 weeks and 2 presentations and hadn’t had a break. That was particularly challenging and I can’t deny that I really struggled. There were a lot of tears and breakdowns and that has by far been the hardest part of university, to the point where I could have dropped out easily. But, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? So, now I am just left revising for exams/ writing long blog entrties. This is going to be hard. 6x 2 hour long exams. So, here comes my exams rant:

I hate exams. Firstly, I don’t feel that they are representative of what a person actually knows about a subject. I like to read everything and I get sidetracked by papers that are interesting (and perhaps I won’t be tested in an exam on this). I am just generally rubbish at them and I get ridiculously stressed out by them because my fate lies in 2 hours of frantically scribbling the verbal vomit that I have at the time. I understand that other people’s strengths lie in exams as opposed to coursework… but exams are less applicable in the real world than coursework, in my opinion. I want to become a researcher/lecturer. This will involve writing papers and therefore coursework is the most similar form of testing. Exams will (hopefully) no longer be a part of my life after May, but I can’t help feeling angry that 50% of my third year lies in 12 hours worth of questions. If someone had a spoken conversation to me about the topics, I would nail it, i’m sure, but writing it down? I just get stressed and tied down to stuff that doesn’t matter because the stress stops me from thinking clearly. Also, for a diabetic to sit an exam is a nightmare. An absolute nightmare. I have to have my bloods at a certain level before going in because using my brain, and experiencing stress will make my bloods crash, and it takes me around 1 hour to fully recover from a hypoglyceamic attack. So, my bloods are high in an exam, which causes poor thinking skills, blurred vision, tiredness, thirst and the need to pee. Okay, so that doesn’t sound that bad, but I am instantly at a disadvantage when I start the exam needing to pee, gagging for a pint of water and unable to stop yawning. So. Yeah, it’s a shame that I won’t be finishing my degree on the highest of highs because I will be completely stressing about these exams, but on the plus side… I finish three days before my 21st birthday, and that is definitely something to be excited about.

So, all in all, pre-finals undergraduate life has been awesome to me. I have had a fantastic time, the lecturers have been brilliant, and it’s only really my health that has held me back. I’ve been inspired, supported, encouraged and believed in at Royal Holloway and I look forward to starting the Quaternary Science MSc there in September. And all of this is because I picked a university that started with the same letter as my name… life is a funny thing.