Why do an Earth Sciences PhD?

As a third year PhD student coping with the usual struggles of paucity of data, broken machines and the impending end of funding, it can sometimes be hard to remember why anybody would choose to do a PhD in the first place. But with around 900 Earth Science students in England embarking upon such a journey every year [1], there must be some attractions. I figured it would be good to give myself a timely reminder of just why I’m here.

Intellectual challenge
The purest and most admirable reason for doing a PhD. Most PhD supervisors haven’t thought much about your project since the moment they doodled down the idea on the back of a beer mat, so it’s up to you to make it work. Yes, you do need tremendous willpower and tenacity, but as senior academics will be far too busy see you more than twice a year, you will inevitably be given total freedom to pursue the lines of research you want. And at the end of it all, you could well be rewarded with that Holy Grail of PhDs – a first author publication.

Barbados fieldwork
Gratuitous fieldwork photo – Barbados

Possibly the best perk of being an Earth Sciences student. A quick straw poll of my office mates’ recent fieldwork locations reveals why geology >> any other science subject: Spain, Bahamas, Barbados, Kenya, Montserrat, Italy, USA, Mexico…(see Where in the World).

Another great travel perk! Conferences are held all over the world and give you a chance to see some fabulous cities whilst hobnobbing with influential scientists and subject specialists. Oh, and Earth Science meetings always seem to involve an inordinate amount of ‘free’ alcohol.

Sleepy student
I’ll start at 9 tomorrow, I swear…(Photograph: Alamy/Alamy)

The student life
If you enjoyed the previous four years of not setting an alarm, surviving off tea and beer, going out on a Monday night and wearing nothing but hoodies, then a PhD might be for you. Want to roll into work at 10 and leave at 4? You can! Only problem is that now the hangovers are horrific, work guilt gets progressively worse, and you only have three years in which to achieve the impossible.

Most Earth Science PhD students are fully funded, either by research councils such as the National Enviromental Research Council (NERC) and the European Research Council (ERC), or by oil & mining companies. This means that as well as covering the annual £4,000 in tuition fees, the student receives maintenance costs of around £13,500 a year TAX-FREE. When you consider the average graduate job pays around £16,000 [2] after George Osbourne has had his slice, it puts us on a roughly equal footing with industry counterparts. Plus we get three years job security, which in the current economic climate is not something to be sniffed at.

Future prospects
An Earth Sciences PhD is route one to doing blue skies geological research. Maybe one day you could be teaching all those pesky undergrads and publishing papers in Nature and Science. Or, if you’re lucky enough to do a PhD that has industrial application or multinational sponsors, it’s possible to transfer all those hard earned skills straight into a high-flying position in oil, gas, mining or environmental consultancy. Should all else fail, you can still apply for a graduate scheme knowing that the previous three years has hopefully adorned your CV with all sorts of amazing experiences to help you stand out from the masses.



[1] PhD study: Trends and profiles 1996-97 to 2009-10. Higher Education Funding Council for England Issues paper

[2] Higher Education Statistics Agency Statistical First Release 178 – Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education in the United Kingdom



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About Charly Stamper

I’m an ex-experimental petrologist.
I used to make pretend volcanoes; now I work in renewable energy

5 comments on “Why do an Earth Sciences PhD?

  1. Mainly true, apart from the money part. I imagine the average starting salary for an EarthSci graduate with a 2:1 or 1st from a red-brick uni will be a lot more than £16,000. Plus if you’re working you get pension contributions. Plus we’ll have to make up our national insurance shortfall at some later point.

    As for future prospects, it’s a mixed bag. It can go well for some, but there are many more PhD students than there are academic jobs. And many non-academic employers, if you’re not going into something Earth Science-ey, don’t see a PhD as an advantage: they don’t quite understand what one is, or they just see you as overqualified. The Guardian has been doing a lot on this recently. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/feb/04/academic-casual-contracts-higher-education

    Sorry for the Friday-morning downer. You’re right that a PhD in Earth Sciences is brilliant thing, and I for one am very very very very glad that I did one (despite now being one of those overworked, string-of-short-term-contract postdocs). But I’d hate for some 3rd/4th year undergrad to read this and come away with the impression that a PhD is a sure-fire route to financial success and career security. It can be, but there’s a hell of a lot of risk involved.

  2. The money part is interesting, true whilst £16,000 may not be a high-flying city job salary, at least it is secure and enough to live on. This is quite important for future PhD students to know as I’ve often found that people think PhD is an extension of student life and assume you’re living off a student loan eating baked beans for every meal.

    For the future prospects, I’d hope no one is going into an Earth PhD with aspirations that it will help him or her become a top-notch accountant, lawyer or electrician. This may be an assumption, but I think a good chunk of us want to go into an Earth Science-ey career, whether academic or not, in which case fingers crossed that a PhD is recognized as a good thing to do.

  3. Interesting thoughts, JV! Though I’m not sure all non-Earth Science employers see an Earth Sci PhD as a bad thing – just look at those management consultancies who actively recruit from our PhD cohort.

    Without wishing to further dampen the Friday spirits, I’m also not convinced doing an Earth Sci PhD is any more of a risk than trying to get a graduate job these days…

  4. I agree with Charly both avenues are risky. Within a year of being out in the real world the company I worked for sacked over 1/3 of its work force and most of these were recent Earth Science Masters graduates. However, this post reminded me why I quit my (well paid) graduate job and opted back into student life; for me the reward from a PhD outweighed the risk of doing it.

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