Wednesday, 12 February 2014

An Unexpected (Academic) Journey


By Lucy Clarke (@DrLucyClarke)

As mentioned in my previous posts I am a fluvial geomorphologist. I am interested in the processes that operate on the Earth’s surface and especially those that occur in fluvial (or ‘watery’) environments, although at the moment I have moved into exploring frozen water, looking at glacial change in Antarctica (which I will blog more about in the coming year). So how did I come to be doing this?

Always happy to be on a river!
I can honestly say that working in academia wasn’t my childhood dream – I wanted to be a vet, but as I have an allergy to virtually all animal hair that was never a realistic occupation! The main reason for my lack of ambition in academia was because I didn’t realise it was even an option, I came from a family where no one had ever been to university so I didn’t know anything about how it worked or that people like me could make a career of it. But my parents were determined that myself and my sister would break this trend and get a degree and so through school it became my aim to go to university. Loving the outdoors and exploring different places, geography had always appealed to me, so I managed to win a position studying for a BSc degree in Geography at the University of Durham and going there changed everything for me. I absolutely loved doing my undergraduate degree and that is when my passion for physical geography really took hold, and it opened my eyes to all the possible options for my future that I had never considered before.

On finishing my degree I wanted to see some more of the world and so I won a place on a research Masters at the University of Otago in New Zealand and moved Down Under. My research specialised in sediment transport in rivers and used aerial photography and field techniques to explore spatial and temporal trends. This experience was amazing as I got to learn different geographical and surveying techniques, plus, writing a 40,000 word thesis gave me a good insight into the research process and all of this in one of the most impressive and beautiful places I’ve ever visited and which I was fortunate to explore thoroughly in the couple of years I lived there.

Once I had completed my thesis I took a circuitous route back to the UK, visiting new found friends in Australia and Canada for a few months before coming back to reality. On my first day back I checked the job websites and found an advertisement for a PhD at the University of Exeter using image analysis of experimental alluvial fans (see my blog post from 28 August 2013) supported by fieldwork in New Zealand – it sounded perfect for me and within a week of my return I had been down to the South West for an interview and was offered the PhD. And so I spent the next 4.5 years in Exeter; I got my PhD and during this time I took every opportunity to attend conferences, assist on field trips (in the UK and abroad), undertake teaching and generally make the most of my time as a postgraduate. I then worked in the department on a teaching and a research fellowship and realised that a career in academia was what I wanted to do.

Me and my PhD physical model - many hours were spent in the lab
Since then I have been on the early career researcher cycle, an increasingly common experience for ‘young’ academics trying to carve out a career. Some people are lucky enough to stay in the same institution or just move once before getting a permanent position but my path has followed a different route. I took a teaching lectureship at the University of Dundee, before moving back to my native Yorkshire for a postdoctoral position at the University of Hull for a couple of years and now I am based in Cambridge at the British Antarctic Survey – at least for the next 15 months. Although moving around so much can cause a certain amount of instability in my life, it has been a fantastic opportunity to gain experience of different institutions and I have made friends and colleagues in each place and through this developed research ideas that I am excited to progress in the future.

Come rain or shine it's great to get out in the field
So, my journey into academia may have been unexpected but I couldn’t be happier to be where I am now and wouldn’t be doing anything else! I have no regrets over my career (other than the usual academic regret of not having written enough papers, but I’m working on this!) and have had some amazing experiences that I wouldn’t change. I am still hopeful for the elusive permanent position and working hard to make it happen as soon as I can, but who knows where that will be. I have no idea where I will end up next, but I am excited to find out and I’ll keep you posted on my progress through the blog…

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