Wednesday, 16 April 2014

How do you get to be a palaeoecologist?

Researcher profile: Dr Michelle Farrell (@DrM_Farrell)


As discussed by several GEESologists in our series of researcher profile blogs, it took me a long time to realise that what I do for a living now could actually be a real job! Even while I was an undergraduate student, it never occurred to me that several of the staff members in my department (postdocs, postgraduate students etc) were paid mainly to carry out research, and that research also formed a significant part of my lecturers' jobs. A career in academia was something that I knew very little about until I accidentally fell into one, and now I find it hard to contemplate doing anything else - I am incredibly lucky to have a job that I find so interesting.

I'd always been interested in natural history from an early age, mainly stimulated by childhood holidays in the UK and France. I grew up around two hours drive from the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, and hiking with family and friends in these regions convinced me that I wanted to pursue a career that involved working outdoors. During a career-planning session at school we had to complete a computer-based questionnaire, which used our answers to come up with a list of suitable jobs. From this, one job that struck me as interesting was a national park ranger (some of the other options were a little less desirable, 'waste management operative' being one that has stuck with me over the years). I loved the idea of being able to work in one of the national parks that I enjoyed spending so much of my leisure time in, and wanted to help conserve it for future generations. With this in mind I went off to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth to study for a BSc in Environmental Science.

Growing up in the 1990s, when issues such as acid rain, the ozone hole and global warming were front-page news, I was looking forward to learning more about the effects that people were having on the environment during my degree studies. However during some of my introductory lectures at Aberystwyth, I discovered that people had actually been affecting the environment for thousands of years already, and that it was actually possible to study these past impacts. I became particularly interested in palaeoecology, though I never imagined that I would actually be able to pursue a career in this field. Circumstances prevented me from undertaking a palaeoecological dissertation in my final year, and I made do with an ecological one instead, still planning to follow a career in ecology and/or conservation.

When I began to search for jobs towards the end of my degree, I discovered that vast amounts of practical experience were required even for an entry-level ecology or conservation job. I had done some voluntary conservation work with the Aberystwyth Conservation Volunteers, and my degree had equipped me with some practical ecological skills, but it wasn't enough. Several months' unpaid voluntary work was needed to allow me to gain the necessary skills. Student maintenance grants had been abolished the year before I began my degree, and with a fairly hefty student loan to pay off I needed to find paid work. I took a job in sales, and while I learned some valuable people skills and gained a lot of administrative experience (both of which are very useful in my current role!), I soon knew that it wasn't what I wanted to do forever.

When a friend forwarded me a job advertisement for a research assistant at the Wetland Archaeology and Environments Research Centre (WAERC) at the University of Hull, I realised that the thing I'd found really interesting at university could actually be a job! I didn't have any practical experience, but as the advert said that training would be provided for the right candidate, I figured it was worth a try. Unsurprisingly, I wasn't shortlisted for interview, but Jane Bunting wrote to me and suggested that I apply for one of the funded PhD studentships that the Department of Geography were currently offering. Until then I had no idea that you could be paid to do a PhD, so I jumped at the chance. I had no access to an academic library, so Jane sent me a few key papers in the post, I put together a project proposal, and I was invited for interview and offered a studentship.

I moved to Hull to start my PhD in September 2005 and have been here ever since! My PhD used pollen analysis and a suite of allied techniques to explore concepts of marginality and the response of human populations to changing environmental conditions in prehistoric Orkney. I became very interested in integrating palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data, and was keen to work more closely with archaeologists on future projects. Archaeology was also something that I'd always been interested in, but despite being a big fan of Time Team, I hadn't even realised it was something you could study at university, let alone that it could be a job! 


Pretending to hold up one of the standing stones at Carnac on a family holiday to Brittany: apparently my interests in archaeology also began at an early age, though I didn't realise this until much later...


Hugging the Stone of Setter on Eday, Orkney during fieldwork in 2006: nothing much changes...


After defending my thesis, I continued to work with Jane as a post-doctoral research associate on the Crackles Bequest Project, which I'm sure will feature in future blog posts from one or both of us. During 2012 and 2013 I worked part-time on this project, as I was also working as a palaeoecologist for English Heritage as part of their Environmental Studies Team based at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth. This gave me plenty of opportunities to work with archaeologists, and it was through contacts that I made here that I ended up working on my current project - producing pollen-based reconstructions of past land cover in some iconic Neolithic landscapes as part of the Times of Their Lives project run by Cardiff University and English Heritage. This will be the final project that I work on as a GEESologist at Hull - on May 1st I start work as a research fellow at Queen's University, Belfast, and will be working with archaeologists and other palaeoecologists on the FRAGSUS project, which is examining human-environment relationships in the island environment of Malta. This will be a big change after 8.5 years in Hull, but it's a challenge that I'm looking forward to and it's hopefully one more step along the path to the coveted permanent academic job!

I feel incredibly fortunate to have figured out how to be a palaeoecologist - it's challenging, much more interesting than most other jobs I can think of, and good fun too - I've been on some fantastic fieldwork at locations all over Europe and have met many great friends and colleagues along the way. My advice to anyone who is fascinated by a particular topic at university but can't imagine how it could ever lead to a career - ask your lecturer about it, you never know!

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