Amateur Science and the Apparent Lack of High Impact Geo-Comms

I was trawling through Twitter during my lunch hour the other day and came across a random blog on fossils by an amateur palaeontologist (I forget which blog, apologies) and it suddenly occurred me: in how many other sciences can you have people who call themselves amateurs?

In geology, amateur collectors, fossil hunters, palaeontologists, mineralogists, petrologists (probably not volcanologists though) are commonplace, and it is perfectly acceptable to be a respected member of the geological community as an amateur – provided you get your facts right. The amateur community is very influential in geology, as collectors often have important specimens that would be extremely useful to professionals or museums. And yet, I had never really thought about how in other sciences you don’t generally find amateur physicists, biologists, chemists and so on.Being an amateur in these professions is regarded less highly than an amateur geologist and generally classed as more of an interest rather than ‘amateur’.

So what?

It may seem like a pretty minor observation but I think it hints at something bigger, an accessibility associated with geoscience that doesn’t exist so much in other sciences. Not because other sciences are less interesting or fun but because of the nature of the work involved in becoming part of the profession is more difficult: its easy to go rock collecting in your spare time using a notebook, rock hammer and hand lens (even a microscope if you happen to have one) to find out about the geological history of an area but accessing chemicals, a hadron collider (OK, a bit excessive) or dissecting animals are not household activities.

Geology is easy to pick up and get excited about. You really can’t get away from it no matter where you look, buildings made of stone (or derived from rock materials), landforms defined by the rocks and structures under your feet – even the vegetation you see is defined by the type of soils that it grows on, influenced by the rock’s chemistry. And of course there are fossils. Nothing is more exciting than finding your own little piece of preserved life from millions of years ago – especially if you are under 15! Getting kids into geology and becoming amateurs is incredibly easy because it can be a DIY discipline in many ways (not to understate geological research – which is essential and best left to the professionals!). Dinosaurs, volcanoes and life on Mars are pretty much some of the coolest things to study and geology covers all of them! Even once you may have retired from the profession it is tempting to keep those collections you have had for so long and remain a collector who actively uses and researchers their collection.

The problem with geology however is that it is not well enough known in the science arena. Not enough (high impact) science communication and public engagement connects broad audiences with geology, even with its fascinating hooks for many people. Although many kids will go through a stage of dinosaur-mania this does not always seem to last. Once you get older, I find that the engagement with geological sciences seems to trail off but pick up again when you become retired and like to go on ramblers walks or special interest groups.

Why is this? I really don’t know, but it may be to do with the fact that geology is an amalgamation of lots of other sciences that have been applied to earth problems so when it comes to science communication it seems to get left out because it is not necessarily a science in its own right. Silly, when the fact that you have a set of sciences that are already applied to awesome situations like volcanoes and mass extinctions you could use this to teach about chemistry and physics as well as geology. Maybe also unfortunately the demographic is ageing when it comes to geological societies. I know of a few clubs/societies for young geologists (below 18) and many for adults (comprising mostly over 60’s) but there is little in the way of societies or public engagement for anything in between specifically aimed at geology – not including university societies as involvement tends to cease after graduation.

Maybe the nature of the discipline in working for industry influences the amount of science communication in this area. Many who do a geology degree go on either to academia or industry meaning a high percentage of young graduates will be in commercial companies whose primary goal is to make money and not produce and disseminate knowledge like universities or other organisations.

I definitely think there is more room for high impact (i.e. large scale multidisciplinary publications such as Scientific American, Nature Blogs, the Guardian etc.) geology communication, and would love to know if anyone does know of groups that are led by a large cohort of young geology professionals, and why there appears to be less exciting high impact geology communication out there.

Is It Worth Going to University? Part 2 of My #LFE2012

In my second post about the subsequent #lfe2012 session last weekend, I will summarise my views on the panel discussion held on whether it is still worth going to university.

The discussion was set up with the aim to discuss the effect of rising fees and ever growing number of other advanced forms of skills and knowledge training on the decisions of young people to go to university. The overall question posed was whether we should discourage more young people from attending university.

The panel consisted of three speakers: Eric Thomas (President of Universities UK), John Holmwood (University of Nottingham), Isabel Carlisle ( and chairing the session was Alison Wolf (Kings College London).

The session began with Eric Thomas noting some figures from this year’s student intake across the UK, noting a loss in 50,000 students. Losses occurred particularly in mature and part-time students, and a smaller loss in 18 year olds applying, however this could also be linked to the lower number of 18 year olds in the UK this year than last. Considering this was the first year with high fees, and at a time where everyone is being hit by the recession, this was not that much of a surprise and universities continue to look positive for the next year’s cohort figures. He ended stating that he would definitely still encourage young people to go to university, as graduates are still more employable from current employment figures.

John Holmwood agreed in principle with Thomas that he would still encourage students to go to university, but did not share Thomas’s obvious enthusiasm for the excellence of the university experience, and worried that the rise in fees will once again mean that universities cater only to the elite. His concern for this elitist approach to university meant that he stressed the importance of a university degree not just being a qualification for a job, but an experience for life, enhancing student’s personal development. He noted that there is actually declining support amongst university graduates for a university degree, although those who have not attended university yet consider a degree to be highly important. This discrepancy in opinion is concerning, raising the question of what the higher education system is leaving out of its curriculum to produce less satisfied graduates. Importantly, this issue links to the idea of the student experience, and whether universities pay enough attention to students as people and not as customers.

The final panel speaker, Isabel Carlisle, was against encouraging young people to go to university. Her argument rested upon the fact that we are now educating for a future that is very different from the past. Issues such as climate change, increasing population, development all need to be addressed and this is not done purely through academic research. We need young people who work in and with communities learning the hands on ‘know-how’ of these issues and how to communicate and interact with different communities and cultures. This experience, like the Transitions Network she runs, gives young people the ability to learn constantly through a constant feedback process, and to be using their knowledge and experiences instantly in order to practice and improve. She noted that universities don’t have enough community based programmes, and that internships are exclusionary mechanisms.

The three opinions were varied and interesting, and in many ways expected responses from the three when asked whether they would still recommend university. Eric Thomas was reserved with his comments, obviously keeping up the role of president of Universities UK without having to commit to personal opinions. Holmwood did express some interesting thoughts on the state of the higher education system currently, and I think reflects a large number of those involved in the higher education system nowadays – we do not want it to be an exclusionary system, and we want to put students at the heart of higher education, but the question is not whether we would like this, but how on earth we actually achieve it.

Isabel’s opinion was very strong, and did not mention the possibilities of other types of ‘hands-on’ work other than communities. She also did not talk about where the knowledge for the methods of community work come from in the first place – undoubtedly university research! Her argument would have had more substance if there was less focus particularly on promoting her own Transitions programme, and more on the wider benefits of non-university education, or combining university education with practical experiences allowing students to apply their knowledge and research to real life experiences.

I personally see no benefit of either practical application with no appreciation of where the knowledge comes from in the first place (which as a scientist makes me inherently uneasy at the thought of people developing methods for anything without a solid literature review of evidence for why it should be done that way) or university education with no practical application. I completely agree in principle with Isabel in the fact that new generations of learners really do need to approach their education in a different way, and the pertinent issues of today will not only be solved by scientists in their labs, but by going out and putting their work/study into action with the help of a crack team of other excellent students and professionals. The skills young people in university need are then not just those to make sure they understand the logical thought, their specific disciplines and how to do good research, but a range of other skills that allow them to effectively manage and communicate to people from a wide range of backgrounds.

Unfortunately none of the questions from the floor were exciting enough to make it into my post today, but the lack of a prominent one did. Why did no one bring up the fact that the two methods of teaching and learning could be combined? No one commented on the possibilities of integrating practical communities learning with university courses. (Shamefully, I also did not raise this point, although I did take a more prominent part in a later interesting discussion.) Yes, it may be a lot of work, but essentially Isabel is right, we do need to think carefully about how we educate now. Technologies and global issues are changing and evolving quicker than they ever have done before and we need to acknowledge that in order to continue to provide the world with people who can address this change and solve emerging problems. I believe that universities are where we will find the next generation(s) of  problem solvers, and that it is universities who need to think the hardest about how they will maintain their edge as leading institutions (and choices) for further education. This means we (universities) need to consider, amongst other things, deciding on whether we teach young people the underlying basics of their disciplines, or whether we branch out into teaching use of new technologies in practice and/or focus more on field trips and practical work (an issue I will be partially addressing through my job at UCL). It may also include putting what students want at the heart of the curriculum, involving them in their education in terms of content, method and assessment.

Life After [Insert Discipline Here] : An Alternative Career Guide For Graduates

Life shuffles on, putting one tenuous foot in front of the other hoping that the next step leads somewhere decent, but eventually you manage to find some solid ground that doesn’t have the feeling that it might  run out of strength and fall from under you. With handing in my masters degree and finally managing to secure an awesome (and well paid!) job, it seems appropriate for me now to do a little post about life after university and the unexpected career and study routes that you can take in life.

Not many people expect to hear someone say they do heritage science, let alone that rocks need conserving and least of all that you used to be a geologist with a world of opportunities in the oil and gas industries ahead of you with people ready to offer you lots and lots of money. You explain that you aren’t driven by money (and groan internally at your own naivety) and that a research career in the heritage sector seemed like such a good idea when you found that course on the internet one day and ended up applying. The inevitable question follows “So, what made you want to do that?”. Short, to the point and identical to the question you have been asking yourself for the past year.

When I look at it now, I see a great fun experience in the past year and importantly a dissertation that I am immensely proud of. Unfortunately for many leaving their undergraduate in geology there are only two main career paths: academia or industry. Fortunately however there are alternatives that don’t mean you have to leave all that well learned knowledge behind but where you can be innovative and put them to good use in a range of other exciting disciplines.

For me, it was science communication. At 16 I somehow landed an amazing position as front of house staff (after a horrendous interview) at a science centre in Edinburgh. I kept the job throughout university, and used my expanding knowledge of science to progress my communication skills in the job. It was an ideal match and a great maturing experience. Through my director of studies at university, I was then offered a position with the Scottish Earth Science Education Forum (which he was the director of) and became involved in some amazing projects across the country delivering formal education resources for the earth sciences to secondary schools.

Nearing the end of my degree, I started to wonder what I wanted to do next. I can’t quite remember what drove me to do further education rather than get a job in science communication but I think that one of the main factors that enticed me was the uniqueness of the particular masters and the fact that it was at one of the best universities in the world. The idea for going into heritage mainly spawned from the fact I didn’t want to do pure geology and I always wanted to be a curator in a geology museum when I was younger, and had always had an interest in history and archaeology. Simple, really.

Since the masters was only one year long it wasn’t long before I was panicking about what to do next – again. Because I like keeping as many options open and was dreading not having a job at the end of the year I began to look at some of the interesting questions I had come across when doing the research project, but couldn’t address in such a short project. From this spawned a proposal for another research project that began as a one page summary, but with encouragement and interest from a couple of supervisors in the sustainable heritage centre it grew into a fully fledged PhD proposal. I also applied for another PhD at another university, and although I was not qualified for it they wanted to keep in touch and get me involved in other projects, which led to one of them becoming a partner for the PhD proposal. This has happened to me again since in an interview, where although I wasn’t right for the job they referred me on to others and I have ended up cultivating some useful and interesting professional relationships from these experiences.

Towards the end of the degree however I felt that I needed a break from academia, another 3 years of study immediately after did not look exciting to me at the time. i considered taking a part time job and doing the PhD, but realised that this would be too much work and double the amount of time needed to complete the degree. So, I postponed the proposal indefinitely to enable me to get a job for a couple of years and reanimate the proposal at a time to suit me.

This then meant I had to find a job. I thought I had lots of skills that are all highly transferable, but I soon realised that this was also my enemy. Combined with the fact that I had no set idea of exactly what I wanted to do meant that tailoring my CV and LinkedIn profile was nightmarish. However, I knew that ‘communications’ in a broad sense was my biggest passion and skill. This led me to look at a wide range of jobs ranging from marketing and public relations positions in random businesses and press office and publishing/editorial roles to science communications and community development in science/government and higher education organisations. I think I was too transferable for a large number of the jobs I applied for. However, I did get a number of interviews where the particular range of skills were relevant – niche and innovative or new roles that needed lots of strong competencies or specific qualifications/knowledge.

I finally got a job that I was very excited about and knew I had the correct skills for as soon as I saw the advert. The position is looking at ways to engage students more effectively in their higher education to ensure they get the best possible experience from their time at university. Now more than ever this is important as students have to pay higher fees, and universities need to prove they can provide an all-round excellent experience bringing out the best skills in their graduates. I will be developing a range of initiatives for mainly postgraduate and doctorate students and see it as an exciting role that utilises my best communications, research and project management skills. Not only will it also develop me in a really exciting area that I can see a bright future in terms of a career, but also for when I want to return to the PhD proposal.

Looking at my LinkedIn profile and CV now, I have a much better idea of what skills and experience I should highlight. I think that especially for my online professional presence I was trying to put too much into the space provided, and it was difficult to see what I was looking for in  a job as well as where my relevant skills were. However, I also realised how many disciplines I could go into with the skills I had to gain experience in a range of abstract fields.

I think it is important for graduates to be able to look critically at their experiences and manage to tease out their best skills and individual experiences that could see them with a successful career in something they would not have even dreamed of at the beginning of their degree. You don’t have to stick to what you choose early on in your studies or career, and knowing that there is a whole world of possibilities is crucial. But even more crucial is knowing how to actually do this, because it can get depressing when you know you could do something but just can’t seem to get the right opportunity. Making graduates aware of this and how to market themselves effectively is just one of the things I want to implement in this new position I have, and hopefully it is something other graduates will feel is useful too.