E4 Doctoral Training Partnership

Polly Thompson

Environmental controls on tephra layer morphology

This PhD was hosted in the School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of a PhD, whether that be in the field or analysing and presenting the data.

Polly in Iceland during fieldwork
Polly in Iceland during fieldwork

What was your research about?

My PhD examined how the environment volcanic ash is deposited onto after an eruption influences how that ash is preserved as a layer. This is important because volcanic ash layers are often used to reconstruct past eruptions, but there has been little research conducted into how a volcanic ash deposit is altered before it is preserved as a layer. Using a variety of Icelandic volcanic ash layers, I looked at how different landscapes alter volcanic ash deposits as they are preserved as a layer in the soil. I also explored new methods for visualising volcanic ash layers in 3D using µCT scanning.

What made you apply to the E3 DTP?

I wanted to challenge myself and develop my research skills further. I also really enjoy fieldwork and the PhD gave me the opportunity to do a lot of exciting work in Iceland. Edinburgh is also a great city to be based in and I liked that the DTP program puts you in a cohort of people all starting a PhD at the same time.

What did you find challenging in your PhD?

There were definitely some challenges throughout the PhD, but I also didn’t expect it to be totally straightforward. The first Covid-19 lockdown happened during my second year which meant I had to cancel fieldwork and my lab work was also very delayed. It all worked out in the end and I managed to reschedule my fieldwork for the following year and complete the lab work component of the project but there were definitely some challenging times in the second and third year of the PhD in particular. I also at times had ‘imposter syndrome’ which is a challenge I think many PhD students face at some point in the PhD.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of a PhD, whether that be in the field or analysing and presenting the data.

A PhD is all about learning new things and developing a lot of transferrable skills, so it’s ok to not know everything at the beginning and to make mistakes along the way.

Looking back, what would you have done differently?

I would try to be less worried and stressed out and just enjoy the process of doing a PhD. A PhD is all about learning new things and developing a lot of transferrable skills, so it’s ok to not know everything at the beginning and to make mistakes along the way. I also wish I had taken the opportunity to do a PIP as well as a policy internship to make the most of the opportunities the DTP offers.

Which aspects of your PhD did you enjoy the most?

I loved the fieldwork aspects of my PhD – both for my own project and the field trips I went on as a demonstrator. I got to go to Iceland six times and visited some amazing sites. I also really enjoyed the lab work element. I collected a lot of samples and analysed the particle size distribution within different ash layers, analysed their geochemistry and used µCT scanning to scan blocks of soil containing ash which allowed me to visualise the layers in 3D. I had not done any lab work before starting my PhD so I learned a lot of new skills through doing this.

PhD Highlights

  • I have published some of my PhD work which I am very proud of. I have two first-author publications and two that I am a co-author on.
  • I did a number of tutoring and demonstrating roles throughout my PhD. I was initially very nervous about doing tutoring roles but it is something that I have found really rewarding and I would encourage all PhD students to try. I also taught on undergraduate and master’s field trips to Iceland, Tenerife and the Scottish Highlands which I really enjoyed.
  • I attended a large international conference in Dublin in the first year of my PhD and did a virtual talk for AGU in third year, both of which were very valuable experiences.

Which skills did you gain during your PhD?

Good communication skills (written, oral and visual from preparing poster presentations and plots of results) is an important skill that I have gained from the PhD. Being able to problem solve and project manage the PhD are also important transferrable skills gained. General scientific research skills gained include skills in coding on R and mapping using GIS software, as well as lab work procedures. I feel that I have become a well-rounded researcher from doing a PhD through the DTP.

I feel that I have become a well-rounded researcher from doing a PhD through the DTP.

What have you done which would not have been possible out with the DTP?

I did a three-month policy internship with Natural England during my PhD which would not have been possible without the DTP. During this internship, I worked on a project that was researching and reclassifying UK habitat sensitivity to predicted climate changes. I created a POSTnote summarising the work for policymakers and contributed to the writing of the final report, which is useful experience to have that is relevant to my current job.

How has your PhD helped you to decide on a career path?

I really enjoyed my PhD and I am glad that I have done it but it helped me to decide that I do not want to continue a career in academia. It helped to confirm that I want a career in the environmental sector that has elements of research and uses the skills that I have gained from the PhD.

And now?

I have recently started a job at NatureScot as an Operations Officer for nature and climate change projects in the Perthshire region. Doing a PhD and a policy internship through the DTP with Natural England has given me a lot of the background knowledge and skills required for this role.