NAME: John Carson
CURRENT TITLE: Post-doctoral Researcher
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Tropical palaeoecology,
YEARS EXPERIENCE: 9
EDUCATION: Undergraduate degree in Geology and Archaeology (University of Birmingham, United Kingdom), Masters in Environmental Reconstruction (University of Manchester, United Kingdom), and PhD in Tropical Palaeoecology (University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom).
What’s your job like?
My job involves a lot of thinking, learning, and the identification and solving of problems. I am in that fortunate stage of my career (postdoc) where the focus really is on RESEARCH over teaching and administration. It’s an exciting and scary time, when there is seemingly a lot of freedom to shape your research agenda, but where you also face the challenge of establishing yourself as an independent researcher.
What’s a typical day like?
As with most researchers, my day is highly varied depending on the time of year. When I’m in the United Kingdom (UK) and at the University, I try to mix up my day with a bit of desk-based work such as paper writing/reviewing, and a bit of lab work, which normally means prepping (watch out for the acid!) or counting pollen. My day-to-day also includes supervising undergraduate and PhD students, attending meetings, seminars and talking with collaborators.
During the summer, I often head off on fieldwork. In the last few years that has been in the Bolivian and Brazilian Amazon. Fieldwork for me involves traveling to remote sites, using most forms of transport known to man (truck, ox-cart, speedboat, canoe, horse) and taking sediment cores from lakes or digging soil pits. It’s demanding physical work sometimes in a tough environment, but worth it for the experience of visiting a beautiful landscape and meeting people with a very different way of life.
Some days you will find me at an international conference. These are highly stimulating, but often very intense meetings, full of new ideas, new contacts and reunions with people who you might not have seen for a few years.
Constantly learning and being surrounded by people who are passionately interested in their research area, being around students and seeing their enthusiasm develop, and the opportunity to travel and work with people from different cultural backgrounds.
Sometimes the breadth of knowledge or the size of the questions out there can be overwhelming. There are growing pressures on research funding and on academics to make their research world-leading, impactful and to have practical (economic) applications. For early career scientists, the difficulties of establishing yourself as an independent researcher in a highly competitive job market are well document. If anything, with cuts on government spending in many countries, those pressures will only become greater. So, with all that lurking over your shoulder, I’d say that staying focussed on the research can be a challenge.
What’s your advice to students?
Be open to opportunities, don’t be afraid of change, and don’t undervalue your own knowledge/expertise.