CURRENT TITLE: Master’s Student
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Volcanic geochemistry, petrology/mineralogy and immiscibility
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: I have been studying for about two years now and will be receiving my Master’s this December.
EDUCATION: University of South Florida School of Geosciences, United States. Currently, I have a Bachelor’s in history and earth sciences (concentration: geology). The field my Master’s is focused on is a field in Utah where I study the exposed dikes, sills and conduits.
What’s your job like?
I have the greatest job – one of a student. The job does have it’s stresses, especially when you are working with deadlines. However, it is one of the best jobs since I get to consistently learn new ways to look at data, how to interpret data, and how to acquire data.
Part of my job involves being a student like most college students, so I go to classes. I have to say I have earned more than I ever thought I could or ever would over a two-year period. The rest of my job involves mineralogy, petrology and geochemistry. This means I look at samples that we acquired from dikes, sills and conduits in my field in Utah and identify what type of rock it is, what crystals (i.e. minerals) I can see with the naked eye, a hand lens or a microscope. I also make thin sections which is kind of relaxing. Basically, you cut a rock to fit on a glass slide, then proceed to sand it down to about 30 microns and study the minerals under a microscope. This is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, it’s like nature made kaleidoscopes and no one knows it. The rest of my job involves working with powdered samples (samples of rock that have been crushed to dust) which I melt in an oven and dissolve in acid so that I can run them through a machine called an ICP-OES or an ICP-MS in order to figure out the major and trace element data. This is important to figure out tectonic settings. I can use the data in a model that helps me figure out depth, storage conditions and when/ where minerals would have crystallized as they intruded into my field. I also have probed the thin sections I mentioned above in order to find out major element data for the individual crystals I see. It is useful to compare the model data too, since it will tell me how accurate it is.
The last part of my job involves writing. This includes writing my Master’s thesis, paper writing and preparing for conferences. Writing for conferences involves abstract submittals, making oral presentations and creating posters. This is usually pretty fun because there is a lot of outside input (not just my own), since I get to hear how other people who are a part of my project think about what I’m finding.
What’s a typical day like?
A typical day for me involves a couple of things: prepping samples of some sort, studying hand samples/thin sections, and working on data. Prepping samples can include mixing the sample with a salt, like lithium borate, for ICP-OES work or melting them in an oven in order to mix them with an acid and then running them in the ICP-OES. It can also include looking at my thin sections and writing notes about the minerals I want to probe, and “mapping’’ them so that I can find the crystals I want to probe with the Electron Probe Micro Analyzer (EPMA).
Working on data usually means I have the experimentation done for a section of my project and now all I have to do is make sure that the raw data becomes something useable. If I’m doing this, it takes the whole day sometimes. After that’s done, I make a bunch of different types of diagrams to see what the data is telling me.
Field work for class is always the best. It allows you to get out and see what you are actually working on, not just sitting somewhere trying to imagine it. It also gives you a hands on approach to whatever you are studying at the time, such as not seeing what a perfect mineral looks like.
Lab work (prepping samples, probing samples, etc.) is also fun. The amount you are able to learn every time you step into a lab is amazing sometimes. Sometimes it’s something small, like why do we add Lithium to our samples and not some other salt? It’s because it helps stabilize lithium in the sample so you get an accurate reading. It’s also fun because it’s a rewarding feeling that no one else is getting the data for you, and that you are getting it for yourself.
The last part that I feel is notably fun about my job is being able to present at conferences. The amount of people who will show up to see your work because they are interested is always great. But the best part about it (particularly with posters) is the personal discussions you get to have with other people in your field who specialize on something that you did for your project.
There are a few things that make the job challenging. One is data processing. The sheer amount of time it takes sometimes to go from raw to useable data is enough to want to never look at it again, especially when the data doesn’t do what you want it to, or you messed up the process somewhere but you’re not sure where and need to do it all over again.
The other challenge is abstract writing. It’s tough to make every co-author happy sometimes, particularly with wording. But though it is hard, you get through it. The other part that’s challenging about conference abstracts is somehow having to summarize your entire project down to a mere 800 -1000 words sometimes. Try doing that with a long book series and you’ll completely understand how it feels. This is the same with applying for fellowships and grants – getting your whole project description down to less than a page as well as answer all the questions the fellowship or grant is looking for. It gets frustrating sometimes.
What’s your advice to students?
Don’t let something that seems daunting keep you from pursuing it. A graduate degree does appear daunting at times, but you get a lot out of it you may not get otherwise. This includes going for a job or degree you really want. Just because it doesn’t look like it will be good, doesn’t mean it won’t be.
My secondary advice is to make sure you take a geoscience class. It’s a lot of fun, and it teaches you about an area of your life you may not even be aware of – like whether or not to buy a house in the future because of slump or earthquake activity.