NAME: Simon Cook
CURRENT TITLE: Lecturer in Physical Geography
AREA OF EXPERTISE: My background is in Glaciology (glacier science), but I have broader interests in Alpine landscape development including landslides and fluvial (river) processes.
YEARS EXPERIENCE: Degree (3 years) + PhD (3 years) + Lecturing (7.5 years) = 13.5 years (man, I’m getting old!)
EDUCATION: BSc (Hons) Environmental Science (1st class) from University of Greenwich, PhD in Earth Science from Keele University, United Kingdom
What’s your job like?
As a University lecturer, my job has 3 parts: research, teaching, and administration. The research element involves finding stuff out that is new to science, or testing existing ideas and theories. Sometimes this involves fieldwork, sometimes number crunching in a spreadsheet or drawing maps in a GIS (Geographic Information System), and sometimes reading and thinking. The teaching element involves preparing lectures and practical classes, delivering those classes, and marking work handed-in by my students and providing them with constructive feedback. The final (and the part I find least interesting – sorry!) element of my job is admin. For me, this is running our undergraduate dissertation (project) unit, which involves a lot of emailing students and staff, collating marks, organising marking, etc. But there are many other administrative duties completed by different members of staff ranging from the organisation of work placements, to looking after a year group of students, to being responsible for research degrees, to organising open days, and so on.
What’s a typical day like?
I’m going to describe a range of different days given the varied nature of my job.
(1) Typical term-time day. Normally, I’m up at 5 or 6am to catch the train from Shrewsbury to Manchester. From my front door to my office door is between 2 and 2.5 hours – I saw in a newspaper recently that this makes me a “super commuter”, so I feel very pleased with myself. I’m usually dealing with emails on the train platform, or checking my Twitter pages! On the train, I’ll usually be writing or updating lecture material, reading scientific papers, marking, reading draft paper manuscripts, peer-reviewing scientific paper manuscripts, writing articles like this one (!), and so on. By 8:30/9:30 when I arrive in Manchester, I am usually severely depleted in caffeine, so the first stop is a coffee shop. Most days I’ll have to give a lecture, or meet some students, or meet colleagues about something or other. If I can clear a morning or an afternoon, I’ll work on some data or a paper that I’m writing. I’ll normally leave work around 5pm, do the reverse train journey with similar work, and arrive home just after 7pm. Something in the order of a 12-hour day.
(2) Out of term day (summer, Easter). I don’t get up at 5 or 6am! If I’m lucky, the weather will be nice and I’ll sit and work on a paper in the garden.
(3) Field day: I’ll give an example from a recent trip to New Zealand. Typically, we’d be up at 6am. Coffee remains the priority! Breakfast, make lunch, grab wet gear from drying room, grab all field kit and be out at the ute by 8ish (sometimes the ‘ish’ became 9…ish). Drive up the long gravel road to the bridge over the river we were studying. Set up GPS base station. Back in the ute to drive round to the next GPS base station location. Wait for jet-boat pick-up, or sometimes a helicopter. Much of the area we were studying was not accessible by foot. Work ranged from laying out targets and recording their location using GPS (targets required for an aerial photogrammetry survey), to undertaking sedimentological analyses of landslide and river sediment. For others in the team, work included bathymetric surveys of lakes and deltas, and laser-scanning of the landscape we were working in. Some indicative images are shown below. It gets dark in the austral autumn at around 6pm, so it’s back to base by then, unpack the ute, dry off and charge the kit, jump in the shower, beer, food, beer, coffee, data processing, bed. Repeat.
Well, our recent trip to New Zealand involved a lot of jumping in and out of helicopters, racing to work by jet boat, fording rivers, driving through rivers, working in breath-taking scenery. I get to go to some remote and beautiful places in Iceland, Svalbard, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, etc. More generally, being a scientist is a privilege – I love the idea of finding out something that is new to science and (hopefully) making a contribution that will benefit people and science. Lecturing is cool – I get to talk about what I love, and teach students who are pretty good fun.
Pretty much everything I do is challenging, sometimes in a good way, and sometimes…well, not so much. Science is challenging because you have to do something original that nobody else has done. Once I have an interesting idea (something that usually involves a lot of reading), I then have to find funding, which is extremely competitive because so many other scientists have such great ideas. Once I have funding, fieldwork is usually required – this is usually physically and mentally challenging. I tend to work in Alpine environments, which can be glorious….and can be rather hard-going if the weather takes a turn for the worse. Teaching is challenging because I have to present tough concepts to students with a range of backgrounds, skills and interests. I usually get students to do a lot of stuff, rather than listen to me for 2 hours solid! (I couldn’t listen to me for 2 hours solid). Admin is challenging because…well…it’s admin. I find it rather dull, but it is necessary…mostly 😉
What’s your advice to students?
Well, I’m afraid it’s the classic advice of working hard – nobody will make you do it, so it’s up to you. Once at university, you need to read a lot – Knowledge is power! Listen to and read instructions – do what your teachers/lecturers tell you and you’ll do well. Read feedback on assignments – the mark won’t tell you how to improve – the feedback will. Don’t leave your work to the last minute, or day, or week – keep it ticking along from the day you receive the assignment details. Grab opportunities with both hands.