PhD Researcher, Geology, Zoe McKellar @ZMcKellar: A Day in the GeoLife Series


PhD Researcher in Geology, Zoe McKellar. “I love fieldwork, even if it means standing in bogs!”

NAME: Zoe McKellar

CURRENT TITLE: PhD Researcher in Geology.

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Main research interests are structural geology and sedimentology, tectonostratigraphy, basin evolution and provenance.


EDUCATION:  Honors BSc in Geology and Petroleum Geology. Just finished the first year of my PhD.

What’s your job like?

Research is a lot of work, but when you get a lead it’s the best feeling ever. I combine fieldwork with literature review, laboratory work, data analysis, statistics and sample analysis, depending on what I am investigating at the time. I split my time between working at the computer in my office, working in the laboratories and doing fieldwork.

What’s a typical day like?

As with most sciences, there’s seldom a typical type of day! If I’m working in the office or laboratories, the day will usually involve arriving at about 8:30-9:00 a.m. and leaving around 6:00 p.m., although I’ve been know to end up staying till late at night if I get carried away! Amidst frequent coffee breaks, I work on the computer or in the laboratory. I’m quite old fashioned in some ways. While we have lots of software to plot data, I still quite like doing a lot by hand — just as a method of cross-checking that I understand the process and that I’m using the software properly.

Like many geologists I’m happiest when I’m out doing fieldwork.  A lot of the areas I work in are coastal so I have to plan my day around tide times. This sometimes means a very early start, but it also means an early finish! In the field, I collect samples for analysis, and record features from rock outcrops, as well as data that I can use to reconstruct a geological history. Being in Scotland, weather can be ‘challenging’ at times, but I always feel like it’s more authentic that way!


Torridon, NW Highlands of Scotland. Photo copyright: Zoe McKellar

What’s fun?

I’ve been to so many places I would have never visited before. I’ve also attended courses and conferences in various places, most recently Germany. I’ve never travelled so much! I’ve presented my research at an international conference, and I’ve made a network of friends and contacts around the world.
Fieldwork is a lot of fun, as I usually have at least one research assistant with me. Geologists tend to be quite laid back and friendly, so alongside getting the job done, there are a lot of laughs along the way!

What’s challenging?

It’s always hard when you think you have a lead, only to spend time on it and realise that it was nothing or have someone else criticise it, but that’s often the nature of research. You have to be able to have confidence in your work and be prepared to be questioned on it. It doesn’t always feel like it at the time, but even when you feel like you’re getting nowhere or going backwards you are still making progress, even if it’s learning how not to do something.

A PhD is a big commitment, and while you always have at least one supervisor, it can often feel like you’re out there on your own. I find myself occasionally wishing that someone would just tell me what to do, but that’s not how things work — although your supervisor should always help guide you where needed, which is a huge help. You have to be organized, motivated and disciplined, and that’s not always easy to maintain every day — we are only human after all.


View across the Moine Thrust Zone, NW Highlands of Scotland – beautiful views, fascinating geology! Photo copyright: Zoe McKellar

What’s your advice to students?

Take a step back from your studies to think. Don’t just do something, think about why you are doing it. Assignments aren’t set just for the sake of it, and lecture content isn’t random. Try to think of your studies in the bigger picture: how does this fit in with what you’ve learned in previous classes or other classes you’re studying at the same time? It’s rare for anything to be completely separate from the rest of a course. Question everything, stay curious and never be afraid to ask if you don’t understand something. There’s no point in simply asking what the answer to something is. Getting the ‘correct’ answer isn’t always the aim of an exercise.  It’s always about the process of how you get to the answer. Don’t look for answers, look for explanations. You’ll find that the answers follow swiftly! There really aren’t any truly stupid questions. I’m often asked questions by students who think they are being ‘stupid,’ but I can assure you that this hasn’t yet been the case — not once! Ask the question — I guarantee you’re not the only person thinking it!


View near Loch Assynt, NW Highlands of Scotland. Photo copyright: Zoe McKellar

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