PhD Candidate, Sedimentation and Tectonics, Tannis McCartney @TMMCC: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Tannis McCartney

NAME:  Tannis McCartney




EDUCATION:  BSc Geophysics, University of Alberta; MSc Geology, University of Calgary, Canada


What’s your job like?

Geoscience students are fortunate to be able to get funding for grad school. My current funding is a combination of fellowship and teaching assistantship. I am finishing my formal coursework so I spend all of my time on my own research, unless it’s a semester when I’m working as a TA. Then I also have to allow time for prepping/teaching/grading/office hours. As a TA, I am paid for 20 hours of teaching-related work per week, but it is really hard to be a good TA in only 20 hours.

My dissertation research involves working with seismic data from East African rift lakes (primarily Lake Malawi) to understand the structural evolution of part of the basin. I’m also involved in a scientific drilling project in East Africa that is to reconstruct the environment hominins evolved in. My role in that project is to correlate downhole logs and core logs.

Most of my work is done on computers but I try to be present when at least some of the data is being collected in the field. I traveled to Kenya in 2013 for the scientific drilling project and I may be traveling to Malawi in 2015 for seismic acquisition.

What’s a typical day like? 

When I’m doing full-time research, I typically spend 4-6 hours interpreting or processing seismic data on a workstation, plus additional time reading papers from scientific journals (in pdf format on my tablet), and more time working on making figures and maps on my laptop.

Email can suck a lot of time out of the day, so I try not to check it too often, and if there’s nothing urgent I reply to everything once or twice a day. A day might involve meetings or discussions with colleagues or my advisor, or a visit to the library for journals and books.

For the seismic data, our research group has some of the same software available to geologists and geophysicists working in petroleum exploration, so this is work I have to do in the lab. Once I get started I lose track of time and the hours go by pretty quickly. When I’m working I keep notes in a notebook (in the first two years of my PhD I filled 3.5 moleskines), and I periodically scan these notes to pdf.

I use ArcMap for making maps, Adobe Illustrator for making figures, and R for doing quantitative work like graphs (and I am working on scripts to work with my log data in R as well). I also use Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel quite a bit. All of these are installed on my laptop so this is work I usually do at home in the evenings and on weekends.

What’s fun? 

To give my eyes a break from computer data, I like to look back through field photos I’ve taken, catch up on Twitter, and read geoscience blog posts.

I have most of the rocks in my personal collection displayed at home, but I keep some on my desk at the university so that wherever I am working, I can take a break from the computer and look at samples for fun. This is good thinking time too.

There is nothing better than actually going out in the field. I take every opportunity I can to go on field trips or do field work, even if it isn’t necessary for my own work. It is refreshing invigorating and fun, especially spending time discussing the geology in front of us with other geologists.

What’s challenging? 

Staying motivated through the tedious hours of data analysis, which in my case is time spent in front of the computer, is tough. It’s why I like to keep cool samples nearby and go in the field when I can. It’s also why I love the geoscience community on Twitter (and their blogs) – it’s great to hear about the things other people are excited by and it’s great to have a place to bounce ideas around.

It is challenging (but important) to find time for non-geological interests. I love what I do, but I am better at it when I am not consumed by it.

What’s your advice to students? 

General advice:

Don’t be embarrassed to love what you do. Don’t be afraid to be curious. Don’t be afraid to ask (and answer) questions and don’t be afraid to be wrong.

Geology-specific advice:

Have geologic interests outside of your own research/work/studies. Learn about as many aspects of geology as you can. All geology is related in a broad sense, and you never know what background info you are going to need to call on to solve a problem. Seemingly unrelated ideas can spark your thought process, and you may think of new ways to present/explain/display something you are working on.

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