PhD Candidate, Geoarchaeology, Irini Sifogeorgaki @sifoGeoArch: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Sampling for micromorphology (thin section analysis of undisturbed sediment samples) at Umbeli Beli rockshelter, South Africa ©2020 Irini Sifogeorgaki

NAME: Irini Sifogeorgaki


AREA OF EXPERTISE: Geoarchaeology: Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction, Fieldwork Strategies, Palaeoclimate and Site Formation Processes using various techniques like Micromorphology, Sedimentology, and Stratigraphy

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: Eight years of field and lab work experience


Currently PhD Candidate in Geoarchaeology (Leiden University)
MSc in Environmental Archaeology (University College London)
BSc in Geology and Geoenvironment (University of Athens)


TWITTER NAME: @sifoGeoArch

What’s your job like?

I am a geoarchaeologist applying techniques derived from the earth sciences studying the stratigraphy and depositional history of archaeological sites. I am currently conducting my PhD research on three archaeological sites in South Africa: Umhlatuzana, Shongweni, and Umbeli Beli rockshelters.

My job is interesting, fun, and never gets boring! This is because there are so many different activities involved: periods of fieldwork, labwork, attending courses, teaching, reading, writing articles, going to conferences, etc. Also, I get to travel a lot! So far, for fieldwork, conferences and workshops I have visited: South Africa, Lesotho, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, and Greece!

Excavation site at Umhlatuzana rockshelter, South Africa ©2020  Irini Sifogeorgaki

What’s a typical day like?

Since there is a considerable difference between working in the field and in the office, I am going to describe a typical day for both occasions! 

A typical day during the excavation (currently at Umhlatuzana rock shelter) involves waking up early, getting prepared, and heading out to the site. There, the team excavates at a slow pace using trowels. Every time an artifact is found its 3D coordinates are measured and the required documentation is filled out. Often, I need to take sediment samples for further laboratory analyses. Vervet monkeys from the forest usually pay a visit around lunchtime. Not exactly typical but sometimes there are encounters with snakes, scorpions, and other scary insects. One time we even received a message to ‘be alert, two female lions on the loose have been viewed 30km from your location’!!! But overall, things proceed smoothly on a typical day of excavation, and before we know it, time has passed and it is time to return to the accommodation. There, we still have to do some administrative work, for instance, entering the excavation data in the database or organising the pictures taken. In the evenings, we hang out together and sometimes have parties, go out, watch movies, or play games. 

When I am at the university, I spend my mornings until lunch break working on tasks that need more concentration like reading articles and writing. After lunch I tend to do some thin section analysis of micromorphological samples using a petrographic microscope. At the end of the day, I engage with more ‘light’ activities such as answering emails, meetings, doing courseworks, preparing presentations, etc. 

Measuring the pH of sediment samples in the lab. ©2020 Irini Sifogeorgaki

What’s fun?

Travelling is super fun! When visiting a place for work I always try to combine it with some exploring of the area. In addition, I have the opportunity to get to know a lot of people and make friends around the world! I also love working in the university and interacting with all the colleagues and students. Lab work is very fun as well, I have always enjoyed getting in the lab wearing the lab gear (coat, glasses, gloves) while using all these fancy chemistry equipment and measuring devices! 

What’s challenging?

Because there is a certain amount of freedom involved in doing your PhD, it is often difficult to stay focused and get the work done. At certain times, I feel stuck with a task and then I procrastinate and start doing all these irrelevant activities (I mean…, redecorating the office must be the number one priority of a PhD student, right?). I also find myself making excuses about why I should not start crucial tasks (‘I cannot possibly start writing the paper. I need to read soooo much more literature’). To overcome these situations, I think that one needs to understand the stresses and anxieties that cause them. And then, with a good plan/timeframe and some willpower you can easily get back on track! 

What’s your advice to students?

My advice to the students is to choose to specialise in something they love and find interesting! If they want to pursue an academic career, they should take the study seriously from very early on. I always tried to treat my studies as a job: 8 hours a day, 5 days per week. If someone dedicates 8 hours (preferably continuous) of focused work for 5 days a week it should be enough to cover most of the demands! It is ideal to not let the assignments and readings to the last moment! 

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