NAME: Matthew Warke
CURRENT TITLE: PhD student at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester, United Kingdom (2013-present)
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Field geology, sedimentology, stratigraphy
EDUCATION: BSc (Hons) Geology from the University of St Andrews (2009-2013), PhD at the University of Manchester (2013-present). Intern/casual employee at the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (2011; 2012; 2013).
WEBSITE: Matthew Warke
What’s your job like?
Varied and interesting. My research focuses on the “Great Oxidation Event” (GOE) which is a period of Earth history about 2.4 billion years ago when oxygen first started to accumulate in the atmosphere. There’s a lot we still don’t know about the GOE, principally its causes and how it relates to the evolution of organisms like cyanobacteria. Early Earth oxygenation is a hot topic in geology, geobiology and geochemistry at the moment because it is such an important event, critical to our understanding of Earth systems and the evolution of life (and the interactions between them). My job is to study the sedimentology, stratigraphy and geochemistry of pre-GOE sedimentary successions in South Africa. From these, we want to gain new insights into the depositional environments that existed at this time, and how they might have affected the geochemical (oxygenation) record preserved in ancient sediments.
What’s a typical day like?
Well, it almost always starts with tea and emails, unless I’m due in the laboratory (lab) or at a meeting/class. At the moment, I’m writing up my thesis and so my days are pretty similar: drinking tea, listening to music, reading papers and lots of typing! However, over the course of my PhD, my average day has varied greatly: hiking up mountains on the edge of the Kalahari, conducting geochemical experiments in labs in Johannesburg, Stanford and Manchester, attending conferences, and helping to teach classes in snug, warm classrooms and cold, windy Scottish hillsides. For instance, today I’m at my desk in a rainy Manchester, but next week I’ll be at a conference in sunny Cape Town!
My favourite part of my research is the fieldwork, although the paperwork it requires is less than fun! I love to travel and learn about the geology of new places in detail. It is an odd quirk of the job that I know some farms and hillsides in rural South Africa intimately, but parts of Manchester – where I’ve lived for 3 years – are a mystery! ‘Boots-and-hammer’ fieldwork is enjoyable and fascinating. In the field is where I’ve typically best understood complex geological ideas, as there I have the opportunity to see and touch the rocks, walk out their relationships and finally start fitting things together in 3D (and 4D). I love the conversations that inevitably happen in the field, where ideas and theories from local to planetary scale are debated whilst perched on an outcrop or over a well-earned beer in the evening.
Overall, I find most aspects of PhD life fun, particularly the new and unexpected directions that research can take and the freedom it allows to follow your own curiosity. Demonstrating to students can also be really rewarding.
Things don’t always work. Projects with promise hit snags or details that can throw them entirely off-track. This is the double-edged sword of research and often you can be pushed in unfamiliar directions outside your immediate research area and comfort zone. However, I’ve come to see this process forms part of how you learn and grow as a researcher. With patience and persistence you can usually push through to work out why things didn’t work as you thought and reach conclusions that are just as, if not more, interesting.
‘Imposter syndrome’ and a general feeling of not being quite up to scratch are constantly lurking in the background for almost all PhDs, myself included. Most PhDs have usually come from high-achieving academic backgrounds, but a PhD is a totally different creature and that can be unnerving at times. You are no longer simply studying and learning science, but helping to expand its frontiers into unknown territory. Coupled with new financial and logistical responsibilities and a perceived weight of expectation that is often felt to deliver significant findings, there are points at which it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. It’s important to remember that almost everyone in academia has experienced this, and the fact that you feel it at all reflects that you accurately appreciate the complexity of the problems you’re working on.
What’s your advice to students?
I think it’s important to be proactive and seek new opportunities whenever and wherever they present themselves. Help out in your department by helping with research, outreach, mentoring, being involved with student societies, or by becoming a teaching assistant. Do internships and placements and ask to be involved in things that present you with a challenge. For postgraduates, I would say it’s very important to read widely within and outside your field; set aside some weekly reading time and guard it jealously. Work hard and try to cultivate an independent style of learning and working as soon as possible, so when you come to your supervisor with a problem, you also come with thoughts on its solution.