PhD Student, Igneous Geochemistry, Rebecca Paisley @BeckyPaisley: A Day in the GeoLife Series

NAME:  Rebecca Paisley


AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Igneous Geochemistry, Volcanic Degassing, Isotope Disequilibria


EDUCATION:  PhD Student at McGill University, Canada since September 2014. MEarthSci in Earth Sciences (University of Oxford, United Kingdom).


Myself (centre) and friends Victoria and Ruth on a field trip looking at volcanic processes in Santorini, Greece. Photo credit: Ruth Amey

Myself (centre) and friends Victoria and Ruth on a field trip looking at volcanic processes in Santorini, Greece. Photo credit: Ruth Amey

What’s your job like?

It’s a combination of researching, studying and being a teaching assistant. During my PhD, I will be looking into the geochemical evidence for open-system degassing in rhyolitic systems, constraining the timescales involved and looking into how these processes affect the concentrations of metals from depth to the surface. To achieve this, I need to do fieldwork (to collect samples) and lab work (to obtain data), and most importantly, interpret my results. As my PhD develops, I will write up my research in papers and present it at conferences. So far, I have been reading to get up to speed with the background literature, see what has been done before and determine what I could work on. I’ve also had training days to learn lab techniques and how to use different instruments. Furthermore, I am a teaching assistant and this involves demonstrating in labs, marking papers and helping students with questions. It is a lot of fun but challenging at times!

What’s a typical day like?

The great thing about being a PhD student is that every day is different and you can plan what you want to do. I find I read best in the morning and then I try to use the afternoon to do other things. This can be lab work, preparing for classes I’m taking or classes I’m demonstrating in, writing an abstract or conference poster and ploughing through my emails. It all depends on what deadlines are approaching. Trying to stay on top of everything that needs to be done is quite a challenge, and the key is to be flexible with your time.

What’s fun?

I enjoy the fact that I’m getting to learn many different techniques for my PhD research but with that comes a lot of thinking, effort and the odd setback! It is great when you’ve completed an experiment, it has been successful and you get to play with the data you’ve collected. Furthermore, I’ve relocated from the UK to Canada for my PhD, and I have really enjoyed tackling the challenges that have come with the move. It means I’m getting to experience a whole new culture (and climate!) which, although daunting at times, has been great so far. I’ve even decided to blog about my PhD and time in Canada so people can read about my research and travels (see link above under “WEBSITE”).

What’s challenging?

Being a geochemist takes a lot of time, effort and preparation to get data. It can be frustrating to be months into a project and not have a lot of data to show for it. Also, there is always the risk that experiments fail and often you can’t reuse your samples again. But if research was easy it wouldn’t be as rewarding!


‘Cordon Caulle’ – the cone of Puyehue stratovolcano, part of the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Volcanic Complex in Chile, and a steaming obsidian flow at sunset. This volcanic system is where my research is currently focused. Photo Credit: Hugh Tuffen.

What’s your advice to students?

My advice to students would be always choose to follow the thing you enjoy, as people always tend to succeed when they undertake something they find interesting and appealing. This applies to students looking to decide what degree to take or to undergraduates looking into their future careers. I found that I really enjoyed my research project during my undergraduate degree, so I looked into PhD applications. Applications for PhDs and graduate work are always stressful. The trick is to try not to get disheartened or too worried about them (although this is easier said than done) and always keep a look out for the right project or job, because they do come along!


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