PhD Candidate, Structural Geology, Andrew Cross: A Day in the GeoLife Series @TectonoAndy

NAME:  Andrew Cross


AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Structural geology and rock deformation, New Zealand


EDUCATION: MESci Geology with Geophysics (University of Liverpool)


What’s your job like? I am a final year graduate student at the University of Otago in New Zealand. My research focusses on the way rocks deform at a micro-scale, and how those processes affect the deformation and strength of the Earth’s crust, which is an important part of understanding plate tectonics. I am part of the tectonophysics group in the geology department at Otago, and work alongside other grad students and professors who study deformation processes during earthquakes, in mountain belts, the Earth’s mantle, and even in ice. I use a wide variety of techniques in my research, including deformation experiments at high pressures and temperatures, scanning electron microscopy, numerical modelling and fieldwork. A large portion of my time is spend analysing data and writing up results. As an early career researcher, I am encouraged to present my findings at conferences, both locally and internationally, which exposes me to the work going on in other labs and helps me to build a network of contacts for future collaborations.

What’s a typical day like? Upon getting to the office in the morning, the first task of the day is to make a cup of tea and check my email. Sometimes I’ll have received correspondence from one of my colleagues or advisors which will dictate my work for the morning. Generally, my mornings are spent in front of the computer, reading research papers, processing data, writing papers for submission to academic journals, or preparing conference presentations. Some days I will have meetings with my advisor, so I will collate my most recent findings to discuss with him. In the afternoon, my attention span for reading and writing is limited, so I prefer more hands-on work. This might involve preparing microscope thin sections, producing components for deformation experiments, imaging rock samples on the scanning electron microscope (SEM), or running simulations through numerical code. Part of being a graduate student is being prepared to work extra hours. This can be hard to do after a full day of work, so usually I will take a couple of hours off to relax, before settling down to finish off reading and writing tasks from the morning.

Alpine Fault Zone

A team of New Zealand based geoscientists surveying a field site in the Alpine Fault Zone of the Southern Alps, NZ. Photo source: Andrew Cross

What’s fun? The variety of tasks I get to work on! I’m never bored at work because, if I’m struggling on one particular job, I can always switch to something else and take time to think the problem over. I never feel trapped in my office, because I spend a lot of time in the lab, outside on fieldwork, and travelling for research visits or conferences. Being part of a community of researchers is also exciting and something I’ve become more involved with now that I’m the most senior graduate student in my research group is helping other students with problem-solving, which can be very rewarding. Though it may seem like a chore, even writing up results has its perks when all the data come together to tell a story and reveal something new.

What’s challenging?  It can be frustrating when things don’t work as planned. Equipment can break or not work as expected, which sometimes leads to days or weeks of trying to find a fix. New data may contradict everything previously collected which forces you to reassess everything you previously thought right. As a graduate student starting out, there often seems to be an overwhelming amount of literature to read through and it can sometimes be difficult to see how you are making a contribution with your research.

What’s your advice to students?  Get involved in research at an early stage of your undergraduate degree. Often professors will incorporate material from their own research into lectures – if you enjoyed learning about something in particular, approach that professor and ask them if there are opportunities to work with them. In my experience there are a lot of small jobs that researchers don’t have time for, and there may even be grant money to fund someone to do them (not to mention it looks great on your CV). I worked on three different research projects and did one industry internship as an undergraduate before finding my calling in rock deformation. If you’re interested in following the PhD path after graduating you’ll need to be self-motivated and inquisitive. Things can get pretty stressful at times, so it helps to have an easy-going attitude too. At a more informal level, social media is a great tool for connecting with researchers (at all career levels) and fellow students, and for seeing what types of research are out there. Twitter is a good way to get started, with its 140-character limit meaning that information comes in easy-to-digest chunks.