What you do
I’m a Lecturer in Physical Geography at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). There are three parts to my job. First – research. I’m a glaciologist, so I seek to understand how glaciers and ice sheets shape landscapes, how they respond to climate change, and the dangers posed by glacier-related hazards, which may also be exacerbated by climate change. My research involves making original and objective insights into the way that glacial systems work. I have to read (a lot!) to keep up-to-date with developments in my field, apply for research funding, acquire and analyse data, and publicise the results, usually by writing a paper in a scientific journal, and by giving presentations at conferences. Increasingly, scientists are urged to communicate their work to the public, and so I give talks to local environmental or geological groups and schools, and write articles such as this!
The second part of my job is teaching. It takes a diverse range of abilities and knowledge to be a physical geographer – you need skills in research design, numeracy, writing, computing, statistics, plus specialist subject knowledge. My teaching involves imparting such skills and knowledge to geography and environmental science students. Most of my teaching is about glaciers, geomorphology (the study of landscapes and the processes that shape them), research design and statistics. There’s some marking to do too!
Finally, there are administrative duties, which are not especially exciting, so I’ll leave it there.
Why you do it
As clichéd as it sounds, I had an epiphany! During my A-Level in Geography, we took a trip to Snowdonia. Coming from Kent, which is relatively flat, the mountains of north Wales were an unfamiliar environment. Looking down the Nant Ffrancon valley, I remember our teacher telling us that thousands of years ago we’d have been stood under a glacier. At the time, that blew my mind and I was hooked.
Today, I’m lucky enough to get paid to do something I love. Essentially, my job is to think, go to fantastic places, and help students develop a good future for themselves, It’s a very rewarding job. Being a scientist, there is a lot of thinking to be done, and a lot to wonder about. As a Geographer, I get to wonder about stunning landscapes, for example. You can’t ask for more from a job than that.
As a scientist engaged in a research community there is a sense that I am contributing to something bigger. The point of research is to find out something new about the world, to test theories, and to tell people what you found out so that it enters the broader scientific knowledge base..
I also get to go to some wonderful places. Fieldwork has taken me to Iceland, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Svalbard (also Norway, but a long way from the mainland), Spain, and Switzerland. Conferences have taken me to Oslo, Bern, San Francisco and Vienna.
Teaching students is exceptionally rewarding. In my own small way, I like to think I’m helping to guide my students in the right direction such that they can make the best of themselves. Students are good fun to be around in class or on fieldwork. I’m often amazed at how busy and interesting their lives are – we have champion athletes, members of bands signed to record labels, surfers, climbers, etc. Some of them hold down jobs with demanding hours whilst still trying to better themselves by gaining a degree.
How long you have been doing it
I became a glaciologist when I started my PhD at Keele University in 2003. I’ve been a Lecturer for around 7 years, having finished my PhD in 2006. My ‘foot-in-the-door’was a temporary, part-time lectureship at Liverpool John Moores University. I’ve spent most of my career working at the Centre for Glaciology at Aberystwyth University, as well as shorter spells at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Hertfordshire. I started my current job at MMU in July 2012.
What you have changed over time (i.e. what “works” and what doesn’t)
With research, I had to learn to let go of the reins a little. After completing my PhD I tried to hold on to all my ideas and do all of the work myself. As arrogant as it sounds, I didn’t want anyone to steal my ideas! However, in most cases, research works best through collaboration. Working with others can take your original idea to new and exciting places.
With lecturing, it took me a while to develop a style that I felt comfortable with. I probably started my lecturing career with very dense, complex powerpoint slides, and some awkwardly delivered humour. Nowadays, I think my slides are more interesting (more photos and diagrams!) and I just speak enthusiastically about Geography. Enthusiasm is key – nobody wants to listen to someone who’s bored. I also like to have students DO something in class, rather than listen to me for 2 hours solid!
What advice you would give your ‘younger’ self.
To me – there were a lot of fashion errors! Academically, however, I would probably take maths A-level if I could go back. I did Physics, but the maths would have been highly complementary – much of physical geography involves maths, physics and computing! This is something I have to work hard at now in my research.
To students – read…a lot! Work hard. Push yourselves – your future is in your hands. Listen to and read instructions – do what your lecturers tell you and you’ll do well. Read feedback on assignments – the mark won’t tell you how to improve – the feedback will. Get off facebook – no amount of reading about your mate’s mate’s (who you met once in a bar and added you) dinner is going to help you finish that essay. Don’t leave your work to the last minute, or day, or week – keep it ticking along from the day you receive the assignment details.
Anything else you’d like to say…
Feel free to contact me through over email (S.J.Cook@mmu.ac.uk) or through Twitter (@glacio_cook).