Avoiding the chicken and egg: Gaining experience in coastal geosciences and engineering

by Dr Siddhi Joshi,

Being a young scientist can be quite tough at the start. Whether you are a dedicated student or early career scientist, often it is easy to find yourself in a bit of a chicken and egg situation: “To get a job you need experience, but to get experience you need a job!” We’ve all been there, and at times the amount of perseverance required can be quite testing. However, with marine environmental issues being increasingly important, lots of opportunities are available out there! In this blog post, I discuss practical examples for students, and how to go about gaining real-world experience for those at various career stages, from undergraduate through to post PhD.

First; the undergraduate project. Procrastination, looming deadlines and establishing a dynamic rapport with your supervisors can be major hurdles for students. However, the undergraduate project is a component present in many science degree programmes, and whilst challenging, it should be treated as a valuable opportunity to flourish. Some undergrad research projects can involve work placements, which while generally unpaid can provide benefits well beyond pay cheque for a week or two. During my undergrad degree, I was a placement student at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, British Columbia. This initiative was set up by a previous second-year undergraduate at University of Southampton, who, seeking a summer placement before the final year, reached out to the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) in the Canadian Government. Working together on establishing a placement programme, Southampton students had the opportunity to go on structured work-shadowing programme at the oceanographic research laboratory and even go on deep sea oceanographic cruises aboard the Canadian Coastguard research vessels. This was a very enriching experience to learn first-hand from the government scientists and researchers at the forefront of their field, with many inspirational role models providing guidance. The other students and I enjoyed several local wilderness attractions together, including major hikes and sailing excursions. Whilst this was a dream come true opportunity, it is important to acknowledge a lot of work went in to networking, funding and organising this experience.

Memories of a summer placement in British Columbia, Canada

The world of unpaid internships can be difficult to navigate, financially demanding and hence research institutions are encouraged to work with universities and establish networks for short-term programmes for students. For example, the Marine Institute in Ireland, where many of my colleagues work, have a Bursary Scholarship Programme, where students are hired to work on individual projects working with government scientists in areas ranging from fisheries and aquaculture, marine ecosystems, shellfish safety, data development, oceanography, research funding to communications and HR. This has been found to be a valuable experience not only for the students but also for the employers.

Whilst it is often challenging to publish during a taught MSc programme, MSc projects can be an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the research landscape. One inspiring example of citizen science initiatives has been the “Open Litter Map” MSc project and the citizen science summer school by Sean Lynch, who initiated the project using open source geospatial software as an MSc candidate on the MSc Coastal and Marine Environments programme, School of Geography, National University of Ireland Galway. Volunteers (including myself) can do litter mapping in their localities using their mobile phones and open source GIS. Now, this project has a global network of participants, who can contribute images from all around the world. Volunteering in the coastal environment can be a wonderful experience, for example, my week long stay as a volunteer warden on Skomer Island in South West Wales whilst at Dale Fort Field Centre, was again a dream come true (for many), especially interacting with the Manx shearwater chick.

OpenLitterMap citizen science project was conceived by Sean Lynch during his MSc project at NUI Galway

At PhD level, funding is more likely to be available for attending enriching summer schools and training in specialised sub-disciplines internationally. One such example suitable for a broad range of disciplines is the Geoscience communication summer school in Perugia, Italy and specifically for CGE, the Coastal and Estuarine Morphodynamics summer school in Denmark, learning from the specialists during my PhD. And finally, scientific blogging (as well as personal blogging) is an increasingly important medium for science communication and if done well can help one practice the art of dissemination of research as well as commentary, views, opinions and fostering international collaborations. (WICGE is always looking for blog posts so why not send us an idea for a post and write for us!).

To conclude, don’t despair, there is a whole world of opportunities out there waiting! Take leadership and your dream job could be just around the corner!

About the Author

Dr. Siddhi Joshi is a coastal geoscientist and oceanographer with over 10 years of experience in marine biogeosciences including sediment dynamics, hydrodynamic modelling, seabed classification and habitat mapping. She has recently completed her PhD on the sediment mobility of maerl habitats in Galway Bay and is a regular volunteer for Amnesty International and South Asian LGBTI rights globally. Siddhi is a committee member of WICGE, and you can visit her blog here and follow her on Twitter