Postgrad Lives: 'It gave me the chance to travel and mix with fantastic scientists'

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The Independent Online

James France, 26, recently completed a four-year research PhD in snowpack photochemistry at Royal Holloway, University of London, which involved field trips to the Antarctic and the Arctic.

So, what on earth is snowpack photochemistry?

Essentially it's the study of chemical reactions in snow involving sunlight. These reactions release other gases into the atmosphere, which can play a significant role, especially in remote areas. It won't drastically change anyone's views about global warming, but it's important in helping us understand the chemical reactions which take place in remote environments such as the Antarctic.

Why did you choose this area?

My first degree was a four-year MSc in geological sciences, and in my final year I went to a guest lecture where I saw the guy who would eventually become my PhD supervisor present a research seminar on snowpack chemistry. I found it really interesting, and approached him afterwards to find out if he had any PhDs available.

What happened on the field trips?

In 2006 I spent three and a half weeks in Svalbard, a Norwegian territory in the Arctic Circle. I was there with my supervisor for a collaborative European project involving other Italian and French scientists. I was then invited to do some research for the French Polar Institute in Antarctica, so I spent a few months at a research station out there too. It was quite an experience: all the other scientists were French and my language skills are frankly terrible!

What did you like about your PhD?

The chance to travel and see all of these wonderful places, and mixing with fantastic scientists whose work you already know. You can't put a value on things like that, and probably the only chance you'll ever get to go somewhere like the Arctic or the Antarctic is through science. The other thing that was immensely satisfying was being able to come up with ideas, follow them through, and then find out that other people were actually interested in the work I'd done.

And what was the most difficult thing about it?

Since I came from an earth science background, I had to start completely afresh, teaching myself basic chemistry and even computer programming. Going from a taught environment to a "teach yourself" environment was the biggest struggle.

Did it set you up well for your next step?

Very much so. I spent six months working for the energy company Centrica, which was enjoyable, but also made me realise that an office job was not what I wanted to do. I've now got myself a postdoctoral position at Royal Holloway, so I'll be spending some more time in Antarctica doing further research in the same area.

What do you need to succeed on a PhD like this?

You shouldn't do a PhD just because you can think of anything else – you've got to enjoy it. If it's something that you're passionate about, you'll do very well.

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