Case study

Marine biogeochemist — Frances Hopkins

Frances is involved in making important scientific discoveries, which give her the chance to travel the world and explore exciting places

How did you get your job as a marine scientist?

I've always wanted to be a marine scientist. I firstly completed a degree in marine biology and oceanography, followed by an MSc in marine environmental protection at Bangor University in Wales. I then studied a PhD in marine biogeochemistry at the University of East Anglia.

My PhD studies included some time working at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), so I got to know the scientists working there really well. A position opened up just as I was finishing my PhD, and thanks to the requirements matching the skills I'd developed during my studies I was offered the job.

What's a typical working day like?

I spend some days at my desk reading literature, writing papers or analysing data, while sometimes I'm in the lab analysing samples, developing methods or carrying out experiments. Occasionally, I go out on the PML research vessel to either collect samples or spend time at our atmospheric observatory in Cornwall, setting up instruments and carrying out routine maintenance.

I also supervise Masters and PhD students. I'm involved in various PML citizenship activities, such as chairing the gender equality committee. I'm also a member of the environmental sustainability committee. This involves chairing or attending meetings and contributing to outputs, such as reports or staff activities.

What do you enjoy most about being a marine biogeochemist?

I enjoy being involved in globally important scientific discovery and constantly learning new information. There are also great opportunities to travel and see amazing parts of the world. I love the feeling that the work we're doing will maybe someday make a difference to the world.

A highlight of the job is taking part in fieldwork or research cruises to exciting locations. I've been to the Arctic (twice), the Southern Ocean, Norway, Italy, the equatorial Atlantic, and on a cruise all the way round the British Isles. I've also travelled for meetings and conferences to locations including China, California, Switzerland and Spain.

What are the challenges?

Even though it's uplifting when you succeed, trying and failing to get research ideas funded can be a fairly demoralising process. Writing papers for peer review can be frustrating and long-winded - as it should be - which can knock your motivation at times.

The infamous 'imposter syndrome' is also a frequent scourge of being an academic: that (almost always incorrect) feeling that you just don't know enough and everyone else knows much more than you.

How is your degree relevant?

I probably couldn't have chosen a more relevant degree. Bangor University was a truly fantastic place to study ocean sciences, surrounded by the mountains and the sea.

How has your role developed? What are your career ambitions?

When I started at PML, I was straight out of my PhD studies and working at postdoctoral level. This meant that I was actively performing research, participating in fieldwork and sea-going campaigns, writing papers and presenting research findings at conferences. Over the years my role has developed to include supervising PhD and Masters students, chairing committees and contributing to the development of research grant proposals.

My aim is to develop and lead my own unique area of research, something I hope to work towards over the next five to seven years.

What's your advice on choosing a Masters?

Try to find a Masters course that is as vocational as possible. This will provide you with plenty of training for the world of work, particularly if you're not necessarily going to pursue an academic career.

It's also worth checking if any funding or financial support is available. I was able to access the Welsh Government's European Social Fund as a student at a Welsh university, which considerably helped with the costs of undertaking a Masters.

What are your top tips for anyone looking to get into marine science?

Work hard and excel academically. There’s a lot of competition for PhD places nowadays and only the strongest candidates will be selected.

However, don't limit yourself to just being good academically. Make sure you develop other important skills, such as communication, writing, time management, project management, people management and logistics (for coordinating field work campaigns).

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