Case study

Postdoctoral research fellow — Robert Ellis

Rob's degree in marine biology gave him the knowledge and skills to develop his research interests further

How did you get your job?

I've always wanted to study marine biology and opted for Plymouth University as they offered undergraduates the chance to complete a commercial diving qualification as part of the course, which has since proved to be a real asset.

After graduation I was fortunate to get a Royal Society summer fellowship with one of my lecturers at Plymouth looking at the impact of reduced seawater pH on development in marine snails. I then worked at the Marine Biological Association, first as a data analyst for MarLIN, which was largely a desk-based position, before working as a researcher on a project looking at identifying and quantifying fishing bycatch from different trawl gear.

A year after graduating I started my PhD based at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory investigating how climate change impacts the mussel immune response. My PhD took me all over the world and I managed to visit six of the seven continents, taking part in a seven-week research cruise from the UK to Chile (Atlantic Meridional Transect) and undertaking various training courses in Norway, Sweden and McMurdo in Antarctica, as well as presenting my work at conferences in Puerto Rico, Nice and Monterey Bay. It also provided me with fantastic training in a range of experimental techniques and gave me a true understanding of the nature of a career in scientific research.

Following my PhD I undertook my first postdoc position based at the University of Exeter, investigating how climate change impacts various species of fish and shellfish, before spending 18 months working as senior researcher for PML Applications. This involved me undertaking environmental research into biofouling prevention for companies such as Rolls Royce, Alstom, SeaCON and Siemens, as well as organising and running a commercial diving project that surveyed the unique marine habitats around Lundy Island.

How relevant is your degree to your job?

My degree was vital for getting on my PhD, and subsequently for the positions I have had since, as it gave me a great understanding of the subject and fantastic research experience.

What are your main work activities?

I am currently in my second postdoctoral position back at Exeter, investigating how seawater conditions in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) impact fish health. My job is really varied so there really isn't much of a typical day but my activities include:

  • designing, undertaking and analysing laboratory based experiments;
  • supervising undergraduate, Masters and PhD students;
  • lecturing on the marine biology modules;
  • designing, building and maintaining experimental systems and pieces of technical equipment;
  • field collection of various study organisms from locations around south west England;
  • presenting research at international conferences and publishing in peer review scientific journals;
  • writing funding applications.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

My aim is to keep researching and lecturing. Having my own research group in the future would be pretty amazing, but this means less hands-on research and more funding applications, so I'm pretty happy with how things are for now.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I enjoy everything because it is so varied and never dull, and the travel opportunities really are incredible. But mostly I love driving my own research, being able to come up with new questions and answer them in new and exciting ways, discovering interesting things people haven't considered before.

What are the most challenging parts of your job?

Postdoc positions are quite short, typically between 18 months and three years, so finding stability is a little tricky and you have to keep an eye out for funding or new positions constantly. However, if you are flexible and keen to travel this can in fact be a real plus as it can take you all over the world.

Any words of advice for someone who wants to get into this job?

Keep an eye out for different experiences and make the most of any opportunity you are offered that will set you apart from the crowd. If you are hardworking, enthusiastic and willing it will get you a long way.

Volunteering on postgraduate projects in my second year led to me securing my summer studentship, which in turn led me to my PhD and ultimately to where I am today.

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