Forging a new career through distance learning

James Hale studied BSc Geology at Birkbeck through distance learning after 14 years out of education. He discusses how his degree has helped him transform his life, having gone on to both further study and a new job in the field of Earth Sciences.

I started the BSc (Hons) Geology degree at Birkbeck in 2014 whilst working as a sales consultant for a large, multi-national workshop consumables company. I had worked in sales for over ten years and really wanted a career change, but I had no idea what to do instead of sales. I have always been passionate about Science, Earth Science in particular but I never saw it as a possible career, as I left school with only a set of GCSEs, no A-levels or degree.

After a particularly bad day in work, my fiancée suggested I do a little research into Earth Science degrees. I came across various online distance learning geology degrees but Birkbeck was the only one with accreditation from the Geological Society of London and the only one using Panopto to deliver the lectures. The accreditation was important to me because I wanted to be able to establish a career using the degree and the fact that Panopto was used to record the lectures in HD quality made me feel like I was in the classroom. The staff were excellent, very supportive and clearly understood that many of us in the class had not been in any sort of education for quite some time. For me, it had been 14 years to be exact so naturally I was apprehensive about starting a degree. After watching the recording of the induction evening before the start of the course, I felt very much at ease. By the end of the first lecture I was hooked, my mind was immersed and I was extremely glad that I decided to study Geology at Birkbeck.

I originally started the degree on a part-time basis and transferred to full-time after the first year which enabled me to complete in 2017 after three years. The distance learning aspect benefited me because I have a young family, therefore I needed the flexibility to be able to work on a full-time basis and be able to study around them in the evenings and on weekends.

The degree gave me a strong, renewed sense of purpose as well as the immense personal satisfaction of completing something as challenging and life-changing as a degree. I gained invaluable academic skills such as report writing and data processing, a lot of which are transferable, as well as first-class field skills. The degree has made me employable in a scientific environment, so much so I am about to start work at a major UK university as a Senior Technical Officer – Earth and Biological Sciences. I am also a year into a part-time MSc which I am studying online at a world-renowned oil and gas industry focused University. My overall ambition is to progress to lecturer and to conduct my own research in the field of geology.

I would advise anyone else thinking about studying via distance learning with Birkbeck to go for it! Provided you put in the hard work, you can achieve your goals. The study process is made as flexible and accommodating as possible by the college, the course content is both interesting and engaging, the staff are very helpful and supportive, plus if you choose geology you’ll remember the amazing field trips for the rest of your life!

I can’t thank the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences staff enough for literally helping me change my life.

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A day in the life of… Dr James Hammond

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr James Hammond from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist.

I get up, usually rudely woken by my little boy and battle the northern line to Birkbeck. When I am in the field I get up early, normally just before sunrise so we can be on the road as soon as it is light. There is always a lot of ground to cover, so maximising daylight hours is key.

My research…focuses on using energy released by earthquakes as a probe to image inside the Earth. Much like a doctor uses x-ray energy to image inside your body, we can do a similar thing using sound waves that are released by earthquakes to understand what the Earth is made of.  I do this on a large scale, trying to image depths of hundreds of kilometres and understand what drives plate tectonics. I am particularly interested in volcanoes and how magma is generated, stored and transported before an eruption. Obviously volcanoes are not a big concern in the UK, so my research involves collaborating with people all over the world to understand what makes volcanoes work.

I teach… geophysics and scientific computing to geology and planetary science students in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

My typical day… involves heading in to work and a mixture of research, processing seismic data from beneath some of the areas I am working on (Ethiopia, Eritrea, North Korea, China, Chile), meeting with PhD students to discuss their research or with colleagues to discuss new proposals. If I am teaching I will spend time preparing for that. In the field, there is no such thing as a typical day. In Chile, we were accommodated by a cowboy in the mountains (including dinner at his house, with his horse joining us at the table), off-road driving for eight hours to deploy a station near an active volcano or white-water rafting to access a site for a seismometer deployment.

I became a scientist… mainly due to some inspirational teachers. At school my geography teacher, Ashley Hale instilled a fascination with the physical world. He was also an explorer, heading off to climb mountains in Africa, South America and Asia and updating us as he went. Some of that clearly rubbed off and I have been lucky enough to have a job where I can combine exploration of the world with an exploration of how it works. However, I have to admit that my PhD involved spending six weeks in the Seychelles. A life in science seemed a good idea after that.

My greatest professional achievement to date… has to be leading one of the first ever collaborations between the West and North Korea. This collaboration is focussed on a large volcano (Mt. Paektu) on the border of China and North Korea. We recently published papers showing the first images of the Earth beneath the Korean side of the volcano and also estimated the amount of gases that may have been released (a lot) when it erupted in 946AD.  The work is ongoing despite all the recent political tension and shows that science has the ability to build collaborations during even the most strident political tensions.

My favourite part of the job… is the travel. As well as the Seychelles I have spent time in Mexico, Canada, Montserrat (a small island close to Antigua in the Caribbean), Japan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, North Korea and most recently Chile. The best bit is the chance to work with scientists from all these countries, learning about geology all over the world and learning their culture too. Also, volcanoes are in some of the most interesting and hard to get to parts of the world, so I get to satisfy the explorer part of me too.

After work… it is normally back to my family and a glass of wine or beer to relax.

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