So you wanna be an Arctic scientist: Part Deux

Following on from my earlier post, here are the remaining bits of questionable advice I can offer those considering a career in the cold. These are a little more introspective and a bit harder to get “right” than a first aid certificate or reading some polar history.

  1. Play well with others.

Wide open spaces. Stunning panoramas of ice and snow. Terra incognita. Polar regions often have an appeal for those of us who prefer our own company and getting away from it all.

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Everywhere you will go, you will go with at least one other person. It’s likely you will get on each other’s nerves sooner or later.

The reality of fieldwork in the polar regions could not be more different. Unless it gets a bit Mawson you will always have other people around. Being able to “rub along” with just the same few people in trying circumstances 24/7 is really important. Similarly, being aware of your own foibles (I snore and fart at an international level – props to any tentmate of mine) is as important as being able to put up with others, so a good sense of humour and humility is vital on all fronts.


(1) Supercomfy shared bedroom in Tarfala research station, Sweden. (2) Scrubbing out the toilets in NERC station, Svalbard while wearing sandals with socks. Such a fashion faux pas is an example of the kind of antisocial behaviour that can lead to toxic group dynamics in a field station.

On this note, it’s worth bearing in mind that while fieldwork is often a land far away from normal civilized behaviour, field plans and conduct should always be utterly inclusive and each member of the team has the right to feel safe, valued and be able to contribute to their full potential irrespective of ethnicity, religion, gender or any other such factor. Everyone has a responsibility in making sure discriminatory or harassing behaviour has no place in 21st century science. It is far too common and should never be tolerated.

  1. Don’t be a tourist.

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Tourists pay thousands of pounds to catch a glimpse of the lesser spotted Svalbard scientist through their binoculars.

Very few people working in the Polar regions go there because they don’t enjoy working there. We often fill entire memory cards with photos or videos of Yet Another Penguin/Polar Bear/Walrus/Tourist ship. And yes, it is great fun. People pay vast sums of money to see what you get to study. This should not distract you from the reality: if you’re an Arctic scientist, this is the day job. You will have worked hard to get this far and have (almost certainly) used charitable or public cash to bankroll your work. The onus is upon you to come up with the goods.

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A good day at the office (1) Wet and shitty. Six kilograms of cryoconite bagged,  15 grams at a time (2) Same day, six hours later. View from the field toilet.

A while ago, I was discussing PhD research topics with a prospective member of my group. Impressive CV, great references and technically very capable. But it became clear that the discussion was really a negotiation about the geographic destinations the project could tick off, rather than the scientific and career development voyage that a PhD tends to entail. At that point it became clear that it wouldn’t work out. The person accepted an offer elsewhere to go somewhere at the top of their geo-ticklist, and dropped out after their second season.

If geo-ticking is your driving force and you’ve seen the same patch of ice / tundra / glacier for several field seasons, your motivation will suffer.


Dr Joseph Cook (@tothepoles). Outstanding in the field. For ten hours a day every day for eleven days he would make hundreds of measurements within a 10×10 metre patch of ice, pacing back and forth. Science in the cold demands tenacity sometimes.

If “how can I score a grant/PhD to go to Novaya Zemlya / Deception Island / Dronning Maud Land” is your starting point, your attention will not be focused on asking the best research question or doing the most rigorous or timely science. Your performance will suffer.


Kayakers in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard

If climbing that mountain over there / kayaking in the fjord / abseiling into that moulin is why you want to go somewhere, your scientific priorities will get mislaid. There is also a chance you will get embroiled in a gnarly epic somewhere far, far from home (and without benefit of “free” mountain rescue). Your field time will suffer.

If those are the things that get you out of a five-season sleeping bag at 0400h: great. Go do ‘em. But to expect a career in polar science will be a licence to do those things is as big a mistake in career planning terms as turning up at MI6 and expecting a licence to kill.

In >12 field deployments to various parts of the Arctic and Alps I have had exactly one day of being a tourist. A very nice day it was too. That is not to say I haven’t had plenty of days in which I appreciate the things I get to see and do while I do my job.


Sightseeing at Russell glacier, Greenland.  

  1. Homeward bound.

If you are successful, unless the Arctic is your home, you will spend a lot of time away from home. This will affect your life, in particular your interaction with family and friends back in the real world. It will also affect your career, which may well depend on your being away to gather data, but is progressed by the “right” papers, grants, collaborative networks, courses, teaching, administration, service and performance in the real world.

I write this having had two statistical epiphanies in the last week (‘tis the season):

  1. In the 12 months June 2014-5, my wife / statistically significant other / long haired Co-PI (same person) and I will have spent eight months apart because of our respective research and teaching commitments.
  2. In the 4 years since being appointed to faculty, I will have spent more nights sleeping rough in Scandinavian airports than on leave.

This is by no means unusual within the community of my peers. I am in awe of truly exceptional individuals such as the person who has well over a dozen Antarctic seasons to their name but has never missed Christmas with their kids. The rest of us all too often miss birthdays, anniversaries, social stuff, even entire cultural norms, not to mention things like grant or promotion deadlines. We often work 15-20h a day seven days a week to keep up with a busy academic workload which is not distributed across the usual twelve months because of field commitments. This means that literal and metaphorical fences don’t get mended.

With modern communications, you have to get really remote to be truly off-grid. I have had skype conferences with people overwintering in Antarctica, troubleshot sample archiving issues with people on the worst caravan holiday in the world by email, and have likewise fended off calls from tax inspectors, accountants and solicitors while in the High Arctic. As a PhD student I had a relationship come to an end by instant messaging while in Svalbard. The days of an annual mailbag and 200 letter-messages by Morse code are pretty much over.

This means that you are seldom truly “away” to some people and bad news from back home can reach you pretty easily when you are in no position to do something constructive about it. The consequent feeling of helplessness can be difficult. Priming key people in your life about the illusion of connection can be useful.

On a related note, while social media is a boon for outreach purposes, what goes on fieldwork does not necessarily stay on fieldwork. Enough said.

Balancing your own family’s needs with fieldwork takes careful consideration. I have known some academics take their kids (even infants) on fieldwork, while other hang up their boots for a while. Anything that works out is fine. This post provides some examples and advice from those with actual experience.

While no DNA test has ever been able to prove conclusively that I have children, I do have family at the other end of the age spectrum. Here’s my personal perspective. Try not to judge me more than I do already.

My father is himself no stranger to the world. He ran away to sea in 1947 (insert many tall, but surprisingly well-corroborated, tales here) before returning home thirteen years later at the age of thirty. As I reach the same age, I am aware I have gained just a fraction of the life and world experience he had by thirty.

From his seafaring days he has a tattoo for identification purposes. It reads “Homeward Bound”. He once told me he decided to leave the sea after sitting on a hill overlooking Bergen in Norway and grabbing a fistful of soil, realizing it was the same, but different, soil as his father nurtured on the farm at home.

By now, he lives with dementia. In 2011, not long after the loss of his wife, his condition deteriorated to the extent that I couldn’t care for him safely at home. Likewise there were only so many times I could ask friends and family to cover for me while I slipped away to teach undergraduate classes. The day after my mother died, I taught a three hour lab class. These things do not stop, just because of personal circumstances.

As the n=1 F1 (i.e. only child) these crises meant I had to abandon the project I had planned in Greenland and slot into a team on Svalbard instead. I still have the letter which stated that these events did not present a special circumstance for the research excellence framework as they apparently did not affect my research for more than 12 months. In retrospect it is clear that my professional future as a researcher depended on going away.

Nevertheless, the “easy” option for that year, a field camp in polar bear territory, is no place to grieve for the loss / “loss” of one’s parents and deal with all that the procedural aftermath of bereavement entails. Needs must though.

I recall visiting him a few days before I travelled north. Leaving him was particularly hard in those days, not just for emotional reasons, but as he was quite a savvy escape artist. The previous week he escaped by convincing a visiting priest he was just there to see an old friend. So, I gave him a big hug before beating a hasty retreat:

“So, Dad, I’m off to the Arctic again.”

“Are you? What are you doing there then?”

“Yes. Research. I’m up there for a month this time.”

“But our Attic isn’t big enough to live in for that long.”

We both laughed, and I chuckled until I got to the car, where the tears came.

As time goes by, it goes without saying that your priorities and ability to spend time away are likely to change too. It is certainly possible to balance life away and life in the “real world”, but it takes careful consideration and compromise. I don’t score well in either department, so all I’ll say is: if you want to be an Arctic scientist, always make sure you’re homeward bound.

About Aber Cryoconite

Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK. Research interest: polar and alpine microbiology. Views my own.
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