Frequently asked questions for the School of Earth Sciences

We asked the School of Earth Sciences some questions about what it's like to study with them. Here's what they said.

We are adapting our teaching methods and spaces in accordance with the latest COVID guidelines and therefore the information below may be subject to change.

What makes this department at the University of Bristol unique?

Earth Sciences at Bristol is leading the way in addressing some of the most urgent environmental challenges facing the world today:

  • predicting and mitigating the impact of natural hazards
  • understanding environmental change
  • developing sustainable technologies and management of our energy resources.

You’ll have the opportunity to participate in the wide range and depth of research expertise available across the School throughout your studies, and will graduate with the skills and knowledge required to identify and solve problems facing our world in the future.

We’re a tight-knit community, and our excellent student:staff ratio and small class sizes means that you’ll get to know your lecturers and peers and get plenty of support from expert staff.

Our surveyed students rated School of Earth Sciences 93% for overall student satisfaction in the latest NSS (2020), and our lively student-led societies offer numerous and varied social events, so you’ll join an in-built community from day one. 

How does the research at the school benefit the experience of the students at the school?

You’ll join a community of talented scientists working towards a post-carbon world. 

Our researchers are renowned as world-leaders in volcanology, isotope geochemistry, palaeobiology, experimental petrology and seismology.

Bristol was ranked 2nd in the UK for Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences research in THE analysis of the latest Research Excellence Framework (2014). 

This means you’ll be learning with world-class experts whose research feeds directly into the topics you will study throughout your degree, placing you at the cutting edge of scientific developments.

All of our staff teach as well as research. You’ll not only interact with the latest findings through the optional units offered in your later years – you'll also have opportunities to apply for research internships within the school, and attend talks and guest lectures. 

In your final year, you’ll be conducting your own independent research project, giving you real experience in the world of academic research and allowing you to be part of our ground-breaking discoveries.

What does the school do to welcome students when they first start at Bristol?

Normally, we invite all of our first years to join us on a free pre-sessional field course to Kilve Court in south-west Somerset before term starts. The field course allows you to meet students from your year, as well as students from years above you so that when you start lectures you already know most of the class. It also gives you the chance to experiment with field skills that you will develop later in your degree.

Our student societies join the field trip to help you find your way, and once you are in Bristol they will be available to help you settle in.

The Bristol University Geology, Geoscience and Geophysics Society is run by students for students – they run a ‘family’ system where you will be grouped with students from across the years – the second and third years will help you with anything you need – including academic and social. They, and the parallel DinoSoc run lots of social events, as well as events like talks and field trips.

What is the first year timetable like for this course?

On average, first year consists of 20 contact hours per week, depending on your programme of study.

For most, this will be divided evenly between lectures and practical classes with additional tutorial sessions.

Typically, we also have three intensive practical and field weeks, one during the first term when we do local days in the field and two in the spring, one of which is a residential field course and the other a week of intensive laboratory work in Bristol.

Where can I find out more about the detailed structure and content of the degree programmes?

For an overview of our four degree programmes you can look on the School of Earth Sciences webpages. In addition, the Unit and Programme Catalogue will give you more detail about course structure and the units we offer.

What support does the school offer to new students?

In Welcome Week we typically tell you about your courses, our procedures and expectations of you and do some group exercises to help you settle in.

We introduce you to our Wellbeing Advisers, Professional Services (office) and teaching technical staff.

You have a one-to-one meeting with your personal tutor so they can find out about you and be told of any concerns or issues you may have so they can help direct you to the correct support services. Most tutorials are in a group of four to five students, enabling you to make some more close contacts, but two per term are one-to-one. Personal tutors are always available for consultation outside scheduled hours.

The Senior Tutor is always available to students.

How will the course set me up for my future career?

Knowledge of geoscience is key for a wide range of industries. Traditionally, we have seen a large number of students go on to work in the mining industry, and in the oil and gas sector.

As the world shifts its interest away from hydrocarbons, we are seeing a shift in where our students go on to work, but geoscience remains as important as ever.

The understanding of climate change, atmospheric processes, and sustainability that we teach provide a great introduction to the environmental and sustainability sectors, which are really growing right now. The mining industry continues to be really important, supplying the raw materials needed for the zero-carbon transition.

Students learn a lot about natural hazards, which can lead to careers providing advice and consultancy about mitigating these risks.

Perhaps more importantly, our degrees place a really strong focus on important transferrable skills. Our degrees emphasise numerical literacy and critical thinking – which are valued in every industry. Similarly, we aim to develop our students’ communication skills, both written and verbal, which employers really value.  

Are there any employers or other initiatives that the school works with for industry placements?

In the past, we have run a weekly seminar series, called Careers Lunch where we invite external speakers from a wide range of industries (many of them alumni) to come and give a presentation to our students about their careers.

These lunch events have also given students a chance to network with potential employers. Recent Careers Lunch speakers have included alumni now working at: Atkins, Mott MacDonald, the Environment Agency, the MET Office, BP, EDF, Risk Management Solutions, Magnox, and Hiscox.

We don’t run a specific industry placement scheme, but many of our students have used these opportunities to gain placements and internships in a range of industries. We strongly encourage students to apply for internships during the penultimate year of studies.

What do graduates go on to do after studying this course at Bristol?

Our students go on to a wide range of industries. The critical thinking, numeracy and communication skills that our degrees develop are highly valued by employers, and many students go into careers such as finance and management consultancy.

However, we find that most of our students fall in love with Earth Sciences during their studies, and want to pursue careers where they can directly apply what they’ve learned. This can lead to careers in traditional sectors such as mining, the oil and gas industry, geotechnical engineering, and the nuclear sector.

We are also seeing a lot of students go on to careers in environmental consulting, sustainability, and renewable energy.

Finally, some of our students are inspired to continue their studies by pursuing a PhD, and going on to become the next generation of academics.

What opportunities are there to study abroad as part of this course?

Historically, our students have had several options for studying abroad during their degree course – either through international field courses or through our year-long Study Abroad Programme. These courses are all led by experts, giving you the potential to combine science with your own observations.

We also offer a Study Abroad programme where you spend year three of the four-year MSci programme overseas. There are many options for where you can study, with popular choices in North America, Australia, New Zealand and Iceland. You can apply to this course directly, or you can apply to switch on to it during your first year if you decide you would like to take this option. Your work is assessed and included as part of your degree.

What are the facilities like on campus that students will use to study this course?

Students are usually based in the iconic Wills Memorial Building which also houses the university’s Earth Sciences Library section and University Earth Sciences Collection.

Our teaching spaces contain resources such as samples and over 130 petrological and biological microscopes for hands-on learning, and are all fitted with lecture recording soft- or hardware.

Typically, you will have access to our skills lab which houses microscopes, maps, samples, thin sections and computers to support independent learning, revision and fieldwork preparation. It is a student-owned space that allows learning and socialising across all year groups and programmes.

You will also use our Environmental Geoscience laboratory which holds a wealth of analytical equipment for course and project work.

We have quiet spaces for you to enjoy during breaks and for independent studying.

How many hours (on average) are required outside of lectures for additional work and study?

Our advice is that you should spend an hour of private study for each hour you spend in class.

This time might be spent reading and so improving your notes, brushing up your practical work in the skills laboratory and revising for assessments.

How do assessments work for the department?

Formative assessment will show you how much you are learning and summative assessment will show us all how much you have learned.

In year one, some units are assessed through continuous summative testing and others through a mixture of formative assessment points during the year with end-of-unit summative exams. 

In succeeding years of study, we use a balance of formative and summative assessment with both summative coursework and exams. Exams are scheduled twice a year, typically in January and May-June.

What would you say are the main differences between studying at school and study at university?

When you are at university you are expected to manage your own programme.

Unlike at school your classes are not mandatory – you have chosen the degree yourself. However, we do expect you to attend and you will benefit from the huge array of opportunities that we offer – including lectures, practical classes, field courses, tutorials and a culture of open discussion. 

You will be expected to undertake significant amounts of independent research – which will increase as you go through your course, but don’t worry – we will help you to learn the skills you need to be an effective, problem-solving scientist.

What are examples of final year projects/dissertations that students have worked on when they study this course?

All our students undertake projects of their own, in years three and four (for those studying for a master's). 

Year three Geology students do independent field work to construct a geological map and interpret the geological history of a region, including a digital geological map and a dissertation. 

Environmental Geosciences Students use field observations and laboratory analyses to understand natural, ground water systems. Their dissertations model the data and interpret the processes at work.  

Geophysics students undertake a research project which involves collecting and analysing geophysical field data to determine the subsurface structures. They analyse the data, and build interpretation in relation to local geology and hydrogeology.

Palaeontology students carry out a dissertation using macroevolutionary and phylogenetic methods and genetic data to test evolutionary hypotheses.

MSci students will carry out an additional independent research project in their fourth year. These projects represent a genuine opportunity to engage with the forefront of science, with results often published in leading international journals.

Recent dissertation topics include:

  • Controls on volcanic deformation
  • Heavy metal pollution in coastal seaweeds
  • The development of tetrapod jaws
  • Investigations of Mass Extinctions
  • Development of magma systems
  • Atmospheric modelling of other planets
  • Metal cycling in Hydrothermal Systems
  • Nutrient cycling in the Southern Ocean
  • Agricultural development in China
  • Microplastic Accumulation in the deep sea
  • Dating melting in the solar nebula
  • History of Earth bombardment by meteorites
  • Ages of the oldest minerals on earth
  • Seismic investigation of fracking
  • Formation and evolution of diamonds
  • Predicting the outcomes of the Martian Insight project.

Anything else I should know about?

We're a relatively small department. You will get to know the other students and staff – both when in Bristol and when out on field classes. This will really help you to develop the confidence you need to discuss your work and get the most value you can out of your time with us.

We offer a very flexible approach – you can switch between Geology and Environmental Geoscience up until the start of your second year. Subject to reaching sufficient academic standards, you can switch between the three-year BSc or four-year MSci options, and you can change your mind about whether you wish to participate in the Study Abroad programme.

Finally, we subsidise all of your field courses and travel – so you won’t have to pay anything on top of your tuition fees for your field courses.

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