Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

My job explained: Geophysicist

Photograph of geophysicist Julian Scott standing in the Antarctic, in front of a snowy region of flat ground with a mountain range in the distance.Julian Scott is a geophysicist working for the British Antarctic Survey where he uses techniques like radar to monitor the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. Here he tells us about working in one of the most remote parts of the planet.

What inspired you to study sciences?

As a child I was given a lot of books about the way things work and always liked doing my own science experiments at home. I was always fascinated by everything from space travel to chemical reactions, particularly ones with explosions. Perfect for my present job where I will be using explosives to send sound waves into a glacier!

How long did it take to train and what did the training involve?

After leaving school I did a three year degree in physics and maths. After a two-year spell as a teacher I did a one year course in geophysics followed by a three year PhD.

Can you describe a typical working day?

When I am in the office, I generally spend a lot of time on a computer emailing and writing up results from the work I do on the ice. I also use many different computer programs to do science calculations and to display the results. I sometimes go to conferences to compare the work I do with other scientists, which means lots of visits to great places. In the last two years I have been to Rome, Amsterdam and San Francisco.

When I am working on an ice cap, I live in a tent. I cut ice blocks and melt them for water. The day may start with a skidoo (snowmobile) journey, then I will make some radar measurements or seismic measurements by burying explosives and detonating them by remote control.

What's the best thing about your job?

Getting to see wonderful places like Antarctica and Greenland. This year I went on a helicopter journey where we flew low over the biggest glacier in the northern hemisphere. We wove in and out of icebergs. It was amazing.

What have been the challenges in getting to where you are now and how have you overcome it?

My geophysics degree was difficult because I got no money for it. I had to work eight hours every Sunday in a petrol station and teach maths in the evenings. It made studying during the week very difficult but if I hadn’t done this I wouldn’t have had the job I have now.

What qualities and skills do you think are important for your role?

The ability to live in very harsh conditions, particularly extreme cold, is important. We can also go up to three months without being able to take a shower and we have to eat dried food, so you can’t be too fussy. You also need an inquiring mind and want to find answers to difficult questions such as how the ice sheets are responding to global warming.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about following in your footsteps?

Get good grades in science and maths and look out for interesting degree courses like geophysics, environmental science and physical geography. Alternatively do a degree in physics, or any of the sciences, which will leave you with lots of opportunities. Don’t forget to always do lots of other activities, particularly outdoor adventure type activities. Employers like the British Antarctic Survey are looking for people they know will be able to cope with the extremes of Antarctica.

Many people don't know about the difference that science can make to people - what do you think is the most useful thing about it?

The work I do will help us to find out whether the world’s biggest ice caps are causing sea level to rise and if they are, then how fast. This will be really important for people whose towns and cities are at risk of being flooded.

Related links