People in Geoscience- Peter Nicholls



Peter A Nicholls

Job Description:

Volcanology Postgraduate at the Open University– investigating  'Explosive Eruptions from Iceland’s largest volcanoes'

What do you get up to on a typical work day?

My typical work day depends whether I am in the lab or in the field. A day in the lab might involve preparing samples and running geochemical analysis such as X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) or micro-analysis such as using the scanning electron microscope (SEM) to examine morphologies of ash shards. A day in the field involves climbing a volcano in Iceland’s glorious sunny weather and digging up pyroclastic density current and ash fall deposits with Gudrun (my spade) to study their variations and stratigraphy in a bid to develop a chronology of a particular explosive eruption.

How did you get into your field?

I have wanted to be a volcanologist ever since I found out people actually get paid to study volcanoes! Initially I attended the University of Glasgow as mature (ish) student and first developed my understanding of volcanology through lectures and field work in the British-Irish Paleogene Igneous Province. Following my undergrad I did a Masters of Research at Uppsala University in Sweden with a focus on igneous geochemistry and petrology. Following that I was fortunate enough to get NERC funding to do a PhD at the Open University.

What advice would you give anyone wanting to get into your field?

I think that it is very hard these days to have a career in industry or academia and often a basic undergraduate degree is not enough so you have to differentiate yourself from the crowd. By the time I applied for my PhD I had presented posters at conferences and had two papers in preparation, I think those factors helped a lot. Also a Masters is extremely beneficial as it prepares you well for a PhD (it is a very big step up from undergrad to postgrad and a Masters does help you make that transition). Masters tend to be very expensive in the UK but in countries such as Sweden they are free. Most European Masters are also taught in English so it is worth thinking about going abroad.

Best/most exotic field location you have visited?

I have been to a number of places but Iceland must be the best, it really is an amazing country where pretty much every type of volcanism is on display (an Icelandic friend of mine describes it as Disney Land for Volcanologists). Also the weather is just fantastic – really warm and sunny with plenty of palm trees.

Quick Questions

Hammer or Hand lens?


Dante's Peak or Volcano?

They are both pretty rubbish but Volcano is (believe it or not) actually the most scientifically accurate of the two. Dante’s Peak just makes me angry.

Lab or Field?


Best/Worst thing about your job?

The best thing about my job is standing on a ridge looking up at a majestic ice-capped volcano and thinking “I actually get paid to do this!”.