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Home > Courses > Courses for 2017 > Postgraduate > Quaternary Science
More in this section Geography

Quaternary Science MSc

UCAS code
Year of entry 2017
View 2018 entry »
Course Length
1 year full time
2 years part time
Department Geography »

Study Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway, University of London and you’ll receive comprehensive postgraduate training on the time-dependent processes that affect environmental change, helping you to understand and confront some of the most profound issues of our time.

This flexible Masters programme is offered jointly with London’s prestigious Natural History Museum, and The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recognizes this course as "Excellent".

You’ll acquire an advanced knowledge and understanding of key issues within Quaternary Science, including high-resolution palaeoenvironmental records, high-precision dating and multi-proxy approaches to the investigation of past environmental changes.

The Department of Geography is one of the leading centres for international geographical research in the UK. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework our research environment was recognized as overwhelmingly world class.

The staff and facilities of the Centre for Quaternary Research (CQR) at Royal Holloway provide a wide range of opportunities, including participation in internationally significant research programmes in Quaternary science and links with potential employers. This consortium of staff constitutes the strongest teaching team in the UK for the provision of Masters' teaching in the field of non-marine Quaternary earth science and environmental change. You’ll have the chance to contribute to this leading research culture with your own individual research project.

Study a Masters degree in Quaternary Science and you’ll develop a thorough understanding of many contemporary environmental issues, including climate change, biological responses to environmental change and soil erosion. and be well placed to pursue a rewarding career in your chosen field.

  • Masters programme offered jointly with London’s prestigious Natural History Museum.
  • Study in a department ranked 2nd in the UK for research by the Research Excellence Framework 2014.
  • Gain a thorough understanding of some of our most pressing environmental issues.
  • Graduate with excellent employability prospects and a strong opportunity to progress into further postgraduate study.

You will study five core and five optional units, attend a field training programme and complete a dissertation.

Core modules

Sedimentology and Stratigraphy

This unit will help you to understand the processes that lead to the accumulation of sediment sequences and identify the strengths and limitations of sediment sequences as archives of palaeoenvironmental change. You will develop skills in recording sediment characteristics and attributes in the field and be able to explain the main techniques that are commonly used to construct terrestrial stratigraphies. The unit aims to highlight the issues associated with constructing stratigraphies within the fragmented terrestrial record and the problems of relating these stratigraphies to climatic events in the continuous marine isotopic record as well as highlighting how terrestrial stratigraphies can increase our understanding of major climatic events/transitions.

High Precision Age Modelling

You will gain an overview of the range of dating methods applicable to the study of the Quaternary record, examine the principle limitations and quantified errors associated with each method and consider the potential for achieving better resolved age estimates using selected methods. You will also test the potential for deriving age estimates of centennial to annual age precision, using a variety of approaches and with application to a range of stratigraphic contexts, and gain practical instruction in the construction of age models with quantified error terms.

Quaternary Palaeoclimatology

This unit will develop your understanding of the archives available to provide Quaternary palaeoclimate records (e.g., ocean and lake sediments, ice cores, tree rings etc.) and how the available proxies are used to reconstruct past climate (e.g., stable isotopes, microfossils, sedimentology, radiogenic isotopes and biomarkers etc). You will gain an understanding of the modelling approaches there are to reconstruct past climate (e.g. box, intermediate complexity, GCM etc). The unit will give you an overview of Quaternary climate forcing factors illustrated with case studies (e.g. external - tectonics, orbital forcing, solar; internal – ocean circulations, ice sheets and Greenhouse gases etc) as well as Quaternary climate thresholds, cycles and events (e.g., Onset of Northern Hemisphere Glaciation, Intensification of the Walker Circulation, Mid-Pleistocene Revolution, Glacial-Interglacial cycles, Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles, Heinrich events, ENSO, NAO etc).

Principles of Quaternary Research

This unit will make you aware of the critical issues currently dominating the agenda of Quaternary Science. You will develop your presentational skills, both orally and in the form of web-page design, become proficient in the use of graphics for Quaternary sediment logs and other purposes, become aware of the key techniques in mapping landforms and remote sensing, and develop capabilities in research project design. The unit will also help you to prepare for the fieldtrip in the Scottish Highlands by understanding approaches to mapping and interpreting landforms and sediments in the field, and the history of glaciations in Scotland.

Quantitative Environmental Palaeoecology

This unit will help you understand key concepts in environmental palaeoecology and obtain a working knowledge of palaeolimnological field techniques, particularly coring sediments and developing modern biology-environment training sets. You will obtain a working knowledge and understanding of a range of quantitative methods used in palaeolimnology and paleoecology, gain experience in exploring relationships in multivariate data, analysis of biostratigraphic data and quantitative environmental reconstruction, and critically understand the application of quantitative palaeoecology to issues of recent environmental change.

Field Training Programme

The field training programme consists of a minimum of 13 full working days in the field. The location and duration vary from year-to-year, but you are required to participate in the two main residential programmes for Sedimentology & Stratigraphy and for the Easter fieldtrip.


You will complete an individual research project, the results of which must be submitted in the form of a dissertation not exceeding 10,000 words. Students are encouraged to choose topics that integrate well with the established research strengths and interests of the staff, and each student is allocated one or more supervisors who will provide guidance on appropriate techniques and approaches as required.

Optional modules


You will be provided with a thorough grounding in the theory and methodology of Quaternary pollen analysis, in particular pollen morphology, pollen identification, field and laboratory techniques, pollen counting, construction and zonation of pollen diagrams, and interpretation of pollen diagrams in terms of past flora, vegetation, landscape and environment.


This unit is an introduction to the extraction of insect remains from sediments and their identification using comparative collections and published keys, as well as their use for stratigraphical correlation and quantification of past conditions using such approaches as the Mutual Climatic Range Method (MCR). 


You will be introduced to the application of micromorphology in the study of ancient sediments and soils, as well as to current understanding of processes involved in the formation of these deposits. This option covers the sampling and preparation of thin sections, microscopic and image analysis of thin sections and their interpretation, micromorphology of various types of sediments and soils and qualitative and quantitative descriptive methods. 

Theory and Applications of Luminescence Dating

You will be introduced to both theoretical and practical aspects of the luminescence dating of Quaternary sediments, including the physical mechanisms of luminescence dating, preparation techniques and measurement equipment, assessment of equivalent dose and environmental dose rate values and case studies of luminescence dating in a range of sedimentary contexts.

Quaternary Mammals

You will be provided with a theoretical and practical understanding of the value of fossil mammal studies to Quaternary science, with particular reference to site formation processes, techniques for the collection, processing and analysis of fossil vertebrate remains, identification, taxonomy and palaeoecology, European Quaternary mammalian faunal history, interactions with early humans and extinctions.

Stable Isotopes and Environmental Change

You will be provided with a theoretical and practical understanding of stable isotopes and their uses, with emphasis on stable carbon and oxygen isotope ratios. You will consider the limitations and advantages of stable isotope measures in palaeoenvironmental reconstruction.

Environmental Factors in Human Evolution and Dispersal

The aim of this unit it to provide a thorough understanding of the principles of human evolution and to examine their application through selected case studies from the last 3 million years. A central outcome will be the evaluation of hypotheses concerning speciation and extinction, as well as cultural and social developments that stem from considering the changing environmental context on human behaviour.

Late Quaternary Palaeohydrology

The principal aim of this unit is to enable you to interpret local, basin and regional scale river responses to tectonic, climate and human drivers. This option will provide a more geomorphologically based approach than other option courses and will be looking at the impact of various climatic events and human impact on river basins.


This course is designed to give students an introduction to the scientific underpinning of tephrostratigraphy and tephrochronology and the essential practical skills required to undertake tephra studies in palaeoenviroenmental records. It includes training in the volcanological background to tephrochronology and tephrostratigraphy, transport, deposition and stratigraphic issues in distal tephra research, identification, extraction and geochemical characterization of distal tephra and age modelling and tephrochronology.


The aim of this course is to provide an introduction to the theoretical and practical study of chironomids (non-biting midges) and their application to environmental change. Chironomids are sensitive indicators of environmental change. They are responsive to a wide range of environmental perturbations including eutrophication, acidification, heavy metal pollution and climate change.

View the full course specification for Quaternary Science (MSc) in the Programme Specification repository.

You will benefit from small group learning and an intense but friendly atmosphere, and will receive individual mentoring and career advice from our staff (both from your personal tutor and a dissertation supervisor).

Assessment is carried out by a variety of methods including coursework, practical exercises, field reports and a dissertation.

Entry criteria:

Applicants with UK, EU or overseas qualifications who have or are on track to obtain at least a 2.1 (or equivalent) in one of the following subjects:

  • Archaeology
  • Botany
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Science
  • Environmental Studies
  • Geography
  • Geology

Candidates with extensive field and/or laboratory experience in a relevant vocation may also be considered for entry, but will be required to demonstrate proficiency in theoretical aspects of the subject.


English language requirements:

IELTS 6.5 overall with 6.5 in writing and no subscore below 5.5

If you require Royal Holloway to sponsor your study in the UK, your IELTS must be a UK government-approved Secure English Language Test (SELT)

International and EU entry requirements

Please select your country from the drop-down list below

Students from overseas should visit the International pages for information on the entry requirements from their country and further information on English language requirements. Royal Holloway offers a Pre-Master’s Diploma for International Students and English language pre-sessional courses, allowing students the opportunity to develop their study skills and English language before starting their postgraduate degree.

Study Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway and you’ll graduate with excellent employability prospects. Our recent alumni have gone on to enjoy careers in the British Geological Survey, Natural England, the Environment Agency, journal publishing houses, Research Councils, environmental archaeology and museums, as well as academic positions within universities. 

Over the past decade, around 70% of Quaternary Science graduates have gone on to study at PhD level, with the Royal Holloway Centre for Quaternary Science providing opportunities to participate in internationally significant research programmes.

  • 90% of Royal Holloway graduates in work or further education within six months of graduating.
  • Strong opportunities for postgraduate training and research, and active links with potential employers.

Home and EU students tuition fee per year 2017/18*: £8,300

Overseas students tuition fee per year 2017/18*: £17,000

Other essential costs**: Students should anticipate additional costs of between £200 to £400, allowing for different travel options.

How do I pay for it? Find out more about funding options, including loans, grants, scholarships and bursaries.

* These tuition fees apply to students enrolled on a full-time basis. Students studying part-time are charged a pro-rata tuition fee, usually equivalent to approximately half the full-time fee. Please email student-fees@royalholloway.ac.uk for further information on part-time fees. All postgraduate fees are subject to inflationary increases. Royal Holloway's policy is that any increases in fees will not exceed 5 per cent for continuing students. For further information see tuition fees and our terms and conditions.

** These estimated costs relate to studying this particular degree programme at Royal Holloway. Costs, such as accommodation, food, books and other learning materials and printing, have not been included.

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