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Quaternary Science MSc

UCAS code
Year of entry
Course length
1 year full time
2 years part time
Geography »
Location of study
Main Campus (Egham) »

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.

Core modules

Quaternary Sedimentology and Stratigraphy

In this module you will develop an understanding of the processes that lead to the accumulation of sediment sequences, becoming familiar with the strengths and limitations of sediment sequences as archives of palaeoenvironmental change. You will learn how to record sediment characteristics and attributes in the field and explain the main techniques used to construct terrestrial stratigraphies. You will consider the issues associated with constructing stratigraphies within the fragmented terrestrial record and examine the problems of relating these stratigraphies to climatic events in the continuous marine isotopic record. You will also analyse the use of terrestrial stratigraphies in interpreting climatic events and transitions.

Quaternary Paleoclimatology

In this module you will develop an understanding of the nature and process of climate forcing factors during the Quaternary, including external factors, such as tectonics and orbital forcing, and internal factors, such as ocean circulation, ice sheets, and greenhouses gases. You will look at the archives available to provide Quaternary palaeoclimate records, including ocean and lake sediments, ice cores, and tree trings, and how available proxies are used to reconstruct past climate, such as stable isotopes, microfossils, sedimentology, radiogenic isotopes and biomakers. You will examine the modelling methods used to reconstruct past climate, such as box, intermediate complexity, and the general circumlation model (GCM), and gain an overview of Quaternary climate thesholds, cycles and major events, including onset of Northern Hemisphere glaiation, intensification of the Walker circulation, and the Mid-Pleistocene revolution. 

Palaeoecology, Dating and Quantification

In this module you will develop an understanding of important palaeoecological proxy methods used to reconstruct Quaternary environments and biotic assemblages. You will look at the methods used to obtain quantitative estimates of past environmental conditions using palaeoecological data. You will consider the principal methods used to date Quaternary sequences and their limitations, and combine these with chronological data in order to construct realistic age models from which the timing, rate and persistence of environmental changes can be inferred. You will also examine how these procedures and their outcomes fit into the wider models of past environmental change and their potential for testing models of future environmental change.

Techniques of Quaternary Research

In this module you will develop an understanding of the essential field techniques used in Quaternary research, including remote sensing, surveying, maping, coring and other methods. You will learn how to integrate field data and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) with geographical information systems (GID) to generate and interpret landform models. You will become proficient in the use of graphics for Quaternary sediment logs and other purposes, and consider how you present information, both orally and in the form of webpage design. You will also look at approaches to mapping and interpretting landforms and sediments in the field, acquiring a backbground in the history of glaciations in Scotland ahead of the fieldwork you will conduct in the Highlands.

Oral Presentation

In this module you will develop your oral presentation skills. You will explain and critically evaluate the context, methods, main findings and academic significance of a piece of research in Quaternary science to an audience composed of experts in this field. You will need to synthesise, present, analyse and interpret different types of Quaternary Science data, and the audience will be invited to ask questions following your presentation.

Field Training Programme

In this module you will plan and conduct field-based investigations that address key modern research questions in Quaternary Science. You will visit the Western Highlands of Scotland, spending a sustained period in the field to gain in-depth experience of a range of field methods, including landform mapping, instrumental surveying, sub-surface coring, straigraphic logging and applied numerical modeling. You will look at the extent, timing, rate and causes of growth and demise of the last glaciers to occupt the Western Highlands. You will work as part of a team for the integration of linked field invetigations and data synthesis, and give an oral presentation of your field-based experimental results under mock-conference constraints. You will also present your research results in poster form.


You will design, execute and report a piece of professional-level research in an area of Quaternary science of your choosing. You will identify and conceptualise your research question, and undertake fieldwork and laboratory analysis in order to collect, synthesise and interpret different types of Quaternary sicence data. A member of academic staff will act as your supervisor, and you will be expected to give an oral presentation of your dissertation proposal to the wider department. You will provide a project plan which outlines the timescales and resources required to successfully complete your investigation, and for laboratory-based disserations you may receive direct training in specialist techniques from your supervisor. Your final submission will include a written report that includes maps and graphic presentations of your results.

Optional modules

In addition to these mandatory course units there are a number of optional course units available during your degree studies. The following is a selection of optional course units that are likely to be available. Please note that although the College will keep changes to a minimum, new units may be offered or existing units may be withdrawn, for example, in response to a change in staff. Applicants will be informed if any significant changes need to be made.

Quaternary Palynology

In this module you will develp an understanding of the theory and methodology of Quaternary pollen analysis. You will look at 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. You will consider the strengths and the weaknesses of pollen analysis as a tool in Quaternary research and examine the factors which influence the assessment and interpretation of pollen-analytical data.


In this module you will develop an understanding of the use of coleoptera as environmental and climatic indicators. You will look at the recovery and extraction of insect remains from sediments and their identification using comparative collections and published keys. You will consider their use for stratigraphical correlation and quantification of past conditions using approaches such as the mutual climatic range method (MCR). You will examine the reasons for discrepancies between palaeoclimatic reconstructuions derived from different palaecological data sets, and assess the limitations of using insect remains for stratigraphic correlation. 

Micromorphology of Quaternary Sediments

In thsi module you will develop an understanding of the application of micromorphology in the study of ancient sediments and soils. You look at how sections are sampled in the field and laboratory, learing how thin section are manufactured, the timescales for the preparation of the slides, and the costs associated with their production. You will consider the use of petrological microscopes for the desciption of Quaternary sediments and the use of descriptive techniques and summary sheets for communicating the findings of microscale analsis. You will make process-based interpretations of thins section to develop a palaenviornmental reconstruction and critically examine the micromophological techqniue in a variety of sedimentological contexts.

Theory and Applications of Luminescence Dating

In this module you will develop an understanding of the processes of lumiescence signal accumulation, storage and stimulation. You will look at the methodologies used to isolate and measure the luminescence signal of minerals commonly used in luminescence dating. You will consider the principles, forms and reliability of environmental dose rate evaluation and produce equivalent dose and environmental dose rate values, with associated values of statistical uncertainty, and hence lumniscence age estimates. 

Quaternary Microfossils

In this module you will develop an understanding of the basic taxonomy and identification techniques associated with a selection of microfossil groups. You will look at the key strengths and weaknesses relating to diatoms, foraminifera and testae amoebae when undertaking Quarternary invesigations. You will collect, present and interpret data from these groups, and apply the principles of microfossil analysis to produce Quaternary environmental reconstructions.

Quaternary Mammals

In this module you will develop a theoretical and practical understanding of the value of mammalian fossil material in Quaternary studies and its use in Paleolithic zooarachaeology. You will look at site formation processes and techniques for the collection, processing and analysis of fossil vertebrate remains. You will learn basic identification skills in a number of key fossil vertebrate groups and consider the nature of the vertebrate fossil record with regard to taphnomy. You will consider Pleistocene vertebrate faunal histories and their use in biostratigraphy and palaecological reconstruction, examining early hominin practices relating to mammlian remains.

Late Quaternary Palaeohydrology

In this module you will develop an understanding of the key issues in Late Pleistocene glacial meltwater palaeohydrology and Holocene alluvial systems. You will consider how Late Pleistocene meltwater pulses influence palaeocilmate and the role of glacial lake outburst floods in causing regional to local scale catastrophic changes in landscape. You will look at the roles of allogenic veruses autogenic drivers of change in Late Quaternanry fluvial systems, including control on fluvial terrace formaiton and preservation. You will also examine Holocene climate change and flooding through evidence from palaeoflood hydrology, using geomorphological mapping and coring, and floodplain stratigraphy, to recostruct floodplain environments. 

Chironomids and Environmental Change

In this module you will develop an understanding of the methods of, and problems associated with, chironomid identification. You will look at the occurence, biology and ecology of chironomids, considering the limitations and advantages of chironomid data in various environmental and palaeoenivronmental contexts. You examine the use of chironomids in palaeoecology to reconstruct and quantify climate change, eutrophication and acidification, and compare use of chironomodis with other environmental indicators.

Glaciers in the Climate System

In this module you will develop an understanding of the techniques used for constraining past and present glacier dynamics. You will look at the physical processes of ice flow and mass balance, considering the limitations and advantages of reconstructing past ice sheets from glaciological and glacial geoloical data. You will examine the key principles of ice-sheet and glacier modelling using quantitative geographical information systems (GIS) and remote sensing of glaciers. You will analyse the role which glaciers and ice sheets play within the climate and ocean system, and see how radar data is used to understand their dynamics and thermal regime. 

Quaternary Tephrochronology

In this module you will develop an understanding of the scientific underpinnings of tephrostratigraphy and tephrochronology. You will look at the methodologies used to identify and correlate tephra, considering the potential for improving age model by integrating tephra with other dating and correlation methods. You will learn how to extract distal ash from host sediments, idenitfy microscopic tephra and evaluate tephra chemical data. You will also examine how to integrate tephra with various dating methods. 


In this module you will develop an understanding of sediment charcoal analysis in Quaternary records. You will look at the present distribution of fires in different biomes, considering relative environmental drivers, such as climate, vegitation and human interaction. You will assess the temporal evolution of fire, and the mechanisms maintaining natural and antropogenic systems. You will also examine fire ecology in key biodiversity hotspots, the impact of fire on vegetation structure and composition, and learn learn basic programming skills in R.

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:

UK 2:1 (Honours) degree or equivalent in a relevant subject.

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.  For equivalencies, please see here

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 2018/19*: £8,500

International students tuition fee per year 2018/19*: £17,500

Other essential costs**: You should budget between £200 and £400 for travel to fieldwork sites

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% 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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