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Earth Sciences (MSc by Research)

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Course overview

This course will provide you with the opportunity to carry out an independent research project under the supervision of our leading academics.

You will receive training in research methods and take a taught course unit in a relevant subject area. The research topic for your project is agreed with a supervisor in advance and can be in any area of the expertise in the department research groups. The project outline will be developed in consultation with your supervisor and project work is carried out in parallel with the taught courses, becoming full-time during the third term.

This Master’s by Research will provide you with a suitable background to work as a research assistant or as the grounding for further study towards a PhD.

Key facts

Key facts about the course
Qualification Master of Science by Research
Duration One year full-time or two years part-time
Department and Faculty Earth Sciences, Faculty of Science
Partner institution(s) --
Course director Margaret Collinson
Contact for more information Postgraduate Courses Coordinator
+44(0)1784 443581

Fees / funding

Please visit the Fees and funding pages for the latest information about tuition fees and the different sources of funding which may be available to you.

How to apply

Applications for entry to all our full-time postgraduate degrees can be made online.

Further information on making an application, including the documentation that you will need to submit with the application is available in the How to apply section of this site.

If you are interested in applying to Royal Holloway, why not arrange a visit to our campus to see for yourself what academic and student life is like here. More information on arranging visits is available on our Open days pages.


Entry requirements

Entry criteria:

UK Lower Second Class Honours degree (2:2), or equivalent, in geology, geophysics or a cognate subject.


English language requirements:

IELTS 6.5 overall and a minimum of 5.5 in all subscores. For equivalencies, please see here | |



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.

Additional requirements:

  • All applicants will be invited for an interview; those unable to attend, such as overseas students, will be interviewed by telephone or online.

Why choose this course?

  • This course is ideal for graduates in geology and related sciences who wish to carry out independent research over a shorter time period than is possible in a doctorate (PhD) programme. It allows you study at Master's level an aspect of the geological sciences which may not be catered for by specialist MSc programmes.
  • You will be involved at every step of the research project - from planning and sample collection, laboratory work, result analysis, to writing your dissertation.
  • It is ideal preparation if you are interested in studying for a PhD, but would like to have further preparation and training.
  • In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), the Department of Earth Science’s research was ranked equal 6th in the UK with 70% rated as world-leading or internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • The Department has up-to-date computer interpretation facilities, a full range of modern geochemical laboratories including XRF, quadrupole and multicollector ICP Mass Spectrometry, atmospheric chemistry and a new excimer laser ablation facility, excellent structural modelling laboratories, palaeontology and sedimentology laboratories.

Department research and industry highlights

The Department of Earth Sciences has research expertise in the following areas:

Dr J Adam
Key Research Topics:
Coupled tectonic, climate and erosion/sedimentation processes in thrust belts, accretionary wedges, and sedimentary basins; salt tectonics in intra-continental and passive margin sedimentary basins; physical simulation of rock deformation from basin to fracture scale; fault mechanics in structurally complex basins and fractured reservoirs; neotectonics and geohazards at continental margins.

Dr D H M Alderton
Key Research Topics:
Epithermal mineral deposits in the Carpathians and Dinarides - character and genesis; granite-hosted tin-tungsten-beryllium-molybdenum mineralization; hydrocarbon fluids in coal-bearing sedimentary basins; the environmental effects of acid mine drainage.

Professor D Bosence
Key Research Topics:
Carbonate sedimentology and diagenesis; basinal settings of carbonate platforms; high-frequency cyclicity in peritidal carbonates, global distribution of carbonate grain types; stratigraphic forward modelling of carbonate platforms; image analysis of pore systems in carbonate rocks.

Dr K Clemitshaw
Key Research Topics:
Analysis and interpretation of ground-based observations of primary (NO & NO_2 ) and secondary (NO_2 & O_3 ) pollutants on urban- and regional-scales; formation and loss processes for HONO in urban, rural and remote atmospheres; atmospheric chemistry, transport and impacts of organic nitrates.

Professor M E Collinson
Key Research Topics:
Evolution of English Palaeogene land ecosystems; biomolecular palaeobotany: the geochemical characterisation of cuticles and propagules; use of oxygen isotopes from biogenic phosphates in palaeoclimate determination; taphonomy and the fate of plants; tertiary floras, vegetation and climate; palaeogene palynology; fern palaeobiology; plant mesofossils at the K/T boundary; animal/plant interactions in the fossil record; global change across the K/T, palaeocene/eocene and eocene/oligocene boundaries; evolution and functional biology of ancient plants; evolutionary pattern in plant assemblages; biological self assembly.

Dr G Eagles
Key Research Topics:
High resolution plate kinematic modelling; large gridded data compilations; dynamic topography; ocean gateway processes; plate tectonics and paleoceanography

Professor C F Elders
Key Research Topics:
Tectonic evolution of the North Sea, the Atlantic Margin, the Caledonides and SE Asia.

Professor A Gudmundsson
Key Research Topics:
Volcanotectonics, dyke emplacement and caldera formation; Seismotectonics, development of seismogenic faults; Reservoirs of oil, gas, ground water, and geothermal water; Rock fractures in geological processes.

Professor R Hall
Key Research Topics:
SE Asia and SW Pacific Cenozoic tectonics, island arc evolution biogeography of SE Asia, tectonics, climate and tropical sedimentation.

Dr Martin King
Key research Topics:
Snowpack and sea-ice photo-chemistry, atmospheric aerosol – laboratory and field studies, neutron scattering and laser tweezers, quantum-mechanical simulation of mineral surfaces.

Dr D Lowry
Key Research Topics:
Stable isotopic studies of greenhouse gases and their emission sources, and of mantle derived mineralisation; isotopic and geochemical studies of Neoproterozoic rocks from Scotland and Ireland.

Dr D P Mattey
Key Research Topics:
Application of stable isotope geochemistry to geological and environmental problems; development of instrumentation and techniques for stable isotope microanalysis; origin and role of fluids and volatiles in the mantle and lower crust; petrogenesis of diamonds.

Professor K R McClay
Key Research Topics:
Basin evolution; thrust tectonics; extensional tectonics; strike-slip tectonics; inversion tectonics; sediment-hosted base metal deposits.

Professor M A Menzies
Key Research Topics:
Conjugate rifted margins, magmatism & tectonics, craton keel, Red Sea margins, Red River Fault China

Dr W Mueller
Key Research Topics:
Isotope geochemistry and applications in environmental and archaeological geoscience (i.e. tracing human origins).

Dr G J Nichols
Key Research Topics:
Clastic sedimentology and sedimentary basin analysis; climatic and tectonic controls on sedimentation; fluvial sedimentology.

Professor E G Nisbet
Key Research Topics:
Archaean geology, global change.

Professor A C Scott
Key Research Topics:
Fire in the environment; fossil fuels; the evolution of vegetation and terrestrial ecosystems; the preservation and fate of plants in the fossil record; history of geology and palaeontology; the entombment and preservation of plants by volcanic eruptions.

Professor M F Thirlwall
Key Research Topics:
Isotope geochemistry of Ocean Island, Subduction Zone and Ocean Ridge igneous rocks; mantle evolution; geochronology; evolution of the British Caledonides; analytical geochemistry; sr isotope stratigraphy; depleted uranium in the environment.

Dr D A Waltham
Key Research Topics:
All aspects of mathematical and computer modelling in geology and geophysics.

Recent MSc by Research projects in the department include:

  • Kinematics and Control Mechanism of Post-Rift Extensional Structures in Passive Margin Salt Basins, Jequitinhonha Basin, Brazil: Insights from Seismic Interpretation and Scaled Analogue Modeling
  • A 500k speleothem record from New St Michaels Cave, Gibraltar: Flowstone genesis, geochemistry and glacial terminations
  • A study of the Tertiary and Quaternary Geological Hazards in the North of Shetland Region.
  • Hengill central volcano: its relationship to the Icelandic Western Rift Zone.

Course content and structure

The course consists of the following three components:

A Research Study Skills Course Unit

  • Personal research skills (e.g. safety, time and project management, teamwork)
  • IT skills (e.g. literature retrieval, web authoring, databases, modelling)
  • Data analysis skills (e.g. statistical methods, GIS systems, sampling techniques)
  • Communication skills (e.g. posters, oral presentation, writing papers, web pages)
  • Subject-specific skills and techniques. These amount to 55% of the research skills assessment, and for example may include parts of specialist taught courses (see below), a training course on the theory and practice of chemical and isotopic analysis, or other training arranged by the project supervisor. This will include training for research in the general field of the research project, not solely what is needed to carry out the project. 

A Specialist Taught Course Unit
You will choose an advanced taught course unit relevant to the subject area of your research project. The following taught units are currently offered:

  • Applied Sedimentology and Stratigraphy
  • Pollution Sources and Pathways
  • Oceans and Atmospheres
  • Risk and Environmental Management
  • Geographical Information Systems
  • Environmental Inorganic Analysis
  • Contaminants in the Environment
  • Advanced Igneous Petrogenesis
  • Seismic Processing and Interpretation
  • Geodynamics and Plate Tectonics
  • Interpretation of Structural Settings
  • Coal Geology
  • Petroleum Geology and Evaluation
  • Terrestrial Palaeoecology
  • Palaeoclimates

Research Project
The project may be on any topic which is within the broad research themes of the Department. You will be linked to a potential supervisor at the application stage and, in consultation with the supervisor, you will develop a detailed project outline during the first half of the first term. Project work is then carried out in parallel with taught courses during terms one and two, becoming the full-time activity after Easter. A bound dissertation is submitted for examination in early September. 

On completion of the course graduates will have:

  • an advanced knowledge and understanding of a variety of analytical, technical, numerical, modelling and interpretive techniques applicable to the specific field of earth sciences
  • the articulation of knowledge and the understanding of published work, concepts and theories in the chosen field of earth sciences at an advanced level
  • the acquisition of knowledge from published work in the chosen area of earth sciences to a level appropriate for a MSc degree.

View the full course specification for Earth Sciences (MSc by Research) in the Programme Specification Repository


Research Study Skills: this is assessed by coursework and theory examination and will include short written assignments, a seminar, worksheets and practical tests. These assessments contribute 12.5% of the course marks.

Specialist Taught Course Units: these are mostly assessed by a written, theory examination and coursework. The unit assessment contributes 12.5% of the course marks.

Research Project: the project dissertation must be submitted in early September. It will be marked by both an internal and an external examiner, and will be defended at an oral examination with both examiners. The project assessment contributes 75% of the course marks.

Employability & career opportunities

Subject to agreement and suitable funding, MSc by Research students can transfer to the MPhil/PhD programme at Royal Holloway. They may use the research carried out for the MSc towards the PhD, and count the time spent towards MPhil/PhD registration requirements, provided that the MSc research forms a coherent part of the PhD, and that the transfer is approved prior to submission of the MSc research dissertation.


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