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Quaternary Science (MSc)

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Course overview

This course offers comprehensive and flexible postgraduate training in the established yet dynamic field of Quaternary science, with the academic emphasis being on the time-dependent processes affecting environmental change.  

By the end of the course you will have acquired and demonstrated specialist disciplinary knowledge and understanding of key issues pertaining to Quaternary science, in particular the core linking themes of high-resolution palaeoenvironmental records, high-precision dating, and multi-proxy approaches to the investigation of past environmental changes.

You will also be provided with advanced training in techniques used to assess the causes, scale and rapidity of past climate and environmental fluctuations; encompassing field, laboratory, statistical and computing methods used in the acquisition, interpretation and modelling of proxy climatic and environmental data.

Key facts

Key facts about the course
Qualification Master of Science
Duration 1 year full-time or 2 years part-time
Department and Faculty Geography, Faculty of Science
Partner institution(s) --
Course director Dr Simon Armitage
+44(0)1784 276124
Contact for more information Liz Hamilton and Karen Oliver
Postgraduate Administrators
+44(0)1784 443563

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 a relevant subject (e.g. Geology, Geography, Environmental Science/Studies, Botany, Ecology, Archaeology).

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 a minimum of 5.5 in all other subscores. For equivalencies please see here

This course would be suitable for graduates of, for example, Biology, Physical Geography, Geology, Ecology, Archaeology, Oceanography and Environmental Science who wish to develop or augment a background in global environmental history and processes.

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 are interviewed individually and are required to supply a supporting statement as part of their application, highlighting their training, interests and commitment to Quaternary Science. Students unable to attend, such as overseas students, will be interviewed by telephone.

A successful applicant will usually have the following qualities:

  • undergraduate training or professional experience in the broad field of environmental, landscape or climate change
  • relevant fieldwork and/or laboratory skills
  • basic statistical knowledge (desirable but not essential).

Why choose this course?

  • The staff and facilities of the Centre for Quaternary Research (CQR) at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL) provide a wide range of opportunities for postgraduate training and research 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.
  • The Department 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 Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recognizes this course as "Excellent". 
  • You will be provided with the temporal perspective necessary for the understanding of many contemporary environmental issues, such as climate change, biological responses to environmental change and soil erosion. 
  • The distinctive aspects of the research at the CQR are the emphases on high-precision dating, multiproxy palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, quantitative palaeoclimate estimates, high resolution stratigraphy/sedimentology and the influence of Quaternary climate change on early human evolution and dispersal.

Department research and industry highlights

The CQR was established in 1990 and has grown to become one of the leading international research centres in Quaternary science.

Since its inception the CQR has attracted funding from an increasingly diverse range of sources (NERC, AHRC, ESRC, Leverhulme Trust, EC Framework Programs, British Academy). Major research partnerships and initiatives have been forged (e.g. with the Natural History Museum, Museum of London, British Geological Society, English Heritage and Oxford University), which are fostering important advances in understanding Quaternary landscape evolution, quantitative palaeoclimate reconstruction, geochronology, biostratigraphy and Palaeolithic and environmental archaeology. The CQR has also benefited from recent £1.5M SRIF investment in laboratory refurbishment that has enhanced the centre’s research capabilities in OSL dating, tephrochronology, analytical chemistry and soil micromorphology.

Course content and structure

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

Core course units:

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.

Elective course units:

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.

On completion of the course graduates will have:

acquired and demonstrated specialist disciplinary knowledge and understanding of key issues pertaining to Quaternary Science, in particular the core linking themes of: 

  • high-resolution palaeoenvironmental records
  • high-precision dating
  • multi-proxy approaches to the investigation of past environmental changes.


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


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

Employability & career opportunities

Destinations of our graduates include 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. This course also equips you with a solid foundation for continued PhD studies; around 70% of Quaternary Science graduates over the last decade have gone on to a PhD. 


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