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  • Science
  • Geology
  • Professor

John Stix

Job Title
Professor of Volcanology, Dawson Chair of Geology
McGill University
Montreal, QC
$100,000 - $120,000
Dartmouth College B.A., Geology
University of Toronto Ph.D., Geology

And more broadly, if you have a passion, follow it. Follow your instincts.

The Profession

Volcanology is basically the study of the earth, in the sense that volcanoes are conduits from the deep earth to the surface to the atmosphere. It’s a way to study the earth’s processes, in terms of the magma from deep down, to the surface. And of course, it’s the study of how volcanoes behave. They can behave in very different ways. We’re trying to understand how they behave, how they become active, when they become active, trying to forecast eruptions. Things like these are all very important.

And then there are other aspects of volcanology, such as geothermal energy. Geothermal energy is basically the unique heat of the earth. The earth is hot in and around volcanoes, so if you visit a geothermal power plant, it’s typically associated with a young volcanic system. Geothermic systems provide electricity, power, and so forth in certain parts of the world—in California for example. And many times, metallic ore deposits—deposits of coal or copper or zinc, for example—are also associated with volcanoes and volcanic activity. So there’s an economic aspect in volcanology as well.

I don’t so much study the economic aspects, although some of my colleagues do. I’ve done a little bit of that and I’ve done a little geothermal, but I’m most interested in how volcanoes work. Volcanology is a pretty broad field. There are of course active volcanoes today around the world, but when people look for ore deposits—copper deposits and so forth—they’re looking at older volcanic rocks, rocks might be tens of millions of years old, or even older. So the study of these volcanic rocks and volcanoes goes back in time quite a ways.

What I’m interested in is volcanic gasses. Forecasting eruptions is definitely part of my work. Looking at the gasses can tell us something about what might be happening to a volcano: what changes might be happening in terms of volcanic gas composition, in terms of volcanic activity, in terms of predicting or forecasting an eruption. It helps us understand why a volcano is doing what it’s doing.

The Hardest Parts

One challenging part would be when students are experiencing a problem or there’s conflict somewhere—maybe between myself and the student, or maybe the student is being co-supervised by two professors and there’s a conflict. Or the research isn’t going right, or the student is upset about something else. There could be any number of issues. Identifying the issue and then having a conversation: it’s challenging for sure, but important to try to resolve. Issues inevitably come up when you have people who are working closely together and a lot depends on the research. Sometimes it’s successful and sometimes some parts are not successful. It can be very stressful.

Money matters can be a big issue, too. Graduate students get a stipend, but sometimes it’s not enough. Or they need extra money. Any number of money concerns can come up, and those can be stressors for students. Those kinds of situations can be difficult, and they have to be worked through in a systematic way to fix the situation, or if you can’t fix it, make it a bit better. Those are challenging.

When you start off as an academic, all of a sudden you realize you’ve gone from “me”—up until now you’ve done everything for yourself—to be responsible for others, for students. You’re starting to build a research group, which usually takes a few years. In my own experience, and also watching other academics, it’s a real learning experience for the academic. The person will always make a mistake. I remember making mistakes and assigning way too much work for my first students. Looking back, it’s like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I asked this person to do this much work!”

It’s not something that happens instantaneously, that’s for sure. I think it probably happens over—if I had to give a number—a good ten years, that transition from being focused on you and your own research to having a broader perspective. The feeling that, okay, my successes aren’t just from myself. My successes are due to my students doing this work, getting these good papers published, and getting these good grants.

It’s a real work in progress that occurs from the beginning of when a person becomes an academic to after they get tenure when they probably are still figuring things out in terms of what works for them and their research group. And everyone has their own style. There is a lot of variabilities, but at the same time, we do have some successful ways to approach supervising students. Some people are clueless when they first arrive. For many academics, all they have to go on is their own personal experience. Once they get into it, they can talk to colleagues and watch them. In a sense, it’s a continual process from start to finish, from being hired to retirement.

There may be a few more jobs available in the sciences compared to the humanities, but the [academic] jobs are few and far between. I think it is important for students to realize that getting a job in academia is definitely not a done deal. And if you do get a job, it’ll be a combination of how good you are, what they’re looking for, and some very ill-defined criteria that are not too clear to somebody who’s applying. And then some luck, too: being in the right place at the right time. I think it would be a disservice to students to say that when you graduate, you’re going to be an academic. If that’s what you really want, you’re going to have to fight for it. Keep your options open and look around at what else is available to you, outside of academia. Academia is not for everybody, and getting a position is super hard.

Of my recent students, in the past ten or fifteen years, a few are in academia. Some master's students start in the master's track and then transfer over to a Ph.D., but I have quite a number of students who do the masters and end up in the private sector, which is what they’re usually looking for. Sometimes government as well.

Of my Ph.D. students, there’s one guy working for a company, another who has been a replacement professor and struggling to get a full position. He hasn’t really been successful and may have to go into industry or the private sector. There’s another student of mine who went looking for diamonds, which worked out really well for her. She’s super happy since she wasn’t really that keen on academia. There’re a number of jobs out there that are possible and beyond academia.

I’ve got one student right now who’s really focused on becoming a professor, and she’s good. She’s really, really good. I think there’s a good chance that she’ll get a position. But it’s tricky. I remember I had a postdoc a few years ago, and he was really good, too. He was a postdoc with me for four years, which is kinda long. He started looking around a little late, and he ended up getting an academic job but it wasn’t exactly what he wanted. I think he’s about 75% happy in the position that he has right now. It’s tricky and can be a stressor for sure.

The Best Parts

For me, it’s being out in the field and working with students and colleagues. That’s really a lot of fun. In an ideal world, I’d spend half the year doing that kind of thing. That’s not really practical, but it really is the most fun for me. I think if you asked a physicist or a chemist—they don’t do much fieldwork, but I think many of them would say it’s really great to be working with students in the lab, designing the experiments, scratching our collective heads trying to figure out a specific problem. The specifics are different from one science discipline to another, but I think other people in my position would be saying similar things to the question, “What’s the most rewarding thing?” It’s working with the students on their research projects. Doing the hands-on work and building relationships.

How I Got Here

My undergraduate major was geology, but I was actually interested in rocks way back when, when I was in grade school in New York City. I had a really good teacher in 8th grade who taught a course in earth science. It was a really fun course: he would take us out into the field, usually on weekends, to look for fossils or look at different types of rocks and geologies. It was a hands-on class: we did the field trips, and then in class, he’d pass around rocks and we would look at them and do a few simple tests. We had a hand lens, so we’d look at the details, and we’d scratch the rocks to see how hard they were. There were just a few simple, systematic tests that you would do to identify the type of rock or mineral. I liked the idea of that. It was very tangible and not too abstract, compared to math or something like that. And it was so different compared to anything I had done up to that point.

You hear stories from people about how they got turned onto different subjects because of a really great teacher. There’s definitely truth in that. For me, it was probably this course. It just struck a chord in me. That happens to some people, but other people find their passion in a different way and at a different time.

In high school, I took another earth science class, which I really enjoyed. I remember getting to university and thinking, “Oh yeah, this is a very interesting field . . .” I hadn’t really decided what I would major in at that point, but I was like, “I’ll definitely take geology courses. And if I like them, maybe I’ll major in them.” And that’s basically what happened.

When I graduated from university, I wanted to work for a bit. Make some money and see what it was like to be in the workforce, check it out, and see if I liked it or not. I remember saying to myself, “If I like it beyond just academia, if I like working in the field, then I’ll go back to grad school. If I don’t like it, then I’ll do something else.” So I worked for a couple of years. I had a job in New Mexico looking for geothermal energy. After about two years of work, I was ready to go back to school and start a master’s degree. I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a geologist. I liked my work but it was sort of a term thing—it wasn’t a permanent job. I think there was a practical aspect to going back to school. But it was mostly thinking, “I need to start specializing in something.” But I wasn’t even thinking about a Ph.D. at that point, and I wasn’t even really sure what field within geology.

At that point, too, I wasn’t even interested in volcanology—it was more sedimentary rocks. But when I was doing my master’s, I ended up working on these really old rocks. You think you’ve chosen specialization, and that’s going to be your specialization. But it turns out not to be true at all. I actually changed quite a bit. When I worked, when I did my master’s, then when I did my Ph.D.: they were all very different kinds of projects. It wasn’t all the same thing. As I was going on, my interests were changing at the same time. And that turned out to not be a problem.

A Typical Day

I do a lot of fieldwork, and my students do a lot of fieldwork. Over the course of a year, I might be out in the field for 1-2 months, typically for a week at a time. I might be out with one of my graduate students, working with them, getting them started on their project. The rest of the time I’ll be back in the office or in the lab, doing my research and doing my teaching there.

It’s very typical at McGill, and at other universities as well, that the professor is involved in his or her group of graduate students, which is typically a group of three or more—five, sometimes up to ten. It varies a lot, from one professor to another. They have their group of graduate students working on different research projects. And then they are teaching at the undergraduate level. Sometimes undergraduates who are interested can get involved in the research as well.

Some of the places I’ve been to this year: I was in Costa Rica twice this year, once in March and once again in May. In March, I was on a field trip with students, and in May we were doing field research. Each trip was about a week or so in length. I was at a volcano called Stromboli, in Italy, in June, again for about a week or so. Then I was in the United Kingdom for a talk at the University of Liverpool.

This fall, I’m not traveling much. I’m going to Maine to look at some very old rocks: 300 or 400 million years old, but they’re very well preserved. They’re not volcanic rocks: they’re actually rocks beneath volcanoes. But they’re very useful to show students some interesting relationships of the rocks, so they can learn how things are working underneath a volcano. So the field is quite varied in terms of where we go and the kinds of research projects that are going on.

There are no set places that I go to all the time. Right now, I’m spending a lot of time in Costa Rica, although I’ve worked in South America before—Colombia and Ecuador. I’ve worked out in the western US, not with active volcanoes but with fairly young systems out there. Sometimes I go back to places, especially for field trips with students, but I usually plan out my schedule about a year in advance. And then, of course, things can always come up on shorter notices.

In the lab, we actually try to make mini-volcanoes. We might try to model a magma chamber by using a tank of water or water mixed with corn syrup or something like that. Sometimes when we’re looking at surface processes, we actually use sand. We do these sandbox experiments because when you scale the lab values up to nature and is a very good material for understanding the properties of the crust. Other people use gelatin, jelly, silly putty. People use a lot of funny materials to try to simulate natural systems. It’s really interesting.

I don’t do a lot of that, but I do encourage my students to try to do many experiments so they have a broad base. For me, the ideal student is someone who’s done fieldwork and lab work and chemical analyses with different instruments, who’s played around with experiments, and who’s maybe done some numerical modeling as well. They have that broad base and broad knowledge of these different things that you can do to understand and figure out a problem. Most students don’t come out with all these skills, but as long as someone comes out with a taste, that’s a great thing.

Science is very—how would I describe it? People get involved in a lot of different things, so you have to be very nimble. “What are the other ways I can solve this problem? Maybe instead of this technique, I should try this. But I don’t know anything about this!” And the supervisor says, “Well, neither do I, but I think you’re right. What about this colleague of ours? Maybe we can collaborate with this person.” So the student goes off for a month or two and does work in another institution. That’s a very typical way in which things are done these days.

Another big thing in science, in general, is trying to do outreach to the broader community, so they can better understand the weird things that you’re doing and see why the work you’re doing is important. I have one really great student—not only is she a great student, but she’s really good at outreach. She’s made some amazing videos and she has an interest in making her stuff accessible to other people. On my website, you can see the videos. It’s not something that I’m very good at—she’s much better than I am, but I really encourage it. I always say to my students, “You guys are so much better than I am when it comes to social media! You should really think about doing a three-minute video about your work.” Honestly, many students don’t do it, but a few do. And a couple do it really well. The videos are so good!

I see students who come to do a master’s with me: some of them may have been working for a couple of years, some of them may have come right out of undergraduate and just want to keep ongoing. They’re really motivated and ready to go. I remember when I was finishing my undergraduate, how I really wanted a break! I wanted to get out of school for a bit. I thought there was a pretty good chance that I would go back to grad school, but when I was finishing university I just wanted to stop and get out. Just watching students, the way they decide to do things is highly variable and very dependent on the individual. I don’t think I would be able to say that one path is better. People figure it out for themselves. Of course, they’re trying to get advice from other people, but there’s no one size fits all.

Sometimes the individual doesn’t quite know what they want to do. Some people still haven’t quite figured out for themselves. “Oh yeah, I think I should do a master’s, but in what?” Somebody might be looking around at his or her peers and friends, and they’re all going to grad school, so they feel they should, too, but they’re not quite sure in what. That’s a hard thing to figure out sometimes when you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re going toward. I think a lot of people, start out with some uncertainty and then things fall into place. But that doesn’t happen to everybody.

I had one student who wasn’t too interested in fieldwork, but her research project for her master's did involve fieldwork. I got the impression from looking at her, the way she was doing things, that she wasn’t very inspired by the whole thing. I was a little concerned about that. But she got her degree—got her master’s so that all worked out fine. And I’ve heard from the grapevine that she’s working for the mining companies and doing a lot of fieldwork and apparently really enjoying it. So go figure! Maybe she realized afterward, “I do enjoy doing this stuff.” Or maybe it’s a self-confidence thing. You do your master’s and get your first job, you’re given these responsibilities and all goes well. And then you move on to another job or another project, and that also goes well. So you start to build confidence, and maybe things start to fall into place.

It’s true of almost any field that you have to do some grunt work, whether it’s a law school or anything else. I think fundamentally if you’re feeling that the overall time and energy and money that they’re spending on the venture is overall worth the effort. And if somebody doesn’t feel that way, if they are struggling through and not really having fun at any point, then maybe they’re in the wrong field and they should stop. Cut your losses and do something else. It’s not that common, and it’s a very hard decision to take, but sometimes it’s the right decision.

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

In terms of basic course work: in this day and age, having a good grounding in chemistry and physics is pretty important if you’re in the sciences, whether it’s for biology, chemistry, physics, or earth science. It depends on what you end up doing: some people might be using more math, in some ways. But having a good base is important. It doesn’t have to be a brilliant base, but I think it has to be a decent base.

And more broadly, if you have a passion, follow it. Follow your instincts. If there’s something you really like doing, keep doing it! Check it out. See if you continue to enjoy doing it. Keep exploring.

For someone who doesn’t have a clear idea of what they want to do—which I think is very common—try new things. Go outside of your comfort zone when you’re choosing your courses and getting involved in activities. Obviously do the things that are fun, but choose some things that you might not normally try, but might turn out to be really interesting. This is the time to try it, right? You might not be able to do it later on. This is the ideal time to be thinking about things.

  • Categories:
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  • Geology
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As told to Carol Green
DATE: 2020-05-20