Image of polar region

Polar and Alpine Change MSc(Res)

This one-year MSc(Res) (Masters of Research) programme is aimed at training graduates from a range of scientific disciplines who wish to pursue a research career in cold-regions science or a related field. The programme’s key interest is to explore the expressions, mechanisms and impacts of changes in our planet’s cold regions, past and present.

The MSc(Res) specifically targets those wishing to acquire an intensive research experience and to expand their range of research skills prior to progressing to a PhD. Training is provided in the form of a research apprenticeship within the Ice and Climate Researchers (ICERS) cluster of academic and postdoctoral staff, plus PhD and Masters students, with students carrying out a major Research Project under supervision of a team of ICERS staff. The project can be field-, laboratory- or desk-based, or a combination of these, and lasts through the year.

Choice of research project is founded upon the expertise of ICERS staff. Students typically undertake a polar, alpine or Quaternary focussed research project, with topics typically falling within the fields of glaciology, geomorphology, oceanography, climatology, environmental science or Quaternary science, though exploration of other aspects of cold-regions science is encouraged. Initial training in research design is provided, and more advanced project-specific training is delivered as required by the student’s supervisorial team.

An important feature of the programme is the Field Course, which is led by a team of ICERS staff, and normally takes place in mid-summer. For many years, the field course has been located in Svalbard, but other field locations are visited that reflect the interests and experience of our staff, including Western Greenland, which is the field course destination in 2018.

Ice and Climate Research at the University of Sheffield

As a ‘PAC’ (Polar and Alpine Change) student at Sheffield you will benefit directly from the unique mix of research and field experience accumulated by ICERS group members, and be able to take advantage of their extensive knowledge of appropriate research approaches, techniques, facilities, and field locations, and their knowledge of the most recent developments in their fields. Notable areas of research include:

  • Glaciology and Palaeoglaciology – Study of the properties and structure of glaciers and ice sheets, and the flow and evolution of past and present ice sheets, including our leading role in the NERC Consortium project BRITICE CHRONO.
  • Oceanic and Atmospheric Processes – Study of oceanic and atmospheric processes, structures and circulation patterns, including their influence on local and regional climates and extremes, on ice sheet evolution and iceberg trajectories, and on current climatic trends.
  • Quaternary Science and Geochronology – Study of the timing of past climatic and non-climatic events from their geomorphological record, including luminescence and cosmogenic isotope dating of glacial, periglacial, Holocene and dryland landforms and deposits.
  • Process Geomorphology and Landscape Evolution – Study of weathering and sediment transport rates and processes and the resulting landforms on current to million-year time scales and across glacial, periglacial, palaeoglacial and dryland environments.

Course Structure


Polar and Alpine Change (“PAC”) students complete 180 compulsory credits of study over one year (Full Time), or two years if Part Time. This 180 credits comprises four modules, which are summarised in the table below.

Central to the programme is a year-long Research Project module, which requires students to undertake a piece of original and independent research in their chosen field. As in doctoral research, students receive close supervision as they develop and execute their project, and benefit from presenting their developing ideas and initial findings to the ICERS cluster. Assessment of the project is via a mini-conference around mid-May, a written Project Report submitted at the end of summer, and, finally, a poster presentation of the project findings following the report submission.

In addition to the Research Project, a first-semester Research Design module provides guidance on development of research ideas and culminates in the production of a formal project proposal. Another first-semester module, Current Issues in Polar and Alpine Science, uses the external seminar series as a basis for discussion of research approaches and the development of critical analysis and research communication skills. Assessment methods in these modules comprise written research proposal and essays and oral presentations. There are no exams.

Module title Semester Credits
Research Design Autumn 15
Current Issues in Polar and Alpine Science Autumn 15
Arctic/Alpine Field Course Spring* 15
Polar and Alpine Change Research Project All year 135

*The Field Course, while designated a Spring-semester module, takes places in the mid-summer

Unique Features
  • Advanced scientific research training and project experience that develops highly specialised, substantive knowledge of, and skill to conduct research into, a chosen field within the broad remit of cold-regions science.
  • Attendance at research seminars and other ICERS group activities, which provides insight to the latest research techniques and the findings of ICERS group members, as well as those of visiting scientists working on cold-regions topics at other institutions across the world.
  • A core overseas field class that provides training and experience in field planning and research in a polar or alpine destination. Field locations have included Greenland and Svalbard, where students can gain direct insight into polar and alpine change issues and experience at first hand the application of glaciological, geomorphological, hydrological and environmental analysis techniques.
  • State of the art facilities for geographical data analysis, including facilities for Geographical Information Science, Remote Sensing, Structure from Motion photogrammetry, Matlab programming, and numerical modelling.
  • Well-equipped cold-regions research laboratories, providing facilities for sediment, nutrient, plant growth, and microbial cell analysis.
  • Access to international research networks and collaborations developed by ICERS staff, including long-established collaborations with polar and alpine scientists working in Switzerland, Greenland, Norway, Iceland, and Central and South Asia (including Nepal and Kyrgyzstan).

Field Course


The Arctic/Alpine Field Course is an integral part of the programme and normally takes place in the summer. The course combines taught sessions with group research, aiming to provide substantive knowledge of the location visited and relevant research approaches and techniques, as well as experience of project development, field application of research skills and techniques, and analysis and communication of research findings.

Group work undertaken by students in previous years included meteorology, glacier hydrology, glacier hydrochemistry, ground penetrating radar studies of glacier structure and glacial geomorphology, and glacier reconstruction using geomorphological evidence and relative dating techniques. ICERS staff have wide field experience in polar and alpine locations, and recent field class locations have included Greenland and Svalbard.

Over past years, students with diverse background have told us that they found the field-course experience to be highly valuable and rewarding — they range from those who have never travelled internationally to those who have already done fieldwork.

Svalbard photo montage


The typical destination considered in our planning of the ‘Field Course’ module is Western Greenland, near the margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet. This followed our first visit there in August 2018, during which we spent 9 days successfully conducting training/work from a field camp (see photos); additional days were involved for travel and logistical preparation by the group. However, other field locations and trip formats are also considered that reflect the interests and experience of our staff, notably Svalbard, Norway. ICERS staff have long-established research collaborations with polar and alpine scientists working in Switzerland, Greenland, Norway, Iceland, and Central and South Asia (including Nepal and Kyrgyzstan), making the scope for alternative field course destinations very wide.


The field course cost is not covered by the university tuition fee, and you must account for it when applying for the programme, and be prepared to fund it during the MSc(Res) year.

The estimated cost of the field course is around £2,000. The precise amount depends on each year’s field logistics and price fluctuations. The estimate above includes the expense of flights, accommodation, local travel, food and safety precautions. Crucially, we run the field course as an expedition, where key costs are shared between participants.

Note: The field-course require extensive activities on terrains including wet, hilly, rocky and snow/glacier surfaces, and hence mobility over such terrains. We urge potential applicants who have mobility impairment to discuss their concerns with the Programme Director and whether the field-course could be safely attended or an alternative 15-credit module option be provided in place of the field-course to allow completion of the programme.

Film made by students of a past field course season in Svalbard:

Entry requirements

PAC Entry Requirements

For the Polar and Alpine Change MSc(Res) programme we require applicants to possess:

  • A minimum of a good Upper-Second undergraduate degree from a UK University, or an international equivalent, in relevant subject areas including (but not restricted to) Physical Geography, Environmental / Earth / Ocean Sciences, Geology, Physics, and Natural Science.
  • Evidence of engagement with and/or aptitude in geoscientific research. Applicants are urged to justify their credentials in this regard in their Personal Statement AND to upload a Research Document (e.g. their undergraduate dissertation, or a similar report documenting the results of independent research) with their application.
  • International students are required to attain IELTS 7.0 overall with at least 6.5 in each component.
Research Career

imageThe unique level of research training and experience in polar and alpine change that is provided by our MSc(Res) programme is widely recognised and our graduates have been extremely successful in securing PhD study and employment in research-centred careers. Our alumni have gone on to secure competitive PhD (and, subsequently, postdoctoral and academic positions) at research-intensive UK institutions that specialise in cold-regions research, and further afield, including Norway and Sweden. Other alumni have begun successful careers in the UK as environmental professionals, amongst a diverse range of other career destinations.

Most, though not all, applicants are strongly interested in a Research Career. Essentially, this means progression, after their masters, through a PhD and into a full-time academic position (i.e. as a post-doctoral researcher or lecturer) whose occupation is to undertake research that pushes against the frontiers of knowledge. A key strength of the MSc(Res) programme is the year-long research experience it provides, which enables students to learn how to do research by doing it — albeit in a shorter duration than a PhD.

Research-career development for our students is therefore embedded in our programme, through career sessions on relevant issues, such as “How to apply for PhD?”, and the personal tutoring system, which are run by the Programme Director with the input of other ICERS staff.