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The course

Course type
Entry date



The MSc in Applied Earth System Science is designed to equip the next generation of Earth and Environmental Science graduates and professionals with the multidisciplinary skills needed to tackle complex global issues associated with climate change and societal challenges. The course provides the highly integrated level of fundamental, applied and communication-based knowledge which is needed to identify, characterise, and effectively communicate these challenges. From a basic understanding of how the planet works as a holistic unit to socio-economic interactions between business and the environment, including the ability to communicate this knowledge to a broad spectrum of academic researchers, policy-makers and the general public. Students will have the opportunity to perform their dissertation projects in collaboration with one of several world-leading research organisations (e.g. British Geological Survey (BGS), Our Dynamic Earth).

The course has seven core courses in multidisciplinary topics, with the potential for the student to widen their studies by choosing an optional course for further specialisation.

Course content

Detailed course guide

Programme lead: Dr Alex Poulton

Semester 1:

September – December, 4 mandatory course 

Mandatory courses

  • Earth System Science 
  • Innovative Technology and Global Water Challenges
  • Reconstructing Environmental Change and Tracing Ecosystem Function
  • Applied Skills in Laboratory, Fieldwork and Data Analysis

Semester 2:

January – April, 3 mandatory course and 1 optional courses

Mandatory courses

  • Science Communication and Engagement
  • Ecosystems Under Pressure
  • Business of the Environment

Optional courses

  • GIS for Marine and Environmental Scientists
  • Practical Skills in Marine Surveying
  • Marine Environmental Monitoring
  • Marine Biotechnology
  • Practical Skills in Marine Biotechnology

Semester 3

May – August, dissertation (MSc students only)

Earth System Science (A11ES)

This course aims to provide an understanding of the Earth System, its components and feedbacks, biogeochemical cycles as cross-cutting processes, climate variability across various time-scales, and to develop critical thinking to allow scientific assessment and an appreciation of the objective, scientific process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The course comprises lectures and scientific discussions to encourage critical thinking and debate. One external visit is included to the Dynamic Earth centre (Edinburgh) and students will attend local seminars by external speakers. 

Core topics:
  • Earth System components: Atmosphere-Lithosphere-Hydrosphere-Biosphere.
  • Earth System interactions and feedback mechanisms across different time-scales.
  • Climate change: past, present and future.
  • Global Biogeochemical Cycles.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  • Earth System Modelling.

Innovative Technology and Global Water Challenges

This aims to provide students with a thorough understanding of global water challenges, current innovative technologies to confront these challenges, barriers to technology implementation and commercialisation, and solutions to overcoming them. Students will learn about sustainable and innovative technologies for treatment of a variety of waters and runoff (natural, marine, municipal, residential, industrial, agricultural, and urban). The students will have a unique opportunity to learn about overcoming barriers for innovative technologies, validation and knowledge transfer from laboratory to practical field applications, nationally and globally. In addition, they will learn about the processes required for innovative technologies verification and pre-commercialisation challenges.

Core topics:
  • Global issues including water availability, pollution, geopolitics, and climate change.
  • The water/energy nexus.
  • Innovative technologies for water pollution mitigation.
  • Water governance.
  • Barriers to innovation and solutions for overcoming these barriers.

Reconstructing Environmental Change and Tracing Ecosystem Function (A11RC)

This course aims to introduce an understanding of the use of elemental chemistry, stable and radio-isotopes to understand environmental dynamics, including basic training in elemental and isotope geochemistry, their application and limitations, and provide examples of their application. This course comprises lectures and practical sessions to introduce students to the fundamental scientific basis of the application and interpretation of elemental, biomarker and isotope techniques.

Core topics:
  • Geological environmental records and evidence of change.
  • Microfossils and biomarkers to reconstruct environments and paleo-biology.
  • Using elemental chemistry and isotopes to trace ecosystem function.
  • Proxies in environmental science, their development, maturity and limitations.

Applied Skills in Laboratory, Fieldwork and Data Analysis (A11AS)

This course aims to provide the practical skills and experience in field work, sample collection, laboratory techniques and analysis, data presentation and analysis (including statistics), literature research and preparation of a final set of results as a technical report, as well as experience of professional scientific report writing and presentation. This course comprises a mixture of lectures and practicals, including fieldwork (sample collection), laboratory work (sample processing and analysis), and write up (data analysis, presentation). Material for further reading will be provided to encourage wider engagement. 

Core topics:
  • Experimental design, field work techniques and sampling protocols. 
  • Safety management in a research environment.
  • Basic laboratory skills in environmental science (e.g. chemical analysis).
  • Interpretation of raw results, including graphical presentation.
  • Univariate and multivariate statistical analysis.
  • Scientific writing, literature review and publication of scientific results.
  • Depositing scientific data in data repositories.

Ecosystems under Pressure (A11UP)

This course aims to introduce ecosystem science, understand climate change impacts from individual organisms to whole ecosystems, use recent examples of ecosystems under pressure, develop an appreciation of the potential management strategies for ecosystems to alleviate or restrict external pressures, and introduce ecosystem management and the role of regional, national and governmental management strategies and policy development. The course comprises of lectures and scientific discussions to allow students to understand, assess and openly discuss ecosystem issues, management strategies and policy development. Course content will include examples/case studies based on recent and ongoing research from teaching staff to highlight non-linear, multifactorial problems and the difficulties of effective management and policy decisions.

Core topics:
  • Ecosystem science (terrestrial, freshwater and marine) and ecosystem services.
  • Concurrent climate variability and long-term change.
  • Climate change impacts from the organism to the ecosystem.
  • Recent case studies of ecosystems under pressure.
  • Balancing environmental exploitation, ecosystem stability and the blue economy

Business of the Environment (A11BN)

This course aims to introduce the importance of environmental science for industry, businesses and governments, for risk management, sustainable growth and policy development, explore different types of research and research institutions and their contributions to scientific research, introduce the placement organisations involved in the MSc programme and provide assistance in the selection of suitable projects. This course comprises formal lectures, seminars and group-led discussions. External speakers from different types of research institutions will attend and give seminars outlining the nature of their organisation, its mission statement, values and current research themes. Examples will also be introduced of the types of research projects carried out at the different organisations.

Core topics:
  • Role of blue-skies, strategic and policy-led research.
  • Risk management and corporate considerations.
  • Environmental impact, social benefits, renewable resources and sustainable growth.
  • Different types of stakeholders and end users of scientific research.  
  • Role of scientific research in national and international policy development.

Science Communication and Engagement (A11SE)

This course aims to foster an appreciation for the importance and benefits of developing and maintaining skills in science communication, provide an understanding of methods and academic theory used in communicating science, convey the importance of tailoring communication approaches to the target audience, develop practical hands-on experience in science engagement via a range of media, both individually and in groups, and provide the opportunity to develop the students’ professional networks.

This course comprises lectures, seminars by external (invited) expert speakers, and external visits (e.g. Glasgow Science Centre, Edinburgh Zoo) to allow students to experience and interact with the full range of scientific audiences and methods of engagement. Coursework and assessments for this course are based on the students applying different skills and methods of communication and audience engagement (e.g. Pint of Science, Science festival exhibit, popular scientific media article). Students will also be encouraged to engage in the university’s public engagement events (e.g. open days at the University). 

Core topics: 
  • Research impact.
  • Engaging with the public.
  • Creative arts in science communication.
  • Media representation of science.
  • Role of science communication in industrial innovation.
  • Use of technology in facilitating science communication.
  • Science-to-policy translation and the role of science in decision making.
  • Creative group project & individual reflection, oral presentation and written media.


This course is designed to lead to career opportunities for academic earth system and environmental scientists (e.g. future PhD students, University Staff), non-academic environmental researchers (e.g. BGS, CEH, National Oceanography Centre (NOC), British Antarctic Survey (BAS)), industrial and political stakeholders (e.g. Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)), Environmental Agency (EA), Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), environmental consultants, Scottish and UK government departments, (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affair (DEFRA), Department for International Development (DFID)) and their consultants (e.g. Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe)), all dealing with fundamental scientific knowledge, its practical application and development of environmental policy and regulation. International equivalents of such organisations include examples such as NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US), WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, US), NIO (National Institute of Oceanography, India), CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia) and GEOMAR (Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany). These include both national and international employment opportunities and hence the graduates from this program will have global employment and career opportunities.

Industry links

  • British Geological Survey (BGS)
  • Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH)
  • Dynamic Earth
  • Scottish Parliament Information Centre
  • National Museum of Scotland
  • Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Entry requirements

Masters (MSc) level entry applicants must have one of the following:

  • Minimum of 2:2 honours degree or equivalent academic qualification in a related subject area.
  • For postgraduate conversion courses, non-related degrees will be considered.
  • Corporate (or chartered) membership of relevant professional institutions will also be considered

PG Diploma level entry applicants must have an ordinary degree in a related subject area and relevant post qualification industry experience.

Candidates who do not meet the above entry requirements or have no formal academic qualifications will be considered individually based on their CV and possibly interview. Admission via this route will be at the discretion of the Director of Recruitment.

Recognition of Prior Learning

Heriot-Watt University is committed to providing opportunities to applicants who have a wide range of prior experiences through Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). Prior learning at postgraduate level is normally recognised to gain exemption from individual courses within a course based on an existing academic qualification. Note that the prior learning must have been rated at the level of the courses for which RPL is sought, yet credits from an award already held by an applicant can only contribute to a higher award in the same discipline, e.g. from PG Diploma to MSc. If you believe that you qualify for RPL, please contact the Learning and Teaching Support Team via, who will guide you through the RPL application procedure.

The school will only consider students' requests for RPL at the time of application for their course of study.

English language requirements

If English is not your first language a minimum of IELTS 6.5 or equivalent is required with all elements passed at 6.0 or above. Please refer to English language requirements for further details.

Some applicants may be asked for alternative evidence in line with UKVI recognised English speaking countries. Applicants who have previously successfully completed courses delivered in the medium of English language may be considered and will be required to provide documentary evidence of this. Examples would be secondary school education or undergraduate degree. A minimum of at least one year of full time study (or equivalent) in the medium of English language will be required.

All evidence of English language needs to be dated within two years of the commencement of study.

We also offer a range of English language courses to help you meet the English language requirement prior to starting your master’s programme:

  • 14 weeks English (for IELTS of 5.5 with no more than one skill at 4.5)
  • 10 weeks English (for IELTS of 5.5 with minimum of 5.0 in all skills)
  • 6 weeks English (for IELTS 5.5 with minimum of 5.5 in reading and writing and minimum of 5.0 in speaking and listening)


Tuition fees for 2019 entry (by residency status)
Status* Full-time
Scotland / Non-UK EU £8448
England / Northern Ireland / Wales £8448
Overseas £20760

* If you are unsure which category you fall in to, you should complete a fee status enquiry form, which allows us to assess your fees.

Scholarships and bursaries

We aim to encourage well-qualified, ambitious students to study with us and we offer a wide variety of scholarships and bursaries to achieve this. Over £6 million worth of opportunities are available in fee and stipend scholarships, and more than 400 students benefit from this support.

View our full range of postgraduate taught scholarships.