The Sassy Scientist – Dodging Dead-ends

The Sassy Scientist – Dodging Dead-ends

Every week, The Sassy Scientist answers a question on geodynamics, related topics, academic life, the universe or anything in between with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Do you have a question for The Sassy Scientist? Submit your question here.

Antoinette asks:

I have a project where I have been struggling to get results for a long time now, and the results are not even so significant. How do you recognise when a research direction is not really worth pursuing anymore?

Dear Antoinette,

This is always difficult. I mean, you’re not the only one ostensibly struggling. Everybody does. Science is a trial-and-error process and not every theory works out. Some of the greatest scientific achievements have been made as the result of proper mistakes; leave open your Petri dish of bacteria and find that mould inhibits the growth of a bacterial culture – you know, Penicillin. Many operate under the impression that results are disappointing and insignificant, or just plain wrong. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. The point is that you have to think the results, and the process of obtaining them, through. Not too much though.

The task at hand is identifying the reason behind your struggle to get results. Is it a new, frontier, state-of-the-art methodology you’re employing, which may or may not be fully functional, yet? Just hang on in there. Have you been waiting on colleagues to present their contributions to your research? Patience. What’s going on? Recognising that a current line of inquiry isn’t worth pursuing anymore is indeed a vital part of the trials to organise your schedule and save time. Fine words butter no parsnips though. Who is to decide that what you’re doing is pointless? I mean, Wegener also did not have that large a success when he presented his continental drift theory. The positive aspect of a struggle is overarching, as the process of obtaining results has merit – though the merit of the results themselves may not be apparent to you at this point in time. You are able to work through an issue, solve it and obtain an answer to some problem you posed yourself. Some just give up half-way through. You did not. Why? Because you – inadvertently – realised that your research direction was worth pursuing (at least with some pain and effort). Or were you just following orders?

In case you’re ambivalent, or maybe even confidently negative, about the proceeds of your current strategy, consider alternatives. It may just be that your research goal is simply unattainable at this point in time. Usually you’re working on a project basis, so in that case you would have to sit it out. The obvious solution to your predicament is to cross over in a tangential line of inquiry by adding some new feature to your problem. “Simply” justify some new methodology, field work or collaboration to further your research – whilst adjusting your research azimuth to more favourable conditions. Easy, right?

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written after having to make a couple of U-turns myself. Fact is that not everything works out the way you want(ed) it to.

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I am currently employed at a first tier research institute where I am continuously working with the greatest minds to further our understanding of the solid Earth system. Whether it is mantle or lithosphere structure and dynamics, solid Earth rheology parameters, earthquake processes, integrating observations with model predictions or inversions: you have read a paper of mine. Even if you are working on a topic I haven’t mentioned here, I still know everything about it. Do you have any problems in your research career? I have already experienced them. Do you struggle with your work-life balance? Been there, done that. Nowadays, I have only one hobby: helping you out by answering the most poignant questions in geodynamics, research and life. I am waiting for you right here. Get inspired.


  1. I know the feeling. Research is not something easy, and most of the time you need to repeat what has been told in the previous years. Sometimes it is an effort to update your current instrument to the required standard, and it takes time and a lot of effort. However, I would like to suggest to not give up, and although your results seem something that has been already seen, or not so novel, you can still give a new perspective on them. You are not a machine that produces results/data. You are a scientist that has to give her/his personal point of view on the data, allowing to open another possible way to tackle the problem. For example, you can use the same dataset and having opposing interpretation and one of them is predictive. Science is not only made of novelty, but even new perspectives.

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      Thank you so much @geo89 for an earnest summary of the post. I’m glad at least someone is taking things seriously.
      The Sassy Scientist


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