The Sassy Scientist – Incompetency Check

The Sassy Scientist – Incompetency Check

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 or leave a comment below.

After reading up on many of the aspects described for the earthquake cycle that were oftentimes presented through fundamental observations and theories over the past weeks, Oleg found himself in a state of self-reflection and asked:

I’m afraid I’ve forgotten all my maths and physics skills during my PhD in geodynamics. Should I be worried?

Dear Oleg,

I would be. How did you get through those years? I gather that you must be using some numerical model, since analogue modelling, seismology and geodesy (yes … even geology) requires at least some basic maths and/or physics skills. Thank God just about anyone can use numerical models. You must be working with one of those standard black-box numerical codes that also magically produces statistical measurements on how well your models perform. It’s a good thing that the point of doing a PhD is just about blindly producing some papers by employing some methodology that you can use. Or is it about underpinning observations/theories/concepts through the fundamentals (i.e., maths and physics)? Have you been able to make a decent interpretation of what your model means? Or is that something your supervisor or co-authors have constantly done? If the former I wouldn’t worry too much. If it’s the latter it sure sounds exceptionally irresponsible from your supervisor and promotor.

It’s probably not as bad as you ponder right this moment. Everybody — i.e., every starting scientist — has a tendency to underestimate their skills and you’ve probably remembered more details uttered during your undergrad courses you’ve slept through than you give yourself credit for. I suppose that, if you’re terribly in despair, you just need to take some time and go back to look up some of the books you must have used in your undergrad years: brush up your basic linear algebra and vector analysis. The world’s a tensor; deal with it. To make it worth while, you might want to look up isostasy, Euler poles, continuum mechanics and statistics. Grasping these concepts provides you with the fundamentals so that you can study geodynamics. You’ll find that you have applied some, or all, of these at some point in your research. An abundance of researchers nowadays perform all kinds of fancy statistical tricks, employing fancy numerical codes and have a fancy way of writing it down. The one thing they lack is actual, fundamental understanding. Don’t be a lackey of the — intentionally — ignorant, an acolyte of the small-minded, a minion of the depraved. Raise your voice above the murmur of mediocrity (which sadly is the base level for most publications nowadays). Just dissect your previous work and outline shortcoming in maths and physics. Scrutinise the text books, and I’m sure you’ll get there. Remember that no one knows everything. As long as you are honest with yourself about what you do and don’t know or understand, you can have fair discussions about your research and you will learn. In the end, that’s all that research is: learning and learning what you do not know (yet). Actually, the pinnacle of science is overcoming our ignorance.

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written after being shaken and stirred about the impossible possibility which is forgetting math and physics during a PhD in geodynamics.

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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.

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