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Geodynamics

Self-reflection

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.

The Sassy Scientist – Fake Scientists

The Sassy Scientist – Fake Scientists

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.

Martin asks:


I feel like an imposter when doing research. Any tips?


Dear Martin,

Own it. First, get yourself into a place where you feel as uncomfortable as you can about your research. Rationalise yourself down the drain. Stop just before you get an actual depression. Then, list all the things you are doing in your research. Why are you taking these specific steps to prove that specific research question? Is it worth to look into this research question? Why are you looking at this detail, but are you simplifying that process? Why are you allowed to do so? Do your results/conclusions have a fundamental impact on other research? Is that research flawed, or did those authors simply overlook details they did not yet know existed but you can now prove are a fundamental part of the process? Et cetera, et cetera

Hopefully you have stepped over the threshold of self-scrutiny after this cathartic exercise and found that what you’re doing actually makes sense. If you’re still hovering in a bleak realm, howling with self-doubt, try this: force yourself into a conversation with a friendly face in your research department (no, not your supervisors or direct colleagues!) and explain to them what you do. Do they get it and think that your research is worth the effort? If the answer is no, circle back to the first paragraph and look for the question you have not properly answered yet. If you cannot convince yourself by preparing legitimate answers to these questions, think of some new proper responses.

Still insecure? One final tip: buck up! We’ve all been insecure, the rest of us can simply hide it better. Fake it till you make it!

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written as a cathartic exercise.