GD
Geodynamics

The Sassy Scientist

The Sassy Scientist – Pull The Plug, Or Persevere?

The Sassy Scientist – Pull The Plug, Or Persevere?

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.

Georgia asks:


One of my friends recently left the PhD program with some severe emotional and motivational issues. I’m having doubts too. What shall I do?


Dear Georgia,

It’s the summer holidays. No more teaching duties. A lot of his colleagues are out of the country. Even his office mate is gone hiking in some mountain range no-one has never heard of. “Preferring that solitude over my company”, he murmurs as he slouches behind his computer. Blue skies outside. No sunshine in this office; there’s a dark cloud stuck inside. A whirling fog of desperation. Bashing away at the keyboard, heaving at the sight of failure. It hasn’t worked all morning. “Just like last week. Just like last month”, he sighs. The music might as well be turned off. Even Sweet Caroline can’t push his spirits today. Time for a coffee. Oh yeah … out of order, that’s right. ‘Cause maintenance is also off-duty. Why not? It’s not like anyone’s working to a deadline. Returning to work, the only sound piercing the airy silence is a fly. Buzzing carelessly towards an empty mug. Two souls in a square, concrete dungeon of solitude. Scratch that … only one left. The fly did not return from its journey. Wondering what that would feel like, he hears a noise outside. His heart beat increases as he recognises the waddle. That’s his supervisor! In his eyes a glimmer of hope returns. Maybe she has some ideas to fix all problems. She’s always so busy with the other students, but they’re all away now. “I’am the only one. She must come to talk to me!”, he concludes. He sits up straight, closes emails and puts away his phone. There she comes! Just a couple more steps.…. No! What’s she doing? She hurdles past his door, straight into the bathroom. “Why do I even bother? She’s not coming back”, he groans disappointed. She never does. How much longer ‘till this dream of a research project is over? Not so much a dream as it has become a waking nightmare…

I suppose you recognise this sentiment, don’t you? Unfortunately, an increasing number of your colleagues also intersperse their daily work routine with such day dreams. Well, that’s what I presume considering the increasing amount of articles in Nature about mental health and depression over the past two years. Fairly recent studies by Levecque et al. (2017), Evans et al. (2018) and Sverdlik and Hall (2019) even suggest a “mental health crisis”, especially for PhD students (Sohn 2016, Woolston 2018) but also beyond this stage (Reay 2018). I’m certain that by now you’re thinking: “You must be talking about people in the humanities or (bio)medical sciences. I never noticed anyone in geodynamics slip into a depression”. Well, that’s exactly the problem. Even though you’re a “good scientist” when working 14 hours a day, including the weekends, check and answer your email ’til the early hours and attend as much conferences as you can, something may not be that good: your state of mind. The constant pressure to perform so that you can stay in science, and an environment of “strong personalities” provide the perfect ingredients for a swirling depression cocktail. Who needs help, right? We can manage ourselves. The shrinks can stay in their own lane.

So, why has mental health become an increasing problem in science then? Why do you have doubts? I mean, didn’t these problems exist a couple of decades ago, when the people now in charge of the research groups, universities and funding agencies started their own careers? Are you part of a PhD pool that has grown to include a majority of snowflakes who are not able to handle setbacks, rebuffs and hard work? I doubt it. Maybe the current generation of PhD’s is not managed well enough by their supervisors that are too focused on their own career to also consider the various needs of their (sometimes too many) PhD’s and post-docs. Conversely, the aptitude to (be brave enough to) ask for help may also be lacking. I mean, who wants to work with someone in doubt of their own career, who cannot even manage to comfortably meet the deadlines set by their supervisor? Well, you’re clearly way too hard on yourself. Recognising that you’re not doing well (mental health-wise) is actually a strong point; you evaluated your own well-being and came to the conclusion that something wasn’t right. I can only applaud such self-awareness and hope you’ll find a way to fight the demons. You shouldn’t leave science. Persevere, please. Have you spoken to direct colleagues or your supervisor about your doubts? Too afraid? Just do it. Usually (and there are exceptions of course) scientists are fairly social creatures, willing to help their students in any way they can. The cynical side of this is that it is also in their own best interest as you must not forget: you not making it is a stain on their record.

Whilst you’ve been brave enough to ask for help (even though it’s just little old me), the harsh reality is that you’re not alone. So, to finish this endlessly positive story, I can only ask for one thing: talk to each other. Check in on those hermits that have locked themselves away in their office or lab, and who ‘can’t talk, busy’. Reach out to the senior staff (and maybe even HR) because it’s way too late when they find out you’re having difficulties when you’re stuck at home with a major depression or have a mental breakdown in the middle of a lecture room. Not great for them, slightly worse for you. Talk people, we’re usually much better at it.

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written in a square, concrete dungeon of solitude.

References:
Evans, T.M., L. Bira, J.B. Gastelum, L.T. Weiss, N.L. Vanderford (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate eductions, Nature Biotechnology, 36, 3
Levecque, K., F. Anseel, A. De Beuckelaer, J. Van der Heyden, L. Gisle (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students, Research Policy, 46, 868-879
Reay, D. (2018). You are not alone, Nature, 557, 160-161
Sohn, E. (2016). Caught in a trap, Nature, 539, 319-321
Sverdlik, A., N.C. Hall (2019), Not just a phase: Exploring the role of program stage on well-being and motivation in doctoral students, Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 0, 1-28, doi:10.1177/1477971419842887
Woolston, C. (2018). Why mental health matters, Nature, 557, 129-131

The Sassy Scientist – Far-field Access

The Sassy Scientist – Far-field Access

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.

Ali asks:


What is the best place to study geodynamics?


Dear Ali,

In your request you stated that you just finished your PhD; you’re free to go wherever you want and you’re ready to perform independent research now that you’ve been granted some funding. Time to go and do what you want to do – on your own. Since you’re a geodynamicist, your only basic need is a computer, paired with stable power and a high-speed internet connection. Below I list some thoughts on how to determine your future destination:

• I suppose you don’t want your views and opinions skewed by aggressive supervisors or know-it-all colleagues. This basically takes most of the European, North American and Oceanic universities off the table. Of course, you do want to take advantage of the company of some experienced colleagues.

• In your email you stated that you feel best in a calm and clean environment, so no overcrowded cities with smog and crazy weather patterns, or too high a seismic hazard. Let’s take the Asian institutions off the map too.

• You said you would like to attend conferences and workshops regularly, so you cannot be too far away from Europe and North America.

• Incidentally may want to relax a little, take your mind off the world’s geodynamics problems and just have some fun. Therefore, I will consider only places with some interesting geological or geodynamic imprint.

So. I think I’ve narrowed it down to two locations that would be perfect for you! They are exactly in between Europe and North America, so close-by in terms of traveling for field work and conferences. Additionally, in case you’re interested in obtaining funding in the future, you’re still eligible for ERC grants. Hence, I suggest you start booking tickets to either

Iceland

Watch out for the volcanoes; you might end up stranded on the island(s). Even though it can get quite cold, there’s some nice hot springs to relax in. If you’re really into clean energy: easiest location in the world for geothermal energy. This is obviously due to its amazing location on top of a mantle plume, along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: a geodynamicist’s dream. Lastly, when you’re done with science and fed up with the weather, you can always delve into Iceland’s world-renowned sagas.

or

The Azores

Located at another one of those magical features in plate tectonics, a triple junction above a plume, you’re ready to explore several islands that are located on three (!!!) plates. It doesn’t get too hot, nor does it get as frigid as Iceland, but there’s still enough volcanological beauty to soak in. Foodwise you’re way better off here than you would be in Iceland – instead of some weird national dishes like fermented shark or ram’s testicles, they’ve got everything (and I mean … everything) locally sourced. To die for.

Hope this helps you determine your future relocation plans!

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written after scouring the job postings sites for some interesting new places, but ending up at my travel agency.

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.

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.