As winter break rolled in, I finally had the opportunity to focus on my thesis and make substantial progress. However, as always, it wasn’t going to be easy.
Generally speaking, the problem sets assigned in class have a solution. You know that if you focus and spend time on them, it is (at least in theory) possible to come to the correct answer and complete the problem set. The challenge with research, however, is the very real possibility that the ultimate solution is unattainable with the methods/data that you have available to you.
It was precisely this problem that I encountered over the winter. A major part of my thesis involves precisely identifying the structural relationships between different rock units. We seek to answer questions such as “Is there a fault between these two units? What kind of fault, and how much movement has there been along it?” But, staring at the map that I had made, I found I was unable to answer these questions. I began to doubt that I would ever be able to come to a definitive conclusion, and was almost ready to concede that I would simply have to settle with a number of possible solutions instead of a single one.
However, my graduate student adviser suggested that I look at things from a fresh perspective – to look at the problem with a vertical cross section instead of with a plan-view map. Basically, this encouraged me to actually draw the orientation of faults instead of just visualizing them in my mind. And suddenly, it became surprisingly easy to see the solution.
I realize that this isn’t the most original anecdote that you’ve ever heard, and that it sounds as if I should obviously have been drawing cross sections a long time ago. But sometimes the blinkers come on and you forget to try a new approach, and so it’s critically important to be reminded of it.
If you find yourself unable to move forward, try to find a new perspective from which you can attack the problem. I find that having a chat with your adviser is particularly helpful, but even just going for a run to clear your mind could help! Try tracking a new key term in the texts you are studying, or considering scholarship on a slightly different but related topic, or modifying a different variable in your equations – for it very well may be that the method you are trying to use is inherently incapable of solving the problem.
—Yuem Park, Natural Sciences Correspondent