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What to study?

Filed under: — gavin @ 15 January 2013

I recently got an email from newly graduated Math(s) major (mildly edited):

I am someone with a deep-seated desire to help the planet remain as habitable as possible in the face of the trials humanity is putting it through. I’d like to devote my career to this cause, but am young and haven’t chosen a definitive career path yet. My bachelors is in pure math and I am considering graduate study in either applied math or statistics. I’m curious what you would recommend to someone in my position. Between getting, say, a PhD in statistics vs. one in applied math, what positions me best for a career in the climate science community? What are its acute needs, where are the job opportunities, and how competitive is it?

My response was as follows (also slightly edited):

As you may know I too started out as a mathematician, and then moved to more climate related applications only in my post-doc(s).

I can’t possibly give you ‘the’ answer to your question – but I do suggest working from the top down. What do you see specifically as something where someone like you could have maximum impact? Then acquire the skills needed to make that happen. If that seems too hard to do now, spend time on the developing your basic toolkits – Bayesian approaches to statistics, forward modeling, some high level coding languages (R, python, matlab etc.), while reading widely about applications.

One of the things I appreciated most in finding my niche was being exposed to a very large number of topics – which while bewildering at the start, in the end allowed me to see the gaps where I could be most useful. At all times though, I pursued approaches and topics that were somewhat aesthetically pleasing to me, which is to say, I didn’t just take up problems just for the sake of it.

I’ve found that I get more satisifaction from focusing on making some progress related to big problems, rather than finding complete solutions to minor issues, but this probably differs from person to person.

But what do other people think? How should people prepare to work on important problems? Are there any general rules? What advice did people give you when you were starting out? Was it useful, or not? Any advice – from existing researchers, graduate students or interested public – will be welcome.


95 Responses to “What to study?”

  1. 1

    It would seem to me by far the most important thing would be to find an advisor who was a top researcher in the field (which a new graduate can probably figure out from google scholar), and who is tolerably likable and has a track record of graduating PhDs who go on to be successful researchers in their own right. So pick a school/major that makes several such folks potentially available.

  2. 2

    One might check the web site for climate modeler Professor Steve Easterbrook
    http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/?p=3041

  3. 3
    Eric says:

    It seems to me (a climate scientist) that if someone has “a deep-seated desire to help the planet remain as habitable as possible” they are probably better off studying engineering than climate science. Studying the planet is something altogether different from “helping” it.

  4. 4
    Lou Smith says:

    Excellent advice!! I gave my new graduate students a starter problem, then told them to define 3-5 more and different problems, assemble what it took to solve the problems, solve the problems, and publish the solutions. When they could tell me they could take care of themselves professionally, they were ready to graduate. The objective was to learn how to learn, and to create self confidence by repeated success. Diversity is critical. The things that will allow you to be productive, competitive, and satisfied 10-15 years from now have yet to be invented!! You are living in interesting times.

  5. 5
    SecularAnimist says:

    Newly graduated math major wrote: “I am someone with a deep-seated desire to help the planet remain as habitable as possible in the face of the trials humanity is putting it through. I’d like to devote my career to this cause …”

    With all due respect to climate scientists, I would suggest that a career in climate science is not the best way to “devote your career” to “helping the planet remain as habitable as possible”.

    Climate science has, of course, elucidated the problem of anthropogenic global warming, and in doing so it is fair to say that climate science MAY have indeed “saved the world” — but ONLY if we, as individuals and as a global society, ACT on the knowledge that climate science has given us.

    And that is where I would suggest you direct your efforts: not to further STUDY of the problem, but towards ACTION to SOLVE the problem, by developing and deploying the technologies, policies and practices needed to eliminate anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and draw down the already dangerous anthropogenic excess of GHGs.

  6. 6

    My response would be similar, but for a specific reason. Find an area that you are passionate about, whether its a specific branch of mathematics or an application of math, or even a broad area. A PhD is a hugely committing process, with many ups and downs along the way. It takes more than just a logical rationale to provide motivation through the process – a healthy mixture of logic and emotional attraction will have a much higher likelihood of success.

  7. 7
    Sean Canton says:

    Study your own mind, then all problem solving will be much easier.

    Then read Derrick Jensen, I would highly recommend Deep Green Resistance.

    If that doesn’t light a fire in your soul, nothing will. Just as important as the How, is the Why, of doing anything.

  8. 8

    I think you showed real wisdom in not trying dictate your own ideals and goals to the student but instead encouraging them to find their own path, plus offering some specific, practical suggestions for a maths student.

    I teach environmental law, including climate law, to environmental management, science, planning and engineering students in Australia and I am often asked about study and career options.

    Three things that I commonly do when asked about this are:

    1. Find out what interests the student and encourage them to pursue their own path using the skills and experiences that are unique to them.

    2. Suggest that they think of their careers as a marathon, not a sprint, so they can view their initial jobs and study as stepping stones in which they aquire knowledge and skills to do higher roles later in their careers.

    3. Remind them that they need to balance their careers with family, friends and fun so that they don’t burn-out and fall off their chosen path. Burn-out is a real problem for people working on climate change because the problems often seem over-whelming. I tell them that I often go bushwalking to reconnect with nature and to recharge.

    For students who are struggling for answers and need a wider framework within which to anchor themselves, one book that I often recommend is the late Stephen Covey’s book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, particularly the chapter on personal leadership.

  9. 9
    Chris Colose says:

    I’ll share my own perspective from a graduate student:

    My Bachelor’s degree and current graduate track is all in “pure” Atmospheric Science. I chose to supplement that with some additional physics in undergrad, and many of my peers have made similar choices with mathematics or computer science “minors” or “double majors.”

    Depending on the school you go to, if you choose to go this route, you’ll almost certainly be required to take courses in atmospheric thermodynamics, a couple fluid dynamics courses, and possibly radiation. These are the “bare bones” courses that atmospheric science students take regardless of whether they branch off into climate, synoptic meteorology, tropical hurricane dynamics, numerical weather prediction, etc, etc. After these essential courses are taken, the student will typically take elective courses that are suited for their own research interests.

    As soon as you hit the research realm, you’ll need statistics and programming background, as Gavin mentioned. I was hit with this realization as a student not too long ago, and the unfortunate fact is that many atmospheric science programs do not offer adequate “training” in those subjects. So, you need to take electives and learn it on your own. I’m still in the process of trying to use “R” as a toolkit for getting my work done, and many others around me use MATLAB. Fortran is popular in this discipline though I think is becoming an ancient language at University (I’ve had computer science roommates at Columbia who looked at me funny when I mentioned fortran).

    I’ve found through atmospheric science courses and even a bit of astrophysics, that these courses are to a physics background what physics is to mathematics (this has been especially true in dynamics and synoptic meteorology). What I mean by this, is that you will gain an immense appreciation for being able to look at a complex equation and be astonished at how much you can apply it to the real world. It’s fascinating to be able to look at a weather map, and then from an equation you just spent an hour deriving, tell yourself where the clouds are going to form. With all due to respect to pure physicists, I also think it is also much more interesting than studying the behavior of a proton in a box. It’s stuff that I can also explain to friends, whereas with other theoretical ideas in physics or math, it became difficult for me to explain to others (or even myself) why they were interesting or important.

    Just keep in mind that the field is becoming hyperspecialized (for better or worse). People are going that way in response to the pressures of the current academic/research/funding environment.

  10. 10

    Why not use your math talents or other forms of genius to create ‘The Global 50/50 Lottery’? That is, what if we could exploit the infinite power of human greed to fight global warming? The USA and UN could use half the winnings from a global lottery to pay for the purchase and installation of vast arrays of clean electricity generating systems like windmill farms, solar panels, ocean and water powermakers, to make electricity to replace the juice from coal burning electric power plants, which are emitting the carbon dioxide that is causing global warming.

  11. 11
    Hank Roberts says:

    I’d suggest:
    — many of the blogs in the sidebar, for thoughts
    The Azimuth Project which isn’t in the sidebar — but might warrant being added

    “The Azimuth Project is an international collaboration to create a focal point for scientists and engineers interested in saving the planet. Our goal is to make clearly presented, accurate information on the relevant issues easy to find, and to help people work together on our common problems.”

    No connection to me. Good and getting better for ideas, broadly.

    See also more from John Baez

  12. 12

    While there is no way to guaranty the giving of specific advice about what to study for an individual there are some ideas that an individual can use to discover direction. The end result is a better informed ability to give oneself the best advice possible. But all in a path to discovery.

    Gavin’s answer provides wonderful clues about how as one wanders through the interests at large in order that one might find where one resonates better, or possibly even best.

    I am reminded of something Jonas Salk once told me. He said “Life is a mosaic and each of us are colored tiles. The trick is to get our (as individuals) colored tiles in the right place so that the we benefit the bigger picture”.

    Following one strengths and interests along with ability, opportunity, and potential, including creating opportunity proactively in line with these considerations, is likely a good key to understanding just what color is our tile, and where it fits in the big picture.

  13. 13
    Hank Roberts says:

    “We are all in the gutter … some of us are looking at the stars” 
    and some of us are looking into the state of the sewers.

  14. 14
    Dan Carter says:

    I am just wrapping up my dissertation. In recent years I have become convinced that the spatial and temporal scope of the best science in my field (ecology) does not line up spatial and temporal scope of the social actions it needs to inform. If more smart people dedicated themselves to interfacing the ivory tower with communities and non-scientific institutions that act or form policy, and did not view such as a demotion, they could have as much or more impact than leading scientists. Remember that citations don’t equal real world impact, but the only the chance of impact…when science affects policy or is implemented on the ground, it isn’t cited in a journal. I hold pure science as sacred, but the community of scientists needs to look at talent and decide whether or not to cloister it all away as young post-docs writing scripts or communicate that there is plenty of room for talent to move out into the world. There is a separateion of science from society that will ruin us, if we don’t invest in the bridges. It was suggested that this young graduate learn some programming languages. That’s a good suggestion. A smart person can really learn those fairly quickly. Really, I would say to ignore laundry lists. Instead identify the task and learn the skills on the fly. If you care about it, it won’t be that much trouble. A better suggestion is to seek out opportunities that allow one to teach and/or extend beyond the research community. What those experiences have to teach cannot be learned in a class or at a computer, but the best scientists and the best activists both have those skills. As far as careers go, look at some of the opportunities available with the government or NGOs that might not involve modeling climate, but modeling or testing responses to ranges of climate scenarios.

  15. 15
    sidd says:

    I once got a doctorate in physics. This is my personal opinion for what it might be worth. For me there was no choice, as Rilke said, a writer writes because he must, for me, I had to do physics.

    Do what you love. Else you will regret it for the rest of your life.

    Grad school in hard science is like putting your head in a vice and tightening it until your head explodes or you graduate. You will be ruthlessly exploited, you will work insane hours, you will be paid a pittance, you will be screamed at, sneered at, dressed down by dyspeptic professors, your theories will be derided, your data will be dismissed, and job prospects in academia are below dismal. That’s how science works today. All these things will happen, that’s why you better love what you are doing. The most promising student in my class in grad school quit because he decided he didn’t really love physics.

    Remember you can quit grad school anytime, and get paid better anywhere for the hours you put in. That’s your ultimate and only weapon when your advisor/superior tells you to do something particularly disgusting.

    Don’t do this to save the world, do it because you love it. Don’t worry about saving the world. The world will save itself, as long as each of us saves just a little of whatever we can.

    Do what you love. It might not be grad school.

    sidd

  16. 16
    Jim Larsen says:

    Ahh, Hank. Yep, it takes all kinds.

    Deciding what to study based on today’s problems is tenuous at best. By the time a newly-entering student graduates and advances enough to “make a difference”… well, if the problems the newly minted PHD is poised to solve have already been solved…..

    Yeah, like others have said, we ALREADY KNOW most of what we need to know scientifically about climate. The rest is important but inevitably solved. There’s probably very little a new student can do to “change the world” via pure climate science. Ya need some engineering to turn the concepts into reality.

    Of course, 99.9% of what we need CAN’T be taught in school. Note how most of the most successful folks dropped out of college and did things their way. (And, of course, ever so many who tried that path ended up asking, “Do you want fries with that?”)

  17. 17
    Ian Lee says:

    As a university academic for over 30 years involved in both teaching and research, my advice , for what it’s worth, is get involved in something you like/are interested in. An earlier poster (David Douglas) has said get involved in a project you are passionate about. While I don’t take any issue at all with that advice, finding out what you are passionate about may only happen once you’ve been immersed for some time in a particular area. If you’ve already selected the area or areas that you are interested in/like, it is usually fairly straightforward to select a particular area of study after you’ve spent time looking at various aspects of the area. Whatever career you eventually decide to pursue my very best wishes for your future.

  18. 18
    lee says:

    I graduated from mathematics (with focus on “pure” mathematics) before completing PhD thesis in atmospheric sciences. Based on my experience, the following things are useful:

    – Programming skills: after you more or less master basic concepts and one non-trivial programming language, the rest becomes easier to learn. Personally, I have used Fortran, C++, IDL, and Matlab.

    – Basic physics and chemistry along with some courses in statistics.

    – Overview of the physics of the atmosphere of the Earth.

    In my personal and limited opinion, I’d choose applied statistics over applied mathematics if you want to pursue career in atmospheric sciences. However, I do believe that PhD in atmospheric sciences is best way to go as you can probably learn (at least) some of the skills I mentioned above along the way. This is not granted with mathematics and statistics as they are somewhat limited in scope compared to atmospheric sciences which draws from several disciplines (mathematics, chemistry, computing science etc.)

    Hopefully this is of some help.

  19. 19
    Andy Bond says:

    I have to say that in order to help humanity climate science is not the way to go. The broad strokes have been developed for a long time now and the major problems are not with the science.

    For me the issues remaining on this are:
    1, Policy and political frameworks
    2, Financial and economic methods of making the change to a sustainable economy
    3, Engineering and developing solutions to the many problems that are the result of all the changes.

    Plenty of scope for a maths graduate in all three areas.

  20. 20
    JamesA says:

    My advice would be to really strive to do a PhD in a group that is active in the field you want to be in. While working in a related field may get you the skills and the qualifications, it won’t get you the contacts or the recognition within the community that you get from actively doing the research. But more fundamentally, I always say that the two most important things to get right when embarking on a science PhD are that you enjoy what you’re researching and that you get on with your supervisor/advisor. Neither of these stem from approaching it with a career ‘means to an end’ attitude.

  21. 21
    Nagraj Adve says:

    Whereas climate science is hugely important in understand what is going on – and I and so many others benefit hugely from the posts on Real Climate – surely the question of a way to make the planet habitable is a political/ social question, and not science alone. Prof Gavin’s response is appropriate for his immediate needs perhaps, but in addition to following that advice, it would be important for that student to try to understand and intervene in the larger social context in which he is located. There has been so little progress re global warming, not because the science has not been understood or communicated, but because there is not adequate political will and popular pressure from below on governments in countries that are largest emitters of CO2 – China, the US and India (where I am located). More fundamentally, global warming and most of the other planetary ecological crises are linked to the logic of industrial capitalism, and this student needs to understand that systemic logic. That includes the drive to profit, to use the cheapest sources of inputs (energy included) and labour, and to externalize waste. It makes resolving global warming that much more difficult, and is why climate negotiations have gone nowhere in 20 years. For this student, a wider social engagement along with the technical specifics you suggest would help.
    Nagraj Adve

  22. 22
    ara says:

    I´d go with Eric and Secular Animist on this one.
    Sure, there are things worse for “the planet” (I prefer to call it “the people living on the planet”) than being a climate scientiest, but I can imagine a lot of more helpful things, too. Engineering in renewable energies, for instance, or politics/activism. Unless flying around the globe a lot to a bunch of conferences each year somehow gives him better conscience about helping make the planet stay more habitable).

  23. 23
    Weather head says:

    Listerers listen. Leaders lead. Ask someone what to do, and you will get a list of what they wish they had done. Just do something. Change your mind often. Your niche will appear. In all training programs you are being taught how to work for someone, think for someone. Think for yourself. Stop looking for a job, stop looking for others to help. Just do something.

  24. 24
    Radge Havers says:

    Along the lines of SA’s comment:

    Seven Lessons to Learn in Order to Save the Planet 
    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/01/15/seven-lessons-to-learn-in-order-to-save-the-planet/

    The tea party may be in flux now, but the points are still worth taking into consideration.

    Unless you can come up with something “paradigm shifting”, science/math will be peripheral on this issue to politics and other failing social systems.

  25. 25
    Mark E says:

    Most of the responses have fallen toward the high end of this spectrum….

    On the ideal end……. we all want a career that is so rewarding we would still work for free after winning a record breaking Powerball lottery.

    On the other end…. do something that brings a paycheck without killing your heart’s ability to give your free time to your passions (I’m fond of this retired prof’s theme http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5OYmRyfXBY)

    I agree with others who say the bottleneck is our inaction, not the lack of climate-science research. Also the geo- socio- and publicworks engineering type careers, as well as international conflict resolution will all be exponentially increasing

  26. 26
    Sharon Hawkins-Fauster says:

    After studying physics, chemistry and logic. Read as much many books and research papers as possible from peer-reviewed scientists. Then perhaps you could follow the advise of Numbers 11. and 14. They have the insight into what is now needed to get something done — the public and politicians have to be motivated and most of them have no science background in the field of climate science. I suggest a prime time television series that explains the science to the layman and the urgency for addressing climate change with sustainable living and new laws, such as a carbon tax, etc. When you finally see something being addressed politically through your help with this urgent problem you will surely feel a great satisfaction that something is finally being done to save our planet. I wish you all the luck in the world that you find a passion for communication in this direction — as it is what is missing to motivate change!

  27. 27
    Kelly Hereid says:

    Learn at least one programming language no matter what you end up doing. Modelers running computationally expensive simulations often learn older, low-level languages like FORTRAN or C/C++. High-level languages like Matlab or Python are most useful for the rest of us. The trade-off is between computational speed (low-level languages run much faster) vs. coding speed (high-level languages are easier to write), so pick one appropriate to your problems of interest. A good compromise is to go with Python – it’s quick to pick up, open-source (read:free), marketable, and has an elegant coding style, but the Cython extension lets you add in pieces of C code for bits that need to run faster.

    As far as acute needs go, I wanted to highlight my field, which doesn’t get talked about much in the climate community. As a recent climate PhD grad, I found one area with a lot of job opportunities was in the insurance/reinsurance business. This part of the private sector is on the front lines of adaptation, and is actively hiring climate scientists to improve decision-making. Not only do I think that getting the business community on board can improve our progress towards actually dealing with climate change, it’s an area that currently has fairly limited access to climate expertise, so could really see a lot of benefit.

    A statistical background with some spatial data analysis skills would be most useful for this field – we work on a lot of problems like how sea level rise will change the probability of hurricane storm surge flooding, how frequencies of extreme events might be expected to change in the future, and how sea surface temperatures relate to precipitation patterns – so, heavy on stats.

  28. 28
    Dave Person says:

    Hi,
    Good professional advice. However, I would add, learn a bit about plumbing, carpentry, home power generation, and growing food. Just in case.

    dave

  29. 29
    Mike Smith says:

    I’m about to submit my PhD thesis in Computational Neurosicence. I went into the PhD programme because I found the topic really exciting and interesting – and I still do! But I think a problem that afflicts a lot of people is being interested in more than one thing. I recently went to Malawi to visit my partner who was studying the use of Moringa as a nutritional supplement in a feeding programme (random controlled trial). There were lots of people talking about its de-worming powers, but there’s no evidence (I can find) in the literature. So I got permission to take stool samples and get them tested for worms…

    Anyway, the results of the mini-study aren’t what I’m talking about. I found this mini-study was as exciting/interesting as my PhD back home, but even better: The results would have immediate implications, and I felt like it was a much more direct and important potential discovery (this might be because it’s a very under-researched field! so easy to find big interesting problems to solve???).

    Anyway, what’s my advice? I’m actually reading these comments looking for advice: I’m trying to jump sideways, hopefully taking my Informatics and Science background with me – to find useful things to do in more of a “development environment” (is that a real expression?). But the topic is diverse, with considerable silos of domain-specific knowledge. At first I thought to look to development studies/Africa studies etc, but these are in the humanities. While other topics are scattered throughout Nutrition, Geography, Public Health, Education,…etc.

    Plan B – is to head off, with some contacts and organisations and universities ahead, and physically visit them – am hoping interesting things appear as I go :) [worse case is my travels turn into a year-long-holiday!]

    Anyway, not sure that ramble was useful, but I feel in a fairly similar situation, but slightly later in my career :)

  30. 30
    Mark A. York says:

    I studied wildlife biology and spent many years working to preserve and save endangered fish. I also write.

    Warm Front

  31. 31
    Bert Rubash says:

    Chris Colose said: “I’ve had computer science roommates at Columbia who looked at me funny when I mentioned fortran”. I think people who use Matlab should be looked-at funny too because it is locked behind a paywall making it inaccessible to people like me who work independently and work at unfunded projects in voluntary service of their communities. Using Matlab adds an unnecessary workload to our part of collaboration with the rest of the scientific research community. Python can do everything Matlab can and more, and using it will serve all of us and the research community better.

  32. 32
    sidd says:

    Re:Matlab substitute

    Octave

    sidd

  33. 33
    Mal Adapted says:

    Get a job doing something you enjoy and that pays well, then marry someone with biodiversity-saving skills so you can support him/her while he/she does that.

  34. 34
    Candide says:

    The answers have been mostly pretty good. I’ll just add something entertaining (hopefully) which I once read, but sorry I can’t remember the source. So reconstructed out of memory:

    The physics major asks: “How does it work?”
    The engineering major asks: “How do we build it?”
    The accounting major asks: “How much will it cost?”
    The liberal arts major asks: “Do you want fries with that?”

  35. 35
    S. Molnar says:

    I have to say I think Mike Smith @29 will end up doing just fine. Anyone who can get excited at the chance to collect stool samples will probably find fulfillment with little difficulty. My advice is to have an attitude like that.

  36. 36
    Eli Rabett says:

    Everyone is going to hate this. IEHO the physical basis(WGI) is pretty well understood. Regional climate modeling is crowded. The real action is going to be in the biological interface (WGII), which needs good statistics and modeling.

  37. 37
    jyyh says:

    As a side, a good set of gardening skills is always a good thing to have. Maybe combine it with the math and start to formalize sustainable agriculture practises, optimization of yield per water/fertiliser unit consumed is one way to go. In theory this might fall into discrete maths, since the available land areas are projected rather to decrease than to increase. And anyway discrete maths is what imho should be used in closed systems like earth (well that’s not entirely correct.) But I guess this is too simplistic for an academic career. Organic gardening is also pretty labor intensive, so some physical education would be good. (Stopping before going hyperbole and Hunger Games)

  38. 38
    AIC says:

    Excellent math skills can take you in many different directions, including being the basis for physics and engineering. Know what you love and what you are good at, and take a few courses in several different areas. Knowledge is not wasted.

    I would also say that we seem to know enough in a general sense about how our world is reacting to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, so we really need to know how to run our civilization without burning fossil fuels. Research in chemistry, physics, or biology might find some basic information that would be useful in 30 to 50 years, but engineering using what is known now is probably what will best enable us to reduce emissions in the next ten or twenty years.

    Disagreeing to some extent with Candide #34, sociology, applied psychology, and political science will all be important in making the changes needed to kick our fossil fuel addiction.

  39. 39
    T Marvell says:

    I agree with Secular Animist (post 5) – At this stage what is needed most to improve the world is political skills, in addition to scientific skills. Uncovering the science helps the world little if policy makers do not act on it. Your student might look to Frank Rowland as a model.

  40. 40

    I am slightly disturbed by many of the posts advising that “helping the planet remain as habitable” would be outside a climate science career, and that the individual would be better in activism or engineering. As a climate activist (for a depressingly long time), I can say that activism on climate is dependent on the science. The better the science on climate, the better the quality of activism can be. Activists across the world need climate scientists to continue working on climate, getting better predictions on sea level rises (for example) and shifting weather patterns, and then communicating that to people outside of science (hence the value of this site). Even a casual reading of Real Climate suggests that there are many gaps in our understanding of climate and related, there is more to be discovered, and if someone has an interest in dedicating his/her life to figuring these unknowns out, fantastic. Activists benefit, engineers benefit, and, hopefully, the planet too.

  41. 41
    JimCA says:

    The only way you’ll make a significant difference in any field is to put an insane amount of energy and concentration into some difficult topics.

    And the only way you’ll do that is if you absolutely love what you are doing, wake up each day (on the days you sleep) eager to get back into the problem-du-jour.

    Pick the field that motivates you the most deeply, and the rest will follow.

    Of course, finding a world-class advisor and convincing them you’re worth their attention is also a huge win.

  42. 42
    Alastair McDonald says:

    I agree with others that if you want to change the world you should really take up engineering or social sciences but this graduate is into maths so that is what he should exploit.

    The biggest threat to humanity is abrupt climate change. To understand that, i.e. Tipping Points, you need a grasp of Chaos and Catastrophe Theory. Chaos Theory arose out of meteorology and computing, so those skills would also be useful for a prospective climate scientist.

    But going back to my first point, it is important to understand that mathematics is just theory, and that it should be used as a tool not as a paradigm when addressing real world problems.

  43. 43
    Marcus says:

    Hello Gavin,

    “Bayesian approaches to statistics”

    is there one or a couple of books you would recommend?
    (a book, please, not a website)

    [Response: Jayne’s book is a classic, but I have been looking for something more up-to-date and accessible, but have not yet found one. – gavin]

  44. 44
    Bob F says:

    Yes, there are many routes into Earth Science and Climate Change studies. But it seems to me that if you KNOW you want to study these fields as a senior in college, then the best course of action would be a graduate program in Earth Science. I don’t think that either math or statistics would be the best PhD track here, especially if someone had little or no exposure to Earth Science as an undergraduate.

    As Earth Science becomes more complex and specialized, I think it will be come increasingly difficult for someone with ABSOLUTELY NO background in the field to just jump in as a post doc. No amount of linear algebra or Bayesian statistics can substitute for actual understanding of our planet.

  45. 45
    Bob F says:

    If you want to be involved in the economics of climate change (a hugely important field going forward), then I would suggest studying economics in grad school.

  46. 46
    Lou Smith says:

    After spending 32 years as medical school faculty, I followed some ideas into biotech where business considerations dominate. The greatest challenge was to be creative, not on my ideas, but someone else’s!! It can be done, and is just as rewarding.norvebci subjected

  47. 47
    Radge Havers says:

    A math background certainly opens up a lot of possibilities; might as well lay them all out and see where personal interests intersect with best citizenship. Might also include geography (physical and cultural), systems and industrial engineering, urban planning, policy and administrative studies, landscape architecture, risk management, etc. etc. Also could extend into dealing with the potential aftermath of inaction; disease control, hydrology and water policy, disaster relief, environmental clean up…

  48. 48
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I am living, walking proof that one can do everything bassackwards, step way, way off the career track and still wind up having a career by accident. My recommendation is to look at what you do well and whether those skills are common. For instance, most people do not think statistically. If stats comes naturally to you, exploit that. I wound up being a stats autodidact, mainly because so few people understood it, and it was a skill that was needed…desperately.

    Get the best background in basic science and math you can and try to use all of it. I’ve even used Stirling’s approximation to the factorial a couple of times when looking at reliability of large systems.

  49. 49
    David B. Benson says:

    Marcus @43 — E.T. Jaynes, “Probability Theory: The Logic of Science” remains the best introduction to Bayesian statistics for those with a decent math & physics background. I am currently reading Christian Robert’s “The Bayesian Choice” which is a more difficult text concentrating on decision theory; quite good but not the place to start.

  50. 50
    numerobis says:

    Outside research, there’s plenty of consultancies around looking for technical people who can help them design more energy-efficient buildings and business processes, for example. Bigger companies might do it in-house also.


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