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A few words of advice for Ph.D. candidates

I’m thankful for having had the pleasure of watching several of my classmates pass their general examinations this semester. “The general” constitutes the last major hurdle before the dissertation defense, and a successful examinee becomes “A.B.D.” (all but dissertation). As a recent Ph.D. recipient, I have aggregated a few nuggets of advice for them. Some of these items may seem self-evident in hindsight, but may not be to those upon which the stress is piled higher and deeper.

  • No escaping it, the dissertation is a daunting undertaking. It can seem insurmountable. The key to getting it done is to break it apart and tackle each chapter, section, and subsection individually. As the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? … One bite at a time.”

  • You must make dissertation writing a habit from now on. Set a writing schedule and stick to it. (For a scientific discussion of why this works, read Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot, which I extolled in a previous post.)

  • Ultimately, your name will be the only one on the spine in gold leaf, but no one writes a dissertation in a vacuum. Keep a list of people who helped you and notes about how they contributed. This list will easily transform into your acknowledgments section. Speaking of which…

  • The acknowledgment section is the only section of the dissertation over which you have complete control, so have fun with it. Give enthusiastic shout-outs to those who made your journey smoother. Include photos, anecdotes, poetry, whatever you want!

  • Be defensive about your time. You need to maintain laserlike focus on your goal. In the semesters prior to your defense, reclaim your time by load-shedding, and don’t take on new commitments. Let others know that your availability will be limited in the coming months, so that they can adjust. This advice is particularly relevant to women, since we are conditioned to try to please everyone. Learn to say, “No.” Be polite and pleasant, but also firm.

  • Some of your biggest stumbling blocks may be internal. There will be days when you simply don’t feel like writing. You will suffer setbacks. There will be days you feel like throwing up your hands and walking away from the whole endeavor. Always remember that you are not the first Ph.D. candidate to feel this way (although many of us think we are). A support group that meets over coffee once a week can be beneficial for working through your issues. If your internal blocks are too great for you or your support group to bear, consider seeking help from your school’s professional counseling services.

  • Do what you have to do to maintain your focus. Close your office door. If you share an office, use a visual signal to communicate when you do not want to be interrupted. (In my case, I wore a pair of over-the-ear headphones to tell my officemates that I was “in the zone.” Another of my colleagues put out a black rose on her desk when she did not want to be disturbed.) I also made extensive use of overnight hours, when distractions were at a minimum.

  • Stay physically active. Writing a dissertation involves sitting on your butt in front of a glowing screen for long periods of time. If you don’t take care of your body, no one else will. Don’t neglect diet and exercise, even when it’s crunch time. Stick to your exercise regimen. If you get stuck on a paragraph, a simple 10-minute walk outside can be a great refresher.

  • Keep your right brain busy, too. Analysis, derivation, and logic all fall to our left brains, and its fruits are traditionally over-represented in the dissertation. Don’t let the creative, nonlinear strengths of your right brain fall by the wayside. Paint, draw, sing, play a musical instrument, write poetry, laugh. Would you work out with only half a barbell?

  • Keep copious electronic notes that are easy to search. Our parents’ generation used note cards to organize information. We now have electronic tools that can do many of the same things. In my case, I created a (private) blog on LiveJournal and documented everything related to my dissertation there, including my thought processes, conversations with others, small epiphanies, and even more mundane things like compiler options. I used tags to organize it so that I could quickly reference past entries, a practice that saved me a great deal of time when I had to retrace my steps.

  • When you dedicate yourself so completely to studying one topic or case, literally for years, your brain will naturally yearn to work on other things. You will have flashes of inspiration for projects that aren’t related to your Ph.D. research at all. When new project ideas come, write them down, and save them for later. I kept a document called “Future projects?”, and one of those ideas turned into my postdoc.

  • Be kind to yourself. Set attainable, bite-sized goals, and don’t forget to reward yourself when you reach them.

Remember, you’ve progressed further toward your dreams than 99% of the population. You are the cream that rose to the top. You are stronger than you think you are. Be proud of that fact.

Good luck!

Boom town

Here’s a lightning shot from the storm that delayed he OU-Texas Tech football game on Saturday:

Lightning over east Norman
Lightning over east Norman on Saturday, 22 Oct 2011

This same round of storms had intermittent embedded supercells. One developing BWER appeared to pass right over our house. Farther northeast, a tornado was reported near Boley, OK. That tornado appeared to come out of a left-moving supercell. We were out of position to chase that one as it raced away toward the northeast along I-44.

Steel City Radar Conference

I recently attended the 35th AMS Radar Meteorology Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This biennial conference gathers meteorologists and engineers to talk about recent advances in weather radar.

Poster session
Thursday poster session at the 35th AMS Radar Meteorology Conference

A key word at this conference was calibration. Dr. V. Chandrasekar (author of a primary textbook, Polarimetric Doppler Weather Radar) gave a passionate key note talk lamenting the lack of field-wide standards for calibration of polarimetric measurements. How do we know that what we’re measuring from hundreds of kilometers away is accurate?

I gave one oral and one poster presentation about my current work, and chaired a session of six talks on VORTEX2 results. While oral presentations get recorded, I actually prefer poster sessions because I get to interact one-on-one with other conference attendees and potentially find new collaborators. Of course, I love chatting with friends, as well!

Tim Marshall visits my radar conference poster
Tim Marshall stops by my poster describing a recent GBVTD study.

We also got glimpses of the future, mostly in the form of prototypes and test data from new platforms. There were numerous talks about dual-pol, about phased array, and about dual-pol phased array. Several different groups are trying to tackle design issues inherent to a dual-pol phased array radar, including my engineer colleagues at UMass. My V2 engineer, Krzysztof Orzel, is part of one of these teams. His talk about their development of a mobile, dual-pol phased array system won him the Geotis Prize for the best oral presentation by a student. So, how soon can I put this new radar in front of a tornado? Krzysztof’s keeping mum on that point for now!

This conference also saw the “debut” of RaXPol data collected in the 24 May 2011 El Reno-Piedmont-Guthrie tornado. Dr. Andy Pazmany had the honor of presenting the banner data set from his “baby.”

Dr. Andy Pazmany "debuts" RaXPol data collected in the 24 May 2011 El Reno-Piedmont-Guthrie, OK tornado
Dr. Andy Pazmany "debuts" RaXPol data collected in the 24 May 2011 El Reno-Piedmont-Guthrie, OK tornado

If you look closely at the lower-right panel, you’ll see a “hole” in the ρhv field, indicating non-meteorological scatterers (debris) inside the tornado.

After shaking hands, sharing food, and pushing elevator buttons with dozens of my colleagues, some of whom flew here from Europe and Japan, it was no great surprise that I flew home with the first symptoms of a cold. To paraphrase one of my colleagues, Dr. Pam Heinselman, scientific conferences are great for the exchange of ideas, but also for the exchange of germs!

Scientists are seldom baffled, actually

The type of headline I dislike
Although the headline implies defeat, the article itself conveys intellectual arousal.
This afternoon, I checked into BBC News, and found an intriguing science headline near the top of the page. The article briefly summarized CERN observations that – if confirmed – would show conclusively, for the first time, that particles can travel faster than light. The implications of this result are no less than staggering; warp drive would be a step closer to reality! Don’t look for Captain Kirk and crew to materialize overhead tomorrow, because the particles in question are sub-atomic particles called neutrinos. But how can anyone not react to such news with fascination and wonder?

What raised my hackles was BBC News’ choice of headline: “Light-speed results baffle scientists.”

“Baffled scientists” headlines are a real pet peeve of mine. In 2007, I presented a lecture (okay, it was more of a rant) on this topic to my Severe and Unusual Weather class, just after Tropical Storm Humberto spun up to hurricane status a scant few hours prior to landfall. Generally, tropical cyclones weaken as they approach the shore, as part of the TC moves over land and the storm becomes partly cut off from its fuel source – the warm waters on the ocean’s surface. The spinup of Humberto (as was the overland re-intensification of Tropical Storm Erin earlier that fall) was unusual and noteworthy.

Annoyingly, the resulting headline on the front page of the next morning was something to the effect of, “Forecasters baffled by Humberto’s sudden strengthening.” (The article no longer appears in the archives, or I would link to it.) I posted this headline (along with some variants from other news sources) on my lecture slides, then had my students read the NHC forecast discussion for then-Tropical Storm Humberto that was issued just prior to landfall. It contains the following:


The NHC forecasters were hardly “baffled.” In fact, they acknowledged that Humberto’s attainment of hurricane status was within the envelope of possibility. I challenged my students to reconcile the NHC discussion with the headlines, and we had an insightful in-class dialogue about it.

Scientists baffled? Experts baffled? Doctors baffled? In most cases, the choice of the verb “to baffle” is incorrect. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “to baffle” means “to defeat by puzzling or confusing.” It is the notion of defeat that I find offensive. Defeat marks the end of a battle. Is the “defeated” scientist going to stalk out of the lab, all time and effort spent for naught, hanging his or her head in humiliation, and grudgingly apply for a job at the nearest Burger King? Hardly. Puzzlement and confusion usually signal the beginning of a new scientific effort, not the end! Any scientist worth his or her salt will not throw up his or her hands in the face of compelling evidence that contravenes established understanding, but rather run to the nearest keyboard and draft up a new grant proposal or e-mail query to knowledgeable colleagues. That’s exactly what the BBC report describes – the CERN scientists publicized their finding in order to obtain a quick, informal, open-ended peer review. (Incidentally, peer review is a topic I plan to cover another day!)

Of course, “baffled scientist” headlines wouldn’t get so many clicks if they didn’t have such popular appeal. Readers evidently like to imagine that the relentless brainiacs they knew in high school, whose hands eagerly shot up to correctly answer every question the science teacher asked, and whose test scores they could never hope to exceed, are now utterly flummoxed by some data point that they can’t immediately explain. Granted, I identify more with the latter group than the former, but I still come away with the mental image of lab coat-clad eggheads scratching their greasy heads in humble astonishment. Those nerds aren’t so smart as they thought, eh?

Not only is “scientists baffled” a tired cliché, it is also a damaging one. Since many scientists are funded by public money (through NSF, NIH, and the like)*, reiterated messages about “bafflement” (“defeat”) can cause laudable research efforts to be cut by politicians (and voters) who erroneously believe that the scientists they support spend their time wallowing in befuddlement, rather than generating useful, applicable results. One could even conclude that all scientific results are too tentative to be acted upon (climate change, for example). In truth, puzzlement is an integral part of the scientific process. It leads to questions, questions lead to hypotheses, hypotheses lead to experiments, experiments lead to results, and, as often as not, the results lead to more questions. Vannevar Bush called this self-sustaining process of discovery “The Endless Frontier”; a concept that became the intellectual cornerstone for the creation of the NSF.

The next time you see the words “scientists baffled” in a headline, try replacing “baffled” with “surprised” or “intrigued.” (And to those of you who report on science, please grab a nearby thesaurus!) Understand that you are probably reading the first chapter of someone’s discovery process. The universe has no solutions manual; it is the solutions manual, and we’ve barely deciphered a neutrino-size part of it.

*Scientists even say, “Thank you,” sometimes.

Steam devils in Yellowstone

As you may have inferred from my last entry, I recently took a vacation to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. A sublime experience, and definitely worthy of inclusion on the Great American bucket list. After all, the park belongs to everyone, just like the weather.

Inside the bubbling, fuming caldera, Dan and I caught a few nice steam devils spinning off the park’s famous geysers:

I can only imagine they’d be better in the winter, when the temperature contrast between the geothermally heated waters and the overlying atmosphere is all the greater.

Going to a National Park is kind of like storm chasing… complete with chaser convergence. Just swap in bears for tornadoes as the primary photo/video quarry. Whenever a bear appears within sight of a road, everyone pulls their vehicles over, and tripods and telescoping lenses are deployed. We witnessed some rather silly behavior by people dodging in and out of traffic trying to get their “money shots.” But in the end, everyone was there for the same reason – to experience nature’s majesty first hand.

Lower Falls, Yellowstone NP
Lower Falls, Yellowstone NP

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP
Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP

Excesior Geyser, Yellowstone NP
Steam over Excesior Geyser, Yellowstone NP

Bison in Yellowstone NP
Some of the 3,700 resident bison of Yellowstone NP

Sunset over the Grand Tetons
Sunset over the Grand Tetons, 20 August 2011

Grand Teton Sunrise

I hope you enjoy this highlight of my recent vacation.

I’m particularly fascinated by the fog in the Snake River Valley in the foreground. As we all know, denser, cooler air tends to flow downhill and “pool” in low-lying areas. If you take an evening or morning walk, you’ll notice that the temperature in river valleys, or even creek beds, is a few degrees cooler than it is uphill. In this video, mixing fog marks the interface between the cool and warm air. If the interface between the cool air and the warmer air above is disturbed, internal gravity waves should propagate along that interface. I believe that’s the source of the “sloshing” seen in the fog layer.

Mobile radars in Hurricane Irene

I’m not on the East Coast for Irene, but some of my colleagues are. A subset of VORTEX2 vehicles (SMART-R2, TTU Ka-bands, UAH-MAX, and a mobile mesonet or two) and personnel waited on the North Carolina coast for a red-eye landfall. In addition, RaXPol is getting its hurricane baptism!

As of this writing, Hurricane Irene is a Category 1, with sustained winds of 85 mph, and the best damage the TV news crews can seem to find is some siding peeling off beachfront property. Is Irene being overhyped? I don’t think so. In contrast to previous hurricanes, the threat to humans from Irene is more water-based than wind-based. Flooding will likely be exacerbated by the expansive areal coverage of the hurricane and its relatively slow movement. In addition, Irene (or what’s left of it) is progged to make landfall in SE NY around high tide. Evacuating the low-lying areas around the coast is a prudent move.

My former classmate, Eric Holthaus, airs similar thoughts in his WSJ weather blog post.

“Bugnado” in Iowa

I didn’t shoot this video; my fellow storm chaser Mike Hollingshead did. I’m simply among the many who find it fascinating:

No, it’s not a sign of the end times. As an entomologist explained on NPR, midges love marshy areas, and this year’s floods in western Iowa have turned large expanses of farmland into prime breeding habitat.

If I can chase dust devils, I’m certainly not going to fault Mike for chasing bugnadoes! As he comments at the beginning of the video, “a vortex is a vortex to a storm chaser.”

Paying it forward

Yesterday, I had the privilege of taking a young weather enthusiast and aspiring meteorologist on a one-on-one tour of the National Weather Center. I nearly always jump at the chance to interact with kid weather weenies. How often do you get to assure one that they’re not alone when they lie on their backs in the grass and watch the cumuli bubble overhead? Or that their science and math skills are not a liability, but an asset? Or possibly provide a vision of how their life might unfold?

As I’ve alluded to in my bio, I didn’t have a single childhood hero or role model that I tried to emulate. I had lots of good candidates, though, mainly ones that I saw on television. I’m privileged to now call all many of these people my colleagues (in no particular order): Lou Wicker, Chuck Doswell, Howie Bluestein, Tim Marshall, Don Burgess, and several others.

A younger version of me with an artistic vision of a tornado.
My high school art class painted a multipanel mural depicting Roseville's history, and naturally, I was charged with painting the panel about the tornado that struck the town in 1981. Bonus weather nerd points if you can figure out what image I used as the source.
As much as I admired these individuals, they were still primarily images on a screen to me. Most of them lived and worked in the Southern Great Plains, and seldom had cause to make public appearances in Minnesota, where I was growing up. In 1995 or 1996, my high school held a series of career brown bag lunches. You can probably imagine what they consisted of – the school invited in professionals (engineers, scientists, writers, etc.) to give advice to students seeking to follow in their footsteps, and dispense any pearls of wisdom they had accumulated along the way. Of course, I jumped when I saw a meteorologist on the schedule. I think I was one of two people who signed up to talk to him (the weather gene always has been recessive), and because of my class schedule, I got him all to myself for an hour.

The speaker was a meteorologist from the NWS office in Chanhassen, MN (closest to the Twin Cities). I’m sorry to say I don’t remember his full name or job title, but I think his first name was Mark (or possibly Mike). My recollection is that Mark and I had a very pleasant, casual conversation. He told me about the career path that had brought him to the NWS, and he advised me to continue what I was doing – accelerated math and physics courses.

Naturally, I steered the conversation towards tornadoes, and he recommended that I order a copy of Tornado Video Classics. He even sent me a follow-up letter after we met, containing the address for the Tornado Project, and saying what a pleasure it had been to meet with me. I followed Mark’s advice and got my tornado video fix for the next several years through TVC and its two sequels. I also learned more about the research going on in Norman, and the people who were doing it… information that, as it turned out, foreshadowed my future.

My course toward meteorology was pretty much charted by the time I got to high school, but if my meeting with Mark hadn’t been nearly as pleasant, I wonder if things would have turned out differently. I’d like to think that I would have shrugged off any misgivings and continued on my way, but who knows? Maybe my career trajectory would have led me elsewhere.

Sadly, I lost Mark’s follow-up letter somewhere among several interstate moves, and I have forgotten his surname. As a result, I haven’t been able to satisfy my urge to send him a proper thank-you note and update him on my whereabouts since we spoke 15 years ago. (I tried making an inquiry with the Chanhassen office a few years ago when a classmate-turned-forecaster transferred there, but no one seemed to be able to say with certainty who it was I might have met with.) Perhaps he moved on to another office, or moved into the private sector. Perhaps he doesn’t even remember meeting one dark-haired, flannel clad tornado geek back in the mid-90s. But I certainly remember the kindness that Mark showed me, and have tried to pay it forward in the form of role modeling and patience toward young, would-be meteorologists, like the bright-eyed one I met yesterday.

Mark, if you’re out there, and you’re reading this, thank you!