Mission Dissertation

A sustainable engineering production.

Simplicity, Complexity, & Competency May 24, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dr. Briana @ 3:59 am

MIT-trained computer scientist, Cal Newport, runs a blog called “Study Hacks,” on which he offers advice on how to cultivate academic and personal success. He recently posted a useful article regarding complexity and problem-solving.

We all know that “hard results” are what count* in academia, but how do we get to those hard results in the most efficient way possible?

One road to attainment, Newport posits, is to seek simplicity in problems and complexity in technical skill. In Albert Einstein’s famous words, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Newport cites the graduate student who continues to expand their research topic for fear that a narrow focus will trivialize their work. (Sound familiar?) Complexity will eventually arise, but the deeper one examines the fundamentals, the greater understanding one gains with which to (more efficiently and effectively) address the problem’s full complexity. And of course, the more adept one becomes at solving a wide variety of complex problems, the more likely one is to solve one of the world’s “big” problems. This is how one succeeds* in academia, writes Newport. What do you think?

Personal context: I’ve been thinking about simplicity, complexity, and competency as I approach my dissertation defense. So much of the dissertation is completed silently, tucked away in corners of the library or lab. The portions not completed silently usually involve Q&A or brainstorming sessions focused on particular issues of particular chapters. This is simply one of the necessities of intensive research. In between officially scheduled research meetings, however, one sometimes needs feedback of a different sort. This is where the art of data-inspired storytelling comes into play.

Data-inspired storytelling is one way to measure competency and it is a technique to which I return time after time. For example, can I explain each and every chapter of my dissertation to three groups of people: 1) my committee members (professors who know my research), 2) academic colleagues, in and outside of my field, and 3) non-academic family and friends? Where do people get confused? Where do I stumble? Where do the results truly shine? To tell a story, or to deliver a presentation, is ultimately to take ownership of one’s work and of the path along which the hard results were created.


*Definitions of “count” and “success” vary from person to person. Here they refer to traditional academic hierarchy from student to professor to upper administration, where promotion to a higher status is usually directly proportional to the amount of knowledge (publications) one has contributed to the broader academic community.


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