There are three questions that should not be asked of [geology] PhD students.
Number one: how is your research going?
Number two: what are you going to do when you finish? (especially frustrating for people like me who are LESS THAN HALF WAY THROUGH)
Number three: so, is this research going to help us, like find metals, or oil or something?
Numbers one and two are applicable to all sorts of researchers. Number three is a particular scourge of people who at some point became loosely affiliated with rocks. The likelihood of research being directly useful to someone who is not themselves a scientist, appears to decrease as the research credentials of a university go up. My current manuscript in preparation, with the roll-of-your-tongue-and-into-your-heart title of ‘Diffusion and partitioning of zirconium and hafnium in olivine: the importance of constraining chemical activity in diffusion studies’ is a typical example of this. ANU is a good university, and the school of Earth Sciences one of the world’s best (almost certainly in the top two universities in Canberra), but read the title again and ask, who cares? It may well be the case that in a few years somebody has read the paper and thought it useful in some way, or at least not burned it in disgust, but I guarantee it will not assist in the industries of metal, oil, paper or burritos in any way at all.
But does this mean that the research is still worth doing? I can answer this with a definitive…probably. In a recent study conducted on my computer I found that the most useful research in the long run (y-axis) is both extremely interesting and also extremely uninteresting.
The research that led to growing dinosaurs from a combination of frog DNA and fossilized mosquito blood is both interesting, and useful, as is the research that led to the formation of a clone army serving the evil
emporer a long time ago. In contrast, the research into the diffusion of zirconium and hafnium in olivine (the way atoms move around in crystals) rates very poorly on the interestingness scale (to 99.9% of the population, including most geologists) but also hopes to be very useful (but we have to wait a while for that, a long long while). Moderately interesting research is, in fact, mostly useless.
In conclusion, don’t try and clone bounty hunters, and don’t try and create dinosaurs. If you stick with doing things that most people will find uninteresting, they will all in fact turn out to be very useful. But you will probably be dead by the time that happens. And most importantly, the graph is a smile shape-so it doesn’t matter where you sit as long as you are happy. Unless you’re getting eaten by dinosaurs and stuff.