The Motley View: On Geonudity and Some Benefits of Your GeoEngineering Education

“I’m OK, I know what I am doing. I picked up enough geology to get by…” (Kipahulu lava flow, Hawaii, 1987; photo: A. Klein)

About the time that this issue of the Motley View will be published [April 2008]  the 2008 class of UC Berkeley GeoEngineers will be finishing the Spring Term, soon to graduate. They will work through the night to complete the CE270L report for Prof. Seed, attend the Distinguished Lectures, party at the Banquet, listen to the speeches, and then get a Rock. Having been there, done that, I warmly congratulate this year’s GeoEngineering Graduates on completing their grueling adventures. But having got this far, what have you learned? What are the benefits you won from the considerable cost of spending between 1 and 5 years or so in the GeoEnginering Graduate program? What prompted you to put up with the pain anyway?  Let me tell my story before you tell me yours…

In 1989 I came to San Francisco from Hawaii for a short visit as the site project engineer for the largest earthwork project underway in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had planned on being here for a few weeks, long enough to train the technicians and staff engineers in earthwork observation. But my plans were soon upset when initial excavations revealed a horrible rock composed of sheared shale with embedded strong blocks of rock – a Franciscan Complex melange.  I had never even heard of melange, let alone worked with anything so complex. Life was also complicated by the local City’s Technical Reviewers, a gang of guys mostly armed with PhDs in Geotechnical Engineering from Berkeley, led by a world-famous Geotechnical Engineer. The project was a very difficult one and rather than return to Hawaii, I stayed on for about a year to battle with the gang over issues that often revolved around the horrible melange. I gradually started to feel ignorant. For the first time in a dozen years my excellent Bachelor’s education in Geological Engineering seemed insufficient. So I applied to Berkeley, was accepted to the MS Geotechnical Engineering program, and started studies in August 1990.

The first semester was challenging indeed. I was 42 – I had been told by a Berkeley Professor that I was too old to be a graduate student – and my class mates seemed much younger and much cleverer than I. I was awed by the knowledgeable, kind older professors, less impressed with the nasty green paper problem sets I had to struggle with.  Most upsetting was that some of the stuff I thought I knew about Geotechnical Engineering, and learned on the job in the dozen years since, seemed to be wrong. I was gradually being stripped of my geotechnical confidence; by the end of my MS program I would be naked, a geonude, and not in a fit condition to return to geotechnical consulting.

The only solution for my ignorance and geonudity seemed to be to to become more clothed, which meant learn more, cram in more education. I continued on to study for my doctorate. Then along came Dick Goodman asking me to join Eric Lindquist in a program focused on fundamental and applied research into the characterization and engineering properties of that same horrible melange that had prompted me to enter school in the first place. Cosmic, right?? (And if you are interested in how we did, you can read Dr. Lindquist’s and my dissertations at my bimrocks website).

It all turned out OK in the end -after the pain and struggles of mid-life schooling I won a couple more diplomas and some more letters after my name. But what other benefits did we win from our GeoEngineering degrees?

Well, that question brings me to the Motley View on the benefits of a geoengineering graduate education:

Realizing it is OK to be ignorant – as long as you know you are: By the time I finally finished my PhD, I felt even more ignorant than when I had started my studies four years earlier. But, the benefit was that I knew I was ignorant and I also knew how to repair the gaps in my understanding. Not all geoengineers learn this: I sometimes tell people that the most dangerous people I know are recent graduates from excellent GeoEngineering programs. They are dangerous because after surviving the tough graduate programs at world famous schools (often highly ranked by popular surveys), they unlearned much of their undergraduate soils education, and replaced that basic knowledge with the Truth. “We are now educated geotechnical engineers!” they say. Well: they are not. It takes many more years of practical experience before the wise graduate realizes how much more there is to learn.

Understanding that the “Geo” in “Geotechnical Engineering” comes from “Geology”:  Graduates from the Berkeley GeoEngineering should count themselves fortunate that they are exposed to the little geology that they are taught. It is nowhere near enough, of course, but at least they truthfully can say “I have picked up enough geology to get by.” And of course, because they know they are ignorant, they also know that that smidgen is still not enough.

 Learning that teamwork beats solitary completion. As a Teaching Assistant for a number of undergraduate courses, I was frequently shocked at the competitiveness and uncooperative selfishness of many 4.0 GPA Berkeley Civil Engineering undergraduate students. I have hired more than 30 people, and interviewed more than a 100, and I regard  arrogance and competiveness as the least attractive qualities of budding engineers.  However, I also have met many graduate geoengineers who seem to have benefited by teamwork with their class mates. Cooperation will be of great benefit in your careers, and hopefully you learned that spirit during your graduate geoengineering studies.

Improving your field observation/visualization/analytical skills:  Engineering Geology field trips, visits to Hamilton Air Force base, and Lectures from outside consultants provide some taste of the reality of consulting GeoEngineering. In my case, although I hated the green paper Problem Sets, I did learn to analyze problems in a clearer fashion than I had before I started my studies.  I also found that the necessity for visualizing helped me get through the long 4 year slog. I visualized, and actually practiced, walking down the corridor of the Graduate Division offices in Sproul Hall with a box containing my dissertation manuscript. (The actual event -shared with my wife-was ultimately an anticlimax, but the experience was nevertheless memorable because we went to buy a Berkeley Bear tie afterwards, and then went to Tilden Park where I went to sleep, exhausted, beside a duck pond.)  

 Recognizing you are part of a special network: For you who are now graduating, you should cherish your small network of classmates. You have all shared a difficult and challenging experience; one that will make you connected for the rest of your professional careers. Indeed, it is because of the value of our shared experiences as Berkeley GeoEngineering graduates that prompts the Steering Committee to publish the Berkeley GeoEngineering Alumni Association Newsletter. And if you don’t know yet how valuable a network of contacts can be, read the Motley View on the vitality of good contacts

This post is an adaptation of a Motley View  article, first published in the April/May 2008  Newsletter (No. 5 – the last)  of the Berkeley Geoengineering Alumni Association.

About Ed Medley

Ed Medley has been on a random walk for over 50 years. Many scribbles and snapshots at this site are from his vagabond transits; others are from his decades of international experience in geological and geotechnical engineering, academia, and mineral exploration prospecting.
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