THE PHD INTERVIEW

# Problems are there to be solved

A thirst for knowledge was Håkon Otneim’s motivation to get a PhD. The mathematical statistics method he created through his PhD can solve problems within most disciplines.

A THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE: Håkon Otneim felt a need to learn more after finishing his Masters’s thesis. A PhD presented him with new challenges.
Photo:
Jens Helleland Ådnanes, University of Bergen

What is mathematical statistics?

“In practice, statistics is all about collecting information from data. Everything one can observe can be turned into statistics, which in turn can be used to look for correlations, causes and effects. That is statistics.”

What is the theme of your thesis?

“First and foremost I am a mathematician, and methodology is closest to my heart – how to improve a method. I apply mathematics in creating methods. Working on my thesis, I created a certain method, used in solving certain problems, and I have researched its use, testing how well it works.”

What makes a statistical method work well?

“Simply said, a method works well if it solves our problem, and if we are able to express this through mathematics. This makes us able to quantify terms such as precision, variation, robustness and so on. By comparing different methods by how well they score on these criteria, we can determine which ones are the best and worst suited to solve a problem.”

What made you choose mathematical statistics?

“Studying mathematics on a lower level was no coincidence: it was what I was best in at school. Choosing statistics was more of a coincidence, on the other hand. I attended some lectures, and things just snowballed from there, I found it so interesting.”

Why so?

“The amount of problems you can formulate and solve through statistics is astounding. Statistics can give us an answer time and time again. Take the climate issue: does Earth’s temperature really rise? The average temperature of our planet falls and rises, it is not a constant and varies according to longitudes and latitudes, yet trends tell us that the temperature is on the rise. Is this reliable, or just a result of accidental variation? Statistics gives us a clear answer: there is a strong and significant rise in temperature. But what is the cause? Once again, statistics can provide the answer. The most likely reason is human influence.”

What were your motivations for applying for a PhD?

“My Master’s thesis was frustrating, in the way that I learned how little I really knew. I barely got to peek behind the tableau curtains, with a whole other world of questions asking to be answered. I felt a need to learn more. Luckily, a PhD position opened for me.”

How will you describe working on the PhD thesis?

“I was lucky to be able to continue the work I started in my Master’s thesis, with the same tutor. Mostly my time as a PhD candidate was quiet, nice and relatively stress free. I have a family, and working nights was not something I could have done or wanted to do. Towards the end it all got a bit more stressful, the disputation itself is a stress factor, of course. All in all, it has been a positive experience, I have gotten through everything all right, having had excellent counselling and a good progress along the way.”

How do you think your research results can be applied?

“Time will tell. I think the method I created can be applied by several disciplines. We are now in contact with companies creating software for the oil industry. The method can be applied in the analysis of observations in the search for oil, determining where one is most likely to make oil finds. There are no limitations as to which disciplines can find the method I developed useful.”

It did not take long before you had a new job after your PhD?

“Indeed, I found a job quite a long time before I finished. Finding work is easy for statisticians, as our expertise can be used practically everywhere. It is a highly useful knowledge to have, both in research as well as trade and industry.”

What are your plans? Where do you see yourself in ten years?

“I do not think all that much about that, I am not driven by career ambitions. Having interesting tasks in the here and now motivates me much more than a planned career path. I have no idea what I will be doing in ten years time, nor do I want to know. What I am sure of, though, is that I want to work with statistics. It might very well be in education, or through research should I discover something exciting. Time will tell.”