Monday, February 28, 2011

post-grad jobs

I've been catching up on old posts in my blogroll, and FSP's post here about post grad school jobs caught my eye.

I don't have any information on my grad department's placement rates. My department had a fair number of masters students, so we had a relatively low number of students intending to go into academia.

I have a better sense of how my advisor's research group did. Keeping in mind that my cohort graduated just as the economy tanked, I think we did pretty well. Nobody dropped out while I was there. My PhD friend and co-conference buddy (we were working on the different aspects of the same problem, so we ended up rooming together everywhere) is now an adjunct professor. Most of the other students were getting their masters only (my advisor was starting to wind down his career) and ended up either in consulting (industry) or government, with minimal post-graduate unemployment periods.

I agree that the measure of success for a grad program should be based on the percentage of grads placed into their intended career, not just the percentage of grads placed into academia. Hard as it can be for academic types to accept, not all of us want to be tenure-track professors.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

groundwater sampling

I decided I hadn't done any technical posts in a long-ass time...

One of the first things that a newbie in environmental consulting does is go out and sample groundwater monitoring wells. Doesn't matter if you're a biologist, geologist, engineer... most environmental investigations and practically all remedies involve groundwater monitoring, and the work doesn't involve a whole lot of technical know-how and has minimal chance for personal injury. That last bit, of course is relative to all fieldwork - any time you work outside, you have a decent chance of getting into some sort of vehicle incident, getting bitten by something, throwing your back out hoisting a cooler, and getting chased by angry property owners. But I digress.

I've sampled approximately...actually, I have no idea how many wells I've sampled. "Hundreds" is probably a low-ball estimate. I don't get much of a chance to sample wells any more - I usually do more complicated fieldwork when I do go into the field. But I've been helping someone out with groundwater sampling recently, and it reminded me of how complicated this stuff can actually be.

Sure, a field sampler is sent out with a work plan of some sort that states the sampling protocol, what bottles to fill, and where to send them. Those are usually straightforward. But what happens when things go wrong? The low-stress sampling procedure (which varies widely by jurisdiction) has some standards that you need to meet in order to get the sample correctly. How much can the water level in the well go down? What happens if you keep losing water? The water can be extracted by bailers (takes forever and is bound to get water everywhere) or by pumps (all finicky in their own special way), and what you use can affect sample quality.

I haven't seen or heard of companies that do really thorough training of new field people before they're sent on their own to do groundwater sampling. The older field hands often forget how many little details they've internalized or don't explain why each step is important (including filling all the paperwork out!) because there's always some sort of time crunch. And if the "why" isn't explained, then it looks like just a bunch of busywork and it's easy to blow off. Then you go into the field with someone who's been on their own for a while but not really trained (if you're lucky), or you get back strange data or a regulator or lawyer starts asking questions (if you're not so lucky) and find out exactly how much has gone missing.

Maybe I'm just too picky. Most sample results are never scrutinized by regulators or anybody else. But if you don't know what you're doing, you may get burned the few times it actually is really important. Which sample will be critical in litigation later? Who knows when you're out in the field, swatting mosquitos...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


I have been under-managed for my entire career, starting with my college thesis, moving onto a succession of jobs, and in grad school. This is generally ok - I don't feel the need for a lot of hand-holding and am generally content to do my own thing.

However, even though I don't need a great deal of external motivation, it would still be nice to get some positive feedback every once in a while.

When I was working on the project from hell, I had an unhappy client rep on-site non-stop, we were doing some experimental stuff that had all sorts of time and budget constraints (always a bad combination) and so nobody knew what they were doing, and I was trying to manage about six "difficult" people. By manage, I really mean "keep from killing each other". After each 13-hour day, I would spend 45 minutes on the phone with my boss and get lectured on how we were hemorrhaging money and how was I going to get the project (which I had no initial input into) back on track.

Toward the end of the job, we'd had a big "oopsie" and I had to physically get between the client rep and someone else to redirect them away from screaming at each other and toward fixing the problem. A technical expert who was outside the lines of authority pulled me aside and told me that he was impressed by my ability to handle the different personalities and keep an impossible project going forward.

That was the only positive thing anyone told me. It made me indescribably happy that someone with no stake in the game thought I had done well, and it almost made up for all the bullshit I'd been through.

It made me think - when had I last told someone at work that they had done a good job? Said more than, "thanks!" and then gone on with my day? From then on, I resolved to make an effort to notice when coworkers go above and beyond, and then compliment them.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

new passport

Ok, I'm finally back to 100% - now I have energy to work, cook dinner, and have time for blogging!

So, I just got my new, renewed passport. Out of curiosity, I pulled out my old passports (I'm so glad they send them back!) and compared them. Boy, is my face puffier in my new one compared to my old one! Then again, the last passport is a fair bit older than 10 years old, so changes are inevitable. So how do all of them compare?

I got my first passport when I was a kid, when my father was traveling quite a bit for work and my parents had a reasonable expectation that he would be going overseas. That didn't happen, and in fact, he was laid off shortly after I got the passport. No stamps.

I got the second passport when I was in high school before I got braces. Holy buckteeth, batman! I actually did some international traveling on this passport, but unfortunately not all countries stamp passports (much to my chagrin at the time). Four stamps.

I got the third passport in college. I ended up with two visas, one of which was in order to live in another country. That visa got a constellation of overlapping stamps because I kept leaving that country for various reasons, and customs insisted on stamping the visa itself and not the 10 blank pages behind it. Sixteen stamps.

I put in for an opportunity to do more international traveling for work. We'll see if that pans out - although I don't want to have an entire career abroad, I wouldn't mind it for temporary postings. My goal is to have a minimum of 16 stamps... let's see how I do over the next ten years.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

the flu

Sometimes I think about my professional position and I get discouraged. I went ahead and got an advanced degree, and although I got somewhat of a pay increase, I'm still underpaid relative to the local industry average (and way underpaid compared to other local scientists in general), my schedule is still all over the place, and the benefits suck.

I've been out sick with the flu. I'm basically a healthy person, and this one common bug sucked up my entire sick leave. That is, one week.

I'm still not really well - I'm still worn out and have some sort of lingering vertigo that has me convinced I'm going to faint if I stand for more then ten minutes or so, plus I'm still all stuffed up. But I'm not feverish or sleeping 15 hours a day any more, so I've been dragging my ass in every day.

I know some folks who are in my organization who are not terribly healthy. So they burn up their sick leave, then their vacation time, then they start taking unpaid leave, then the next time there are layoffs, they're on the list to be cut.

I don't really have an answer for that. I'm not exactly feeling sparky - maybe if I could get over the flu, I'd be more optimistic. Or more coherent...