Monday, April 29, 2013

Five years ago

In this recent Ask a Manager post, the commenters had a side discussion about predicting career paths. Five years ago, did you plan/expect to be where you are now?

Five years ago, I was an active lurker on the geoblogosphere, and was getting exercised enough to consider writing my own posts. The five-year anniversary of this blog is coming up in a couple of months!

But I digress. Five years ago, I was in the weeds of my fieldwork for my master's thesis. I was more worried about my immediate future (finishing!), but I had a couple vague ideas of what to do after graduation. I would move to my sweetie's city as a permanent base. I would do something environmentally-related using the stuff I was learning in grad school, but I was not planning on going back to environmental consulting.

So did my predictions pan out? Sort of... sideways.

I did end up using the stuff I learned in grad school, but not right away. I spent a couple of years spinning my wheels, career-wise, doing lots of different things that were not what I went to school for. And my sweetie and I had a revelation and moved somewhere completely different.

So I'm in a different region, in a different corner of the environmental consulting biz, but I am doing really interesting stuff that uses what I learned in grad school.

Where will I be in 5 years? I am a little bit superstitious about voicing future plans. But I hope that I will still have my current gig (I really like where I ended up!) and that I'll grow into an expert in my little corner of geology and contamination. Specifically, I hope to be awesome enough that when folks inside and outside my organization run into a particularly knotty remediation problem, they say, "I know, let's call Short Geologist! She's perfect for dealing with this!"

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

I detect...

I keep seeing TV ads for metal detectors. You can detect coins! Jewelery!

If I'm going to a site with potentially buried monitoring wells or other useful infrastructure, I take along a metal detector. I never find anything interesting - I'm lucky to find what I'm actually looking for.

But that's because we wouldn't expect to find anything terribly interesting in the back of an old industrial park or factory, right? What if we go to a more interesting location?

I once had to remove all metallic debris from a historic military site - prime pickings, right? So what did I find?

1. Several horseshoes.
2. About 20 old bottles with screw caps.
3. A couple of bucks' worth of modern loose change (mostly nickels and pennies)
4. More than fifty feet of barbed wire, all snarled around itself 2 feet below ground surface.
5. Approximately 10,000 rusty nails, washers, paperclips, brads, and staples.
6. Lots and lots of indeterminate scrap.
7. A surprisingly large number of iron-rich rocks (unexpected for the local geology).
8. A bunch of bottle caps.

And then I found something explodey and I didn't get to pick nails out of the ground anymore.

Anywhoo, the point is that after poring through this fertile ground for almost a week, I had found little of interest and zilch of monetary value. So no, I will not be purchasing my own top-of-the-line metal detector to explore the detritus around my yard.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Hi, I'm a student

 FSP has a recent post here regarding students introducing themselves when they start presentations. She dislikes them. And so does most of the commentariat.

This is a little strange to me. When I was in grad school, I gave a bunch of presentations, and I really couldn't tell you if I started out by saying, "Hi, I'm Short Geologist, a student at X". I probably did. Not because I was angling for a job (that's what the conference networking is for) or because I was hoping to that the audience would go easy on me (hey, this presentation got accepted, and I've got interesting things to discuss! What's to be afraid of?) but because that's how I generally introduced myself at conferences.

I don't really see what a big deal it is. If you're not formally introduced, it makes sense to give the audience some context as to where you're coming from. Are you from a think tank? A federal agency? Academia? Industry? And besides, part of the point of the presentation is to publicize whatever institution is supporting your awesome research (even if it's just the institution that's paying your salary).

I agree that it would be a little strange to go into the nitty-gritty ("I've been working on my thesis for two years now, and I'd really like to wrap things up and be paid an actual salary"), but a one-sentence introduction that mentions you're a student seems completely reasonable.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

lateral job movement?

Hey, AAM has a question from someone in the environmental field! The OP is having trouble finding work in the environmental biz. They've gotten advice to look in other fields, such as environmental or public health. So what to do?

The environmental field is a pretty big tent, as I alluded to in this old post. So an environmental scientist can go in a bunch of different directions.

The question is, should you try to start somewhere else in the environmental biz (or even further afield) and then try to move laterally? It depends on how far away from your target you go and how transferable your skills are.

For example, if you are a geologist and and the local job market is terrible because the two big environmental consulting firms in town just merged, take a look at geotechnical/engineering firms. You'll still be watching drill rigs and learning important skills for future environmental work.

Or, you start at a firm that does what you'd like to do eventually, and start as an field monkey (we all start there) and as you get a reputation for reliability and smarts, look for opportunities to move into more technical and management work.

Just keep in mind the basic functions of the jobs you're looking at and how they fit with your experience. For example, environmental studies and environmental science are usually completely different. At my grad school, environmental studies was a social science and was folded into the school of planning/architecture/geography. If you tried to get a job in, say, environmental consulting, you'd have a much harder time than a geologist/biologist/engineer. If you're trying to get into public policy, you could expand your job search to more policy-related positions, which may be more or less focused on particularly environmental issues.

Something else to keep in mind while job-hunting: many idealistic environmental graduates avoid applying to work for "the bad guys" - manufacturers, oil companies, the military. But you'll find that some of the stereotypically bad guys have the deep pockets to actually make a positive impact on their community, and some of the regulators are trapped in a morass of politics. Don't write off anyone too early.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

making do

If the whole crew is on site and raring to go, and then you realize you've forgotten something critical, you try to make do with what you have.

In this particular case, the drillers had forgotten the core boxes for the hundreds of feet of rock core we were producing. No problem! Just put the cores back together, roll them into the black plastic we used to construct the decontamination pad, and duct-tape the packages together.

These went into the wayward core boxes a couple of days later.

Just make sure that the duct-tape labels are firmly stuck so that the "up direction", depth, and boring ID are known, so you don't end up having to piece together 50 cores by fitting the ends together.

Monday, April 8, 2013

drill right here

In environmental investigations, the relationship between the mark you put on the map and the physical location where a boring is drilled in the field can be tenuous. This can be addressed by doing a thorough initial survey before finalizing your plans (take lots of photos!), but sometimes things change. For example, the local utility-marking organization comes out a day or two earlier and shows that you have a rat's nest of lines right where you want to drill. Or you didn't look up, so you didn't see that a drill rig's mast would get completely tangled in the understory of the massive tree near your location.

Drill rigs can reach places you may not expect (fond memories of drilling on scary-steep slopes!), or may get hung up in places you didn't expect, either. And trees can blow over and random cars can get parked for days unexpectedly. So when preparing for an investigation, it's always best to clear a much larger area than you think you'll need, so you have the option of moving around... or if not, then having some flexibility with your drilling schedule so you can get the easy stuff first while you wait for new locations to be accepted and cleared.

Most of the time, moving over 5 or 10 or 20 feet doesn't impact the data you collect. If you have an especially small site or you're trying to place sentinel wells on the property boundary, you have less room to maneuver.

However, I've worked on a few bedrock investigations where we were trying to target specific fractures. Usually we'd do surface geophysics (usually some combination of seismic, ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic, or electrical conductivity/resistance studies) first to find potential water-bearing fractures, then we'd tag a particular spot for drilling. Drill rig access often didn't enter into it.

So that was how I found myself (and the driller) staring at a little pinflag next to a boulder, between two giant trees, in a saturated wetland. After a few phone calls, it was established that the fracture was close to vertical, so we couldn't just move over to intercept it a little deeper, and the signal petered out not very far away. After winching the drill rig in, supplying a breadcrumb trail of concrete blocks to stand on, and doing some amateur aerial branch cutting, we drilled... a dry hole. The technical lead asked if we had actually drilled on the exact correct spot. Well, not prescisely the same spot. Anyway, my bacon was saved when we did further investigation and established that we had actually intercepted what appeared to be the correct fracture. It just wasn't transmitting the water it was supposed to.

Always keep in mind that we have control over lots of different variables in environmental investigations. But we do not control the geology.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

international travel

I was flipping through the channels and caught a Rick Steves Europe special recently - one that's all about super basic and practical travel trips. My sweetie and I got a good chuckle out of how basic, exactly, it was. Did you know that trains in Europe are well organized, and that you can often often figure out what the signs are saying by their similarities to English words (e.g. "farmacia" for pharmacy), and that they have ATMs?

I started giggling at Rick's detailed explanation of how an ATM works ("you have a 4-digit PIN number..."), but then my sweetie reminded me that when I was preparing for my epic vacation 2 years ago, my parents could not understand why I wasn't bringing a wad of traveler's checks.

The first time I traveled abroad and had control over my own spending was 1995. I brought traveler's checks and found them nigh-impossible to get rid of. I don't remember using an ATM;  for big purchases, I used a credit card, and I had gotten my cash for smaller stuff from the attractive money-changing cashier who flirted with me.

My parents are pretty well-traveled themselves, but they have a different style than I do. They like being taken care of, and they stress out about stuff that I consider pretty basic. What if I get a headache? What if it pours and I run out of socks? What if my credit card gets stolen?

My answer to all of this is, people live there! You can find pharmacies, laundromats, and internet. Between my GPS, the internet, a basic phrasebook, and yes, a debit card, my sweetie and I tooled across our selected piece of Europe with no trouble at all.

I may have giggled at Steves' travel tips, but hey. We all have to start somewhere...

Monday, April 1, 2013

conference tips

Ask a manager has a recent post requesting tips for young professionals attending their first conferences, and the post has a long list of good suggestions.

I've gone to a bunch of conferences in grad school and for work. A few of my suggestions (most of which were already covered):

1. Have a sweater or other warm cover-up such as a suit blazer, and make sure you have a respectable enough underlayer that you're comfortable taking the outer layer off. Expect the temperature control to be all over the place.
2. Comfortable shoes!
3. If you're going with other coworkers/students, divide up the sessions in advance so that you get more out of the conference as a group. The "in advance" bit is important because otherwise you'll spend all the time between sessions brainstorming who's going where.
4. If you're going in a big group, try to split up so that you don't default to hanging out only with the folks you already know.
5. If you don't know anybody at the conference, remember that you can always buttonhole the folks who have given presentations you've seen - you already have at least one topic to discuss.
6. Have a handy, easily-reachable place for business cards you receive, and one for your own business cards. Keep these separate, so you don't have to shuffle through other folks' cards to find some of your own.
7. I always try to wear shirts/tops with either pockets, buttons, or something else that I can clip my nametag on without having to stick it next to my neck or down by my hip.
8. I like to bring a thin bag that's big enough for my personal stuff and has some sort of dividers so that I can keep my conference swag and my notes separate, such as a small laptop bag.
9. Don't be afraid to ask questions! Presenters, organizers, and vendors are all happy to chat.

I always enjoy conferences - you get to meet a bunch of folks who are doing similar things or are at a similar stage in their career, but who live all over the country. And if you're lucky, you may find the perfect research method/product/client/employer while you're waiting in line.