Friday, May 30, 2014


I am a big believer in section headers for anything longer than, say, three pages. Very few of us can write long, elegant passages that flow naturally from one topic to the next, and even if you can pull it off, those long passages make it difficult for your readers to locate what they need.

I am a bit scatterbrained, and I pull my understanding of the geology from lots of different pieces. So having lots of labelled subsections allows me to impose order on what I'm writing. If the subsections are too short, I can always move them around and merge them later.

When I'm reviewing a report, I have a pretty wide latitude for report organization. You want to have 6 major sections and give each section 21 subsections? Ok, as long as the reader can follow along. You have 6 different levels of nested subsections? Ok, but after a while I'm going to lose track of whether this is section or Usually an organization will have a style guide that will dictate the section organization to a large degree.

There are still rules, however.

1. If you divide up a section into subsections, you cannot just have one subsection. For example, if you're in Section 2.1, you'd better also have a Section 2.2.
2. Strive for parallel construction. If you talk about metals and organic compounds in Area A (Section 2 = Area A, Section 2.1 = metals, and Section 2.2 = organic compounds), and then you discuss metals and organics in Area B in the next section, then the subsections should be Section 3.1 = metals, 3.2 = organic compounds. Not metals and organic compounds, not a long narrative with no subsections.
3. If you have long, meandering discussions where you talk about analytical methods and then results for this class of chemicals and the groundwater flow paths that show that they're going this way and oh by the way this other group of chemicals has these properties and oh look there's a squirrel... fix that. Start with section headers. At the very least, looking at the jumble of section headers in the table of contents will alert the reader to what they're getting into.

In the environmental field, getting your reports organized properly will save time, money, and goodwill from regulators, opposing consultants, and the public. Incomprehensible reports make those important stakeholders think you are a) incompetent and/or b) hiding something. This does you no favors in the short term or the long term.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

certification collecting

After I got my PG (professional geologist) license, I started exploring other certifications. CPG? PG for other states nearby? When I asked other geologists at work, they didn't think those other certifications would do much for the organization or for me personally, so I dropped it. 

There's been a backlash against certifications recently. For one, the sheer number of certifications seems to be multiplying. In the environmental biz, PG, PE (professional engineer), and some state-specific designations for environmental professionals have been around forever. Depending on what you work on, you may find other certifications such as CHMM to be useful. But new environmental management/science certs appear to be popping up everywhere - this website has about 20, making me suspicious that it's more of a certification mill than anything else. It's worth asking: what do these letters mean to anyone else? What roadblocks will they remove?

My sweetie (and the commentariat at AAM, although now I can't find an example) think that most certifications are just a useless obstacle to keep out new people and make sorting through résumés easier.

I don't think that's true for the PG. Getting a PG shows that a third party determined 1) my college/grad school transcripts showed that I passed a bunch of appropriate courses; 2) other people in the field are willing to vouch for me; and 3) I passed tests on general and professional knowledge. Those don't make me a great geologist automatically, but they do mean I've been confirmed to be at least minimally qualified. I'm also easy to find/check because I'm registered with the state. Finally, as a PG, I also have certain ethical requirements, and if I do something grossly unethical/incompetent, I can be hauled in front of a hearing board and my license removed.

That last bit can be pretty useful. If I'm encouraged/asked to do something that I'm not comfortable with, the PG gives me a backstop: "I will not jeopardize my license for this!" I haven't had to say this, but it's good to have the option available.

I'm focusing more on the science/writing/teaching stuff, so I don't foresee getting more regulatory or management-type certifications. But I'm open to certification-collecting if things do change.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

steel-toe standards

I'm always interested in the differences between environmental consulting and other common industries for geologists, such as oil&gas or mining. A comment on this post reminded me that for all my discussions about shoes, I haven't mentioned what's actually required in the environmental business. Short answer: it depends.

The minimum standard is steel-toe boots. I worked for one organization that required steel shanks as well, which put all those Dr. Martens I like so much out of contention. I haven't run into metatarsal-protecting requirements for myself (particularly ugly example here) although I know some health and safety folks who have a pair tucked away. Often reimbursement requires proof that the boots meet ANSI standards.

I often see steel-toe other things in stores and on websites. Steel-toe sneakers. Steel-toe clogs (!?). Steel-toe dress shoes. In the environmental business, you need to have lace-up boots. Some organizations are more or less picky about ankle support, but generally low-cut boots are frowned on. A drilling location at an environmental site is generally comparable to an early-phase construction site, with lots of hoses lying around, vehicles coming in and out, uneven terrain, and mud or dust. The primary hazard is vehicular and slip-trip-fall. Worst-case scenario, you need the ability to skedaddle, and slip-on shoes don't help.

If you're doing mud-rotary or air-rotary drilling and there's potential to be standing in potentially contaminated gack, the number one way to limit exposure is to not be standing in it. The only person who should be in there is the helper(s) who are mucking out the mud tub. In those cases, the helper will often wear a pair of steel-toe rubber boots. Usually the driller stands on a little fold-out platform at the controls (see below, from here) and only rarely has to stand in the cuttings.

With that said, steel-toe rubber boots are a good back-up in certain situations: They can help in the winter if you're going to be standing in a snowbank or a puddle of slush all day. They're also useful if you find yourself in a truly hazardous or gross material and you need to decontaminate your boots. For example, when I was trying to add enough extra bentonite and wood shavings to stabilize a roll-off container of contaminated slop so that it could be picked up by the hauler without sloshing out the back. Standing in a roll-off box and smushing wood shavings into slop by standing on a pile and kicking it around is not my finest moment.

To sum up: lace-up, over the ankle steel toe boots! Unless sloppy mess, in which case rubber boots are ok. Maybe. It can be complicated out there.

Friday, May 16, 2014

more shoe trouble

I've complained before (here and here) about finding steel-toe boots that actually fit. Part of the problem is that my feet are not only small, but difficult. So here's a long explanation of why, exactly, I have such a hard time finding shoes that fit:

1. High arches: I have super high arches. My footprint has just the tiniest side connecting heel and toe. I like my high arches - I think they make my feet look elegant. But. Because my arches are so high, my instep is also very high. So I can't wear most pull-on shoes, and especially not clogs. Also, if I'm half asleep and I streeeetch and point my toes, a tendon or something gets dislocated and my toes get stuck over-curled. It's incredibly painful, and the only way to fix it is to physically grab my foot and wrench my toes around the right way. I don't know anyone else with this problem.

2. Wide feet: Because I was a little hippie heathen growing up, I spent every possible second barefoot as long as the ground wasn't still frozen. I did a lot of running around outside, on asphalt, barefoot. So the pads of my feet and my toes are splayed out. I have an especially hard time with sandals and fancy strappy shoes.

3. Stubby toes: When I was a kid, we used to say that someone with a second toe longer than their big toe had "Jesus feet". I have anti-Jesus feet. I've got normal big toes and then a line of stubby little toes. No pointy or peep-toe shoes for me.

4. Upturned toes: Some people have feet that continue straight downward at the toes. My toes sort of stick up at the tips. Combined with a decent bend in my nail beds, this means that I need some serious room in the toe box of my shoes. Otherwise, the top of the nails on my big toes press up against the inside of my shoes. And that is how I got a horrific infection from a long week wearing cheap steel-toe boots in lousy weather and had to have all sorts of icky stuff removed and was threatened with having the toenail removed entirely (permanently).

5. Sensitive toes: I hate thongs/flip flops. Sigh.

So how do I deal with these trials and tribulations? Dr. Martens for steel toe boots for the field, Dr. Martens for mary janes for the office. And Fluevogs for casual Fridays and whenever. Because when you have funny feet, it's worth paying extra for shoes that actually work and will hold up over time.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

report formatting

On very rare occasions, I get to write big fancy reports (or long, complicated chapters for those reports) that don't fit in a specific format and can't just be copied over from an earlier report/another project. The very first thing I do is write an outline with suggested numbering for subsections, figures, tables, and appendices.

The second thing I do is grab all potential reviewers/managers/section writers and arrange for a big meeting to agree to the organization. Do you want to organize this discussion by contaminant type? By area? By process? Have I missed some critical piece that will need to fit in? Most of the time, the people involved couldn't care less, and so they breeze through and agree with everything I say just to get the meeting over with. I try to be a stickler on this, and if there's any potential disagreement with the overall format/plan for the report, I try to get client buy-in.

Once I've actually started the meat of the analysis, I may need to rearrange some things. So I don't fuss with the exact numbering/formatting until bulk of the text is together. If I discover some and major new issue with the geology or an unexpected chemical trend, I'll try to check in with the decision makers to adjust before spending much time on the write-up.

It is infinitely easier to have an approved plan of attack, then to write 40 or 50 or 200 pages and have someone say, "nah, I want to put it together this way" and have to re-write everything. And renumber the tables and figures and appendices and change all 400 references to them. And of course, with big reports, inevitably you only get those "re-write everything" comments once the whole thing is together for final review and you have to change everything at the last minute and that's when critical pieces fall through.

I generally take technical/writing criticism well. I promise. I do not take constructive criticism quite as well when I'm told to totally reorganize a completed thing ages after I tried to get initial buy-in on the organization and was ignored.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

checks and balances

Environmental investigations requires several different roles: management, data collection, health and safety, quality control, etc. The division of roles, how much they overlap, and the level of expertise/cost of each person will vary. But you always have a field manager who's in charge in the field and a project manager (PM) who's in charge of the entire project. You also have an in-field safety lead.

The safety person is the person focused on making sure everything is safe, and is the point person for all emergencies. Large investigations (multiple crews, lots of people, high-risk work) may have a dedicated safety person, but this is rare. In my experience, the safety person can be anyone from the organization running the work who is in the field, and if they leave for any reason, the role is rotated to someone else physically on-site. The best practice is to not use the field manager as the safety person, because the field manager is primarily focused on doing the work under the direction of the PM. The safety person may report to the PM, but if there's any question of safety that isn't adequately addressed by the field chain of command, they ultimately work for corporate health and safety, and not the project. Of course, if I'm the only field person from my institution, I wear all the hats. If there's two of us, one is the field manager and one is the safety manager.

Field management is often a stepping stone to overall project management. Lower-level PMs often have small, uncomplicated sites that they also do the fieldwork for. It makes sense - if you've been running the fieldwork, it's easy enough to continue doing so even after you've had other responsibilities added. And it's really easy to coordinate your own fieldwork, data collection, analysis, report writing, etc. The problem is that, as PM, it's a little too easy to adjust things in the field based on your understanding of the client and what they want. Or because you know the budget is a little tight right now...

Far better, from a technical and legal standpoint, to have separate roles for the different types of managers.

Monday, May 5, 2014

environmental ex-military

I've worked with lots of veterans/ex-military folks in the environmental field in different capacities. When I thought about it (prompted by the comment on this post), I came up with a bunch of different areas of the environmental biz in which military experience is encouraged (and in some cases required).

1. Entry-level: I want my entry level hires to have some basic undergrad-level science background, because fieldwork is not just an exercise of filling jars and following directions. If something looks off, can you adjust based on a reasonable understanding of the science behind what you're doing? With that said, fieldwork requires you to be self-reliant, to be diligent in completing paperwork and other dull stuff without someone standing over you. And of course, to be ok with doing physical work in bad weather. If you've been in the military, I can safely assume that you'll do just fine with those aspects of the job.

2. Drillers: ex-military folks are very well represented in the drilling industry. I know several drilling managers/owners who specifically seek out ex-military folks as helpers and then as drillers. The reliability and willingness to do hard work I mentioned in #1 are nice, but having someone who knows what to do in an emergency, instinctively, is a huge asset. I've also worked with drillers who are/were firefighters and the same thing applies. When you're in the middle of nowhere, with extremely expensive machinery that may break and do something terrible (or if you have a dumb/clumsy helper), having that ingrained instinct to assess damage/hazards to others and do emergency first aid is key. Also, in my experience, if I have an exceptional driller/helper who is proactive with personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety in general, he's likely an ex-Marine.

3. Project management: I'm not sure if it was a quirk of the organizations I've worked for, but I worked with ton of ex-military logistics types: folks who weren't in combat, but who spent a significant amount of time overseas or in the US running various operations. In the environmental industry, a lot of what we do (and a lot of the cost) is in the logistics.

4. Unexploded ordnance (UXO): military contamination and military explodey bits go hand-in-hand. The US has a huge footprint of areas that were used for target practice, and many of those ranges have passed out of military control. I went trawling through the web for a situation I remembered (I thought in NJ) where a school was built on top of a giant bomb, but my google-foo failed. I found lots of articles like this one, though. Anywhoo, the point is that the environmental biz uses UXO experts in a surprising number of investigations, and all the UXO folks I know are veterans.

5. Business owners: US government (and often state and local) contracts heavily favor veteran-owned (or better yet, service-disabled veteran owned) businesses. Big and small federal contractors are strongly encouraged to subcontract work out to veteran-owned firms. So if you're an entrepreneurial veteran with some experience in or knowledge of a particular facet of the environmental biz, you can get a good head start as a business owner. Keeping that business going and maintaining clients is the hard part.

I know that here in the US, veterans can have a hard time finding post-military employment. I do think that environmental consulting firms are generally veteran-friendly, and that the environmental biz is more likely than others to give a veteran with little industry experience a chance.

Friday, May 2, 2014

good reviewing

AAM recently had a post from someone who was frustrated with a manager who would only give vague (but extremely negative) feedback about her writing.

Non-specific review comments annoy me as well. They're completely unproductive. For internal review (is what this document up to snuff before it goes out the door), general comments waste the writer's time as they practice mind-reading, and for external review especially if you have a contentious relationships, they give your opponent an opening to bash away at your own credibility.

If you're going to go to the trouble to make a comment, you might as well be specific about what the problem is, even if it's "this sentence is so complicated I forgot what the subject was three lines ago".

There are very few truly "general" criticisms. Boring? Minimize the passive voice, cut down (or at least vary) your sentence and paragraph length, expand your vocabulary. Wrong writing level for the audience? Minimize jargon and use simpler/less fancy words to say the same thing (help/aid, use/utilize, find/locate). Awkward phrasing? Jump in and rearrange things.

One thing to keep in mind if you're feeling stymied/unappreciated as a writer: it is always harder to do the first cut. If you're trying to figure out if something's a trend or pulling together a technical explanation out of a bunch of different observations, it's sometimes hard to step back and figure out how things best flow together. Or what to cut out. That's why I always have another pair of eyes for my reports - so someone else who isn't as invested in those particular words can decide a newer, better way to phrase things.... As long as they have a specific way to phrase things.