Wednesday, November 26, 2008

more poison ivy stuff

Earlier this month, I wrote this long post about poison whatever, which is probably the most immediate health and safety hazard at most field sites I've been to (other than tripping over crap). I thought I'd add a couple poison ivy oddities I've encountered.

1. I had an annoying case of poison ivy a few years back that was centered right at the waistband of my field pants. It drove me nuts, but eventually went away. About a week after it did so, I had one of those hellacious weeks of fieldwork where you start with no budget (due to earlier cost overruns that are out of your hands) and you have difficult neighbors/client reps and everything that can go wrong does (this was the week that I first needed a drain snake). So you look like an idiot while you've got these other people breathing down your neck. All week.

Two days into this hellacious field week, my poison ivy reappeared in the same places it was a couple weeks before. Yep, I had stress-induced poison ivy. And it lasted the same amount of time as a regular full-course attack - another couple of weeks.

2. A dear friend of mine is pretty sick right now. He had cancer a while back and it appears to be in remission, but it was pretty serious and had a fair number of side effects he's learning to live with. He got surgery, radiation, chemo. Right before he started chemo, he tangled with some poison ivy and he had a pretty impressive case of it. When he started treatment, the poison ivy cleared in a flash, prompting jokes about using chemo to end poison ivy symptoms.

When the chemo ended, the rashes came right back to where they were before. He went through the whole course of poison ivy if nothing had happened.

Yeah, poison ivy's way more persistent and more of a pain in the ass than I'd imagined before starting fieldwork.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


You know, I mentioned prerequisites briefly in my previous post. And then FSP writes a long post about how prerequisites are almost always required, blah blah blah. In the comments, she backed up a little bit and admitted that if someone already has the concepts otherwise, then maybe they don't need a specific course. Geez, you think?

This inflexibility burns me. Now, sometimes intro courses teach basic stuff, like lab safety or what the department expects from an essay. In that case, you gotta learn the basic stuff. But if you're in a department that has any claims to being interdisciplinary, you're going to get students with different backgrounds. Who cares what the name of whatever previous course you took was, as long as you have enough background that you're not floundering from day 1.

In the course I mentioned in the last post, I was missing, say, 1/5 of the expected course work. I had not taken a single one of the three (undergraduate) courses listed as prerequisites. The rest of the background I got variously from my undergrad education and from what I'd picked up at work. Did I create more work for the TAs? Maybe a little, but I wasn't asking them to teach me another course; I'd just go and ask a couple questions to clarify some background that I wasn't sure about.

I agree that you can't go and expect a lot of hand-holding if you skip a prerequisite. If you don't know a lot of the background, it's perfectly legitimate for a TA or professor to say "you need to go through this book before I'll answer any questions about review material." But if you already know most or all of the stuff in the prerequisite courses, it's a waste of time and money to go and warm a seat in a class just to get a box ticked off for the next one.

Monday, November 24, 2008

old age and grades

One thing about going back to school when you're older is that you're more relaxed about grades. I stepped off the "must get perfect grades" treadmill when I graduated from college, and when I went back to grad school, grades just didn't stress me out as much.

This was a good thing, because I was taking a couple courses that I didn't have all the prerequisites for. That's one problem with going to a SLAC for college - a lot of my physical science courses were just general chem, physics, bio, whatever. My grad school was a big research university, so if you were doing, say, contaminant related stuff, you'd do contaminant chem, physics, bio, which diverges from the "general" curriculum early on. So I had some pretty big holes in my education. I was determined and fairly confident, so I thought I could just pick things up as I went along. And I did.

The problem came in when I was expected to figure out a whole bunch of complicated stuff in a short midterm. I hadn't taken a test in years, and certainly not one that I had no hope of finishing in time. I sucked.

Luckily, lots of other people sucked, too. But mostly not as spectacularly as me. The prof curved the exam and, well, I still didn't pass. If this had happened in undergrad, I probably would have a) cried, b) asked everybody except the professor what I should do, and c) developed an ulcer. I'm proud to report that I did none of these things. Well, I did get a little choked up at one point, but we'll ignore that.

What I did was meet with the professor. I said, "I do understand the material. But I didn't have time to go through even half of that test. I was working through stuff that I needed to have essentially memorized. Is there any way I can salvage this course, or should I drop it now?"

And I did salvage the course - I worked my ass off on all of the assignments, spent more time studying for the final than probably all the finals I'd studied for in undergrad, and pulled out an ok grade. It helped that the pace of the 2nd half of the course slowed way down for me - we had flown through all this stuff that was review for everybody else, and so the "new" stuff was a lot easier for me to keep up with.

My cumulative GPA in grad school was essentially the same as for undergrad. But my stress over grades was nonexistent in comparison. Why? Because I had finally internalized that I was in school to learn, not to get specific grades.

Friday, November 21, 2008

public health and environment

If you live near a known potential source of pollution (i.e. a site that's being examined or remediated) and you have a condition that may be caused or exacerbated by said pollution, you can find info from all sorts of agencies: your local health department, state environmental department, the CDC, the ATSDR, and the EPA. You may find that your town has a local resident advisory board that has meetings you can attend where you can bring up your concerns and get explanations from scientists.

A few caveats:

Unless you have spent your life working in an asbestos mine and you have mesothelioma, a reputable scientist will NOT indicate to you that exposure to a particular site did cause your illness. Why?

1. The links between dangerous chemicals and long-term health effects have generally been quantified only in animal studies (except for a handful of obvious baddies, like lead). And we really don't have the foggiest about healthy adult vs. child or infant exposure. We make educated guesses based on body weight.

2. Potentially synergistic effect of various chemicals in the body (PCE/lead? PCE/benzene/arsenic?) are unknown. We're still working on this "does this 1 chemical cause cancer?" above.

3. Often, folks charge that a single obvious target (a factory, a military base, a dump) caused the problems, but exposure is the cumulative effect of living near busy roads, gas stations, dry cleaners, auto body shops, etc.

4. Cancer is wicked complicated. We know anecdotally that people in polluted areas get cancer at a higher rate (and you need to look at it from a very local neighborhood NOT townwide basis, people!). But to prove this in court is nigh impossible because the same exposures may spawn different cancers in different people.

5. There's a whole world of chemicals that don't have any exposure values. A number of petrochemicals, dyes, and industry byproducts haven't even been looked at.

I'm not minimizing potential harm from contaminants. I'm saying we can't quantify it to the degree that people would like and the degree that a lot of people think we can. The % risk that people publish for exposure at certain sites is based on a huge chain of (conservative!) assumptions.

A lot of people go to public meetings wanting validation that x exposure caused y disease. They often get frustrated when they don't get that validation. It is not a government conspiracy, but the caution of scientists who want to make sure they get things right, enforced by a battalion of lawyers.

Finally, you have to remember that the environmental laws in this country have to pass through a gauntlet of commentary, much of it by big bad industry. Remediation is often done to the letter of the law. If you get all fired up and want to tighten up the law, I'd suggest working through advocacy groups. Your local regulatory representative cannot change national laws and exposure limits. Browbeating said representative may be cathartic but doesn't accomplish anything.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

kids and fieldwork

Not too long ago, a couple folks blogged about taking kids into the field. In environmental consulting, you can't take kids into a lot of situations - you've got nasty polluted sites, and in a lot of instances, you need to have taken the 40-hour OSHA hazardous waste operator course to be on site. I can imagine some circumstances where it's ok, though, such as environmental restoration (where you're making the environment better for wildlife but you don't have a pollution problem per se). Pets can sometimes be ok to bring along, especially if you're out in the middle of nowhere.

Here's the problem: in environmental consulting, you tend to have a variety of field sites. Some may be close to the office, but a lot of times the fieldwork is beyond a daily commuting distance. You may have some flexibility in scheduling so that if you have commitments during the week, you can do local fieldwork or office work. But folks with kids tend to use up that flexibility. It makes sense, right? You never know when you'll have a daycare emergency or if your kid will get sick.

Meanwhile, there are all these other field projects that are too far away to commute to. In practice, the single and childless people do the lion's share of that work. That's fine, but I've run into situations where as a childless person, I end up never getting to work close to home. I've spent periods of over a year at a time going from one field site to another without a break. And if I'm working a 10-4 schedule and I'm flying back and forth (or driving several hours) on my "free" days, what I'm really doing is working a 12-2 schedule, with 10 of those days being 12-13 hours long.

After a while, it gets tough. I may have prescriptions I'm trying to fill, doctor/car/plumbing/whatever appointments I'm trying to schedule, and believe it or not, I may have the odd family issue that needs to be addressed. Just because I don't have kids doesn't mean I'm totally free of commitments. I got pretty pissed when a family member died (not immediate, so it didn't trigger official bereavement policies) and it was like pulling goddamn teeth to get a couple days off, while we had a decent number of people who apparently couldn't fill in because they had kids (not babies, and they had spouses who worked normal hours).

This brings me back to my previous post. If you're childless and have chronic family/health/financial problems and you'd like more flexible working conditions to deal with them, it can be somewhat hard to 'fess up (especially with problems that can have a certain stigma) and request more local/office-y work because that work is already taken. Maybe that's why folks who are having problems in the field are "protected" to such a degree by their coworkers.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

protecting your coworkers

I don’t mean in the health and safety sense. What I mean is, how far would you go to cover for a coworker who’s not pulling his/her own weight because of personal issues?

When you have an office job, it’s a lot easier to be flexible. If you have a personal crisis, you can immediately talk to your supervisor, delegate work to subordinates, come in at odd hours, and work out other ways to get stuff done. If you’re in the field, you may be sharing the only vehicle with one other person, and you may be hours away from home.

I can think of a number of situations where a coworker may not be 100%, may not be close to 100%, for a long time because of their personal demons. For example, bankruptcy or other massive financial problems, substance abuse or mental health issues, chronic illness, or a disastrous family life. In these situations, a coworker may be using work as their only escape from their problems. Often, these issues carry a certain stigma and your coworker may not want to mention it, so you find out about it via the grapevine and the observations that you build up over a long time working with them.

The problem with fieldwork is that if you’re careless or distracted, you can get seriously hurt. As I mentioned before, you can’t fool around with drill rigs, excavators, and other heavy machinery. And as a consultant, you may be directly overseen by regulators, your client, and/or consultants for another company who are being paid to try and find fault with what you’re doing. So if you mess up, it may have a clear impact on your job and your health, never mind compromising the data.

Ideally, if you think your coworker has a personal problem that’s affecting their work, you’d want to bring it up with them in confidence and then bring it up with some sort of impartial HR person if you think they’re becoming a danger to themselves. In practice, if you’ve been working with someone in the field for a long period, you develop a certain camaraderie. You may not want to get other people involved who may not view your coworker in a particularly charitable light. If a coworker makes it clear that they don’t want any help handling it (or don't think they have a problem), the tendency is to not push things; to compensate for them when they have lapses, even if you’re ordinarily an (obnoxiously?) assertive person.

So how much would you cover for a coworker? In my experience, more than I'm really comfortable with. Collectively with a group of field folks, it can add up to a hair-raising number of incidents where the coworker was "protected".

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

STEM opportunities

Every once in a while, I read some article about the ratio of international students: domestic students in STEM schools. If the general public can comment on the article, you usually get a lot of rants about how international students are stealing opportunities from domestic students.

Here's the thing: in a lot of these departments they can't find enough American students to fill the openings. I'm familiar with one engineering department that didn't have a single non-international grad student in the entering class for the next year. They're desperate for Americans because, frankly, those statistics look really bad. And they want to educate Americans. But trying to get an engineer in this discipline in for a masters or PhD is nigh impossible because they can earn tons of money right off the bat, without going to grad school. Same thing for a lot of math and computer science departments.

We don't live in a vacuum. Everybody wants the US to keep its technological superiority. And to do that, you have to compete with a lot of upstart well funded universities. If we aren't raising the numbers of scientists and engineers we need ourselves, we're going to have to take the best and the brightest from the rest of the world.

I do think we have a culture against STEM education - the popular conception is that all STEM folks are hopelessly nerdy white males, and smart, ambitious people people here tend to gravitate toward better paying and more culturally accepted work. We do need to improve the STEM pipeline, but in the meantime we're going to have to supplement with non-Americans to keep our competitive edge.

I think international students are a net positive for grad schools in other ways, but that's another post.

Monday, November 17, 2008


I've been pretty lucky - I can't think of any critter I've hit while driving on the road. I may have run over the odd small woodland creature while driving through a meadow (I once got attacked by starlings, so I may have hit one of them), but it's sort of hard to see what you're doing in 3 feet of grass.

I'm reminded of this because I witnessed a spectacular collision with a deer this weekend (the best thing that can be said for the deer is that death was instantaneous). It was pretty clear that the SUV driver had no idea what they'd hit - they didn't even touch the brakes (I was driving behind them). The deer in this case had been running down the opposite side of the road before cutting across, so anybody who was paying the least bit of attention would have noticed. This deer was pretty small (especially in comparison to the SUV) so all it did was mangle the front grille. But I've come uncomfortably close to critters you really don't want to hit. Like moose.

If you're heading out into the wilderness (or driving through endless subdivisions) at dusk or in the evening, it's always best to keep an eye on the sides of the road and not just go on autopilot. It's especially tempting to blow through a more rural area, especially when you're heading back from the field and you're almost home, but that's when you're most likely to run into something. And you don't want to squash this guy, right?

Friday, November 14, 2008


In the field, you run into all sorts of critters. I can deal with (heck, even find adorable) a variety of wildlife that send some other folks running. But I have this instinctive aversion to spiders.

I spent a lot of time on a long-term project that involved traipsing around small water bodies. I had to be in the water a lot of the time, so I didn’t have a whole lot of maneuverability to back away from spiders I ran into. I developed this sort of horrified obsession with the spiders I encountered regularly and developed the Short Geologist’s Field Guide to Large Water-Loving Spiders. They’re in order from least to most scary.

5. Flat spiders: These are bad because when you slam a big lid on them, they don’t get squashed. They’re tan-brown and about an inch wide including legs, so they’re on the small side for this guide. The problem with flat spiders is that when you think they’re squashed, they scurry out at you. Aaah! *short geologist leaps backward* …The Short Geologist does NOT like spider surprises.

4. Amazing underwater spiders: These guys are slightly smaller than the flat spiders. They live in air bubbles underwater in the crevices of your equipment. This would be pretty cool, but what it means in practice is that when you reach into the water and grab something, a spider runs up it at your hand. AAAH! *short geologist drops equipment, tries to leap backward, and falls into the water*

3. Twig spiders: These black spiders with long, spindly legs like to live on twigs and especially like to hang out on any mooring lines or strings stretched across the water. They’re organized with their sets of legs straight out at 180˚ from each other, and they’re super long and skinny (about 2 inches) so that they can surprise you when you’re untying knots.

2. Wolf spiders: Ok, these are pretty terrestrial, but I kept running into them on bridges. Lessee, they’re big, hairy, and super fast. These are the only spiders whose actual name I know, incidentally.

1. Bridge/culvert spiders: These are the worst. They’re big (up to 2 inches) and they have similar bodies to black widows. Huge, black, bulbous body, spindly little legs…They hang up under culverts and bridges by the hundreds, filling the airspace with webs. Words cannot describe how much these horrify me. If I had to venture inside a culvert filled with these bastards, I’d need to use a flamethrower first.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

geology haiku

There's a new haiku meme going around, so I thought I'd chime in with an environmental geology contribution.

Vernal pools are a big pain in the ass when you have to work around them. I can't tell you how many times somebody has planned a bunch of fieldwork based on site visits in the late fall and winter, and then you get outside in the spring and the whole area has turned into a sodden mess. However, vernal pools are incredibly important for a number of critically endangered amphibians.


Spring in the hollows
drowns instrumentation
but births happy frogs.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

small ≠ wimp

EcoGeoFemme mentioned the disadvantages of being small when trying to do fieldwork involving brute force. She's being coy about what activities were difficult, so I'll list a few that I ran across when I was doing fieldwork.

1. Hand augering
2. Lugging around 60+ pound sample coolers
3. Yanking generator pull cords (my arms are too short)
4. Lugging various awkward pieces of equipment (tanks, pumps, etc) long distances over bad terrain
5. Sampling or developing wells with a check valve (yanking water-filled tubing up and down) for a couple of hours
6. Opening flush-mounted wells that have been rusted shut
7. Cutting locks (often on wells, but sometimes elsewhere)
8. Unscrewing things that have been previously cranked on by Superman. And have rusted.

If you're doing fieldwork regularly, you tend to build up strength. I found that I got a lot stronger once I started hauling coolers around, as I've discussed. Also, I've discovered that I can do a lot more than I thought I was capable by simply gritting my teeth and throwing myself into it. Note that I don't recommend this method for lifting, but it works for almost everything else. But the #1 thing I use when I run into problems with stubborn wells/locks/gas regulators is leverage. Followed closely by a sledgehammer.

Drillers use "cheater bars" all the time - they grab a chunk of drill rod, slide it over the wrench they're using to break the rods or casing, and yank on the end. In a pinch, spare PVC piping, like the leftovers from well construction, will do. Similarly, I always try to have an extender for my socket wrench so that when I'm faced with a cross-threaded bolt on a flush-mounted monitoring well, I can really put my knee into it.

I'm not a masochist. If I spend more than a couple minutes flailing away at something, I'll get help if I can. But 95% of the problems that test my strength in the field can be overcome with persistence and a little engineering.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

e-mail organization

When you first start working in the field, you don't get e-mails of any real importance. Mostly, they say things like "the pre-field meeting is at time x" or "Show up on Monday at this address. Bring steel-toe boots." But later on, you start communicating with subcontractors and clients and higher-ups in your own company. Then you run into the problem where other people forget what they said or when they said it, and it could have repercussions on the project.

My e-mail organization system was as follows:

1. Delete e-mail that has no long-term relevance or is included in a long chain of replies later on.
2. Do nothing more complicated than shuffle saved e-mail into general folders.
3. When work is slow or you're stuck on an intractable problem or you want to procrastinate, print out the accumulated e-mail, including the ones that say only "I am enclosing x". That's your record that you actually did send x to someone.
4. Delete the files you printed. I tended to save attachments into a separate, public folder so that coworkers could find them if necessary.
5. Pick a binder. A lot of companies use binders with inserts for their reports. If this is the case at your company, scrounge around for some garishly colored insert paper (every office has a stash somewhere) and write "x's e-mails" on the spine insert. Otherwise, pick a binder that's off-color from the usual ones your company uses. Again, you can usually scrounge something.
6. Organize the e-mails in the binder however you want. I tended to use sticky notes as tabs because they were available.

The advantage to having all your e-mails organized is that if you are organized, the chances are good that you will be far more organized than the other people you work with. You and your binder will become a resource. Once people realize that you have this binder, it will get borrowed and disappear all over the office. The horrid or strange binder color is to help you find it again.

So then you go back into the field. When the drill rig is banging away and the reception is all fuzzy, you'll get a frantic call saying "The response to comments is supposed to go out in two hours and we can't find the address of that researcher the EPA wanted us to contact to settle this issue", then you can yell over the din, "Look in my binder. It's probably in section a or b. The binder's retina-searing pink, and if it's not in my office, poke around the offices of x, y, and z."

And you will have saved the day without having the slightest clue what the answer actually was.

Monday, November 10, 2008

fun in enclosed spaces

You don't need to be in a regulated "confined space" to run into problems.

Asphyxiation: If you’re emptying nitrogen or carbon dioxide tanks for transport back to the rental place, vent them outside. If you’re running a drill rig inside a building, open the place up and set up fans.

Drain bamage: If you’re collecting water samples in a manufacturing facility and you hear a commotion nearby and your little air quality meter starts spooling up, take a break. Outside. If you’re sitting inside a vehicle because the weather’s bad and you’re labeling stuff with a big sharpie and you start giggling uncontrollably, go outside.

Personal protective equipment: If you’re in a space with low oxygen, the fresh cartridges in your gas mask aren’t going to be a big help.

Common sense? The problem is that once you’re in a low oxygen environment or you’re breathing funny fumes, you may not have common sense. So you’ve got to think about what you’re doing before you start.

Friday, November 7, 2008

coming home

I’m going to preface this with a little bit of backstory about my father. We have a difficult relationship. My dad has strong personality traits which drive me nuts. I am aware that I share similar tendencies, which I don’t like in myself either. The underlying problem is that, as the only female offspring, I am forever “Daddy’s little girl” and nothing I say or do will ever change that. He considers sheltering me from everything to be an expression of love, whereas I am constantly fighting to prove myself.

So I don’t spend much time at my parents’ house in order to preserve peace in the family. But I was back earlier in the fall to collect the stuff I had in storage and get my teeth cleaned and do a bunch of other errands. It was a gorgeous fall day – cool, dry weather, and the leaves were just starting to turn.

When I was driving over, I noticed that some of the houses were festooned with toilet paper. Now I don’t know how widespread the practice is, but where I went to high school, this wasn’t vandalism. Sports teams would TP teammates’ houses for various reasons; for example, if you win a big game. The team I was on in high school would TP the houses of the freshmen near the beginning of the fall season and later on the freshmen would help TP the houses of the captains and maybe the graduating seniors. So for me, driving around my old hometown in the fall is a wonderfully evocative time.

So, I came back late at night and was planning on running all my errands the next day. I got woken up the next morning by the smell of cinnamon buns. My dad was cooking them with most of them put in the dish upside-down (hey, they all end up in the same place in the end). He rescued them from the oven after they started to brown (he never did figure out the kitchen timer) and we shared a big plate of cinnamon buns, just the two of us.

I would like to think that as I get older and more experienced, I am more able to appreciate “moments of grace”, rather than getting totally cynical. Every once in a while when I’m in the field, I make a conscious effort to step back and appreciate that I love being outside, doing something that I’m good at, even though I could find a million things that irritate me.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

poison ______

An unfortunate reality of performing fieldwork in a large portion of the US is poison ivy/oak/sumac. The problem is that you tend to get more sensitive to it with more exposure, so even people who don't think that they're sensitive to it may find out that they become so later on.

I'm at the point at which any poison ivy I get becomes systemic. Now, medical experts will say "you can't spread poison ivy, blah blah" but the rash you get is a reaction. You can't give it to someone else unless you still have the urushiol (the oil from the plant) still on you, but I am telling you now as a friggin' personal expert that the allergic reaction does in fact spread if you are sensitive enough.

Take my most recent reaction, which was bad enough that it may have been poison oak and not poison ivy. It started on my face, with what I thought was a mosquito bite and sort of absentmindedly scratched all day. The next day I felt the itchy spot and I had 4 or 5 distinct itchy bumps and I knew it was poison whatever. I was worried about my pillow, so I threw all my bedsheets and pillowcases in the wash. I also took a very thorough shower with lukewarm water (hot water opens the pores). A couple days later, it popped up on my left hand and this rash got worse fast. This looked like another contact spot, so I tossed the gloves I'd been using and attacked all known surfaces with alcohol wipes. And I re-washed all my stuff. Twice. A day or so later, my left hand looked like this:

And then it spread between all my other fingers. Also, notice the little spots on the top of my little finger. Trust me. I wasn't touching a damn thing with my left hand. Now, usually I'm pretty anti-medicine. But when it went between all my fingers and the little blisters turned into massive blisters and my fingers were physically stuck spread apart, I broke down and got a prescription for topical steriods (basically a stronger hydrocortisone cream) which is the only stuff that helps me.

And then it went systemic. Little spots popped out right above my eyelid (scary!) and on my wrists. I got a big patch on my right hip, which I don't normally touch with my left hand, but which happens to be right where I had bad case of poison ivy a couple years ago. It appeared on my belly, my thighs, my back, my ankles. Nothing as bad as my hand, but they all still itched. I was chasing new itchy spots with hydrocortizone cream for about a week.

A word of advice: if you get a horrible, nasty case of poison whatever and you get really, really big blisters, for the love of God, don't poke/lance/pop them. They're huge for a reason. I made the mistake of lancing one when I got a really bad case of poison oak and it wept/ran down my arm all day long. It never deflated and the only reason it stopped running was because the little hole plugged with dried pus. *shudder* And if you can bind it up with gauze, you're a stronger person than I, because that skin is exquisitely sensitive.

So know your local poisonous plants! Wear pants and long sleeved shirts if at all possible! And if you get a rash, don't wait until it's excruciating to go to the doctor.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

office politics

So, we've selected the next president in the US, and roughly half of us are happy about it, and half aren't very happy about it.

You may find yourself in the bluest of blue states, or the reddest of red states. You may think that your entire office has similar political leanings to yourself, but you may be wrong. Not everyone who voted differently from you is a knuckle dragging throwback or a spineless pantywaist, and it is not terribly politic to assume and say so in an office environment.

I can think of any number of cultures and creeds that are considered "not like us" in various parts of the country. Rural folks, city folks, Muslims, Evangelicals, Mormons, immigrants... Regardless of your personal distaste for a group of people, I would also suggest that you keep disparaging jokes/comments to yourself even though the overwhelming office culture seems to consist of people "like us". Immigrants, people from other US cultures, and members of religious groups aren't immediately obvious, even to coworkers. They may be your boss, your client, your office buddy.

I get tired of this ignorant BS, tired of arguing with it, tired of fighting against it. I many not make a fuss every single time I'm offended. But if I'm in a position to promote/mentor/generally help out someone, it's going to be someone who doesn't piss me off with his/her rampant stereotyping.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

work before grad school?

About half of the grad students I know worked for some period (at least a year) between undergrad and graduate school. Folks who do more "theoretical" work tend to come right out of undergrad. If your study interest is more hands on, then things get a little more complicated.

Some international students in the physical sciences and engineering have only a theoretical background. Their grades are terrific, but when they go into the field or sit at a bench, they have no idea how to apply what they've learned. And then they go into industry and start at a somewhat higher level, with more responsibility, but less of an idea of how to make sure that the scientific stuff is done correctly in the field. A good field or methods course can help with this, of course, but there's no substitute for fixing problems on your own, with real-world complications.

I came to grad school with a decent gap after finishing undergrad. I'll admit that I had to work harder than the students who came straight from undergrad, because I had to retrieve or re-learn some of the material that other folks knew right away. And I know that a lot of people want to finish their education as soon as possible so that they can start making money and start a family.

In my case, I went right to work after I graduated for another reason. I didn't admit it to myself until later, but I just couldn't handle more education at that point. I came from a culture where I was supposed to go to college, so I did. I worked hard and I made honor roll most of the time because I was supposed to do that, too. It was only when I finished college that I really took a look at what I wanted to do. It took working for years for me to realize that I really did want to learn stuff for its own sake and that I was really interested in various contamination-related issues. When I got to grad school, I had a great time learning new stuff that explained some of the problems I ran into when I was in the industry, while some friends who went straight to grad school were starting to burn out.

To get back to the previous post, I don't think that taking time off before grad school has a significant impact on your chance of getting accepted and your success once there. However, if you were not a fantastic student as an undergrad, success in industry can help as long as you show capacity for scientific work. I applied to departments that valued so-called life experience (they wanted resum├ęs and accepted non-academic references) and departments that only wanted to see the academic record (3 references from professors whose courses I took years ago? ugh). In my case, the former liked my application more and I did end up in one of those departments, so it all worked out.

Monday, November 3, 2008

grad school applications

I was reading some posts ages ago (so I don't remember which blogs) about grad school applications and "privilege". There are several ways to apply to grad school, but I think they break down into (a) contact a professor and essentially apply to be their student, and (b) apply to the department and once you're accepted, the department will match students to professors, either immediately or after the student has a chance to see all the research. Some posters believe that method (a) rewards privileged students who are insiders in some way.

Almost all of the departments I applied to followed method A. One or two may have been A/B: they seemed to accept students based purely on the strength of their general application, but professors had some amount of influence to take certain students who would fit in with their research.

So, do I consider myself to be a privileged student? No. I was completely clueless and had minimal help. And method A worked for me.

Let me walk you through my application process. Remember, I had been out of school for some time before applying to grad school. I was working full time and I didn't have the foggiest idea where I should be looking. But I had certain geographical restraints. I tried looking in one of those books that describe/rank all the grad schools in the US and quickly realized that for my particular interests, that was useless. So I pulled together a list of every single university in this geographical area, and I started surfing webpages.

I looked at all departments (as discussed here) related to contamination. I only considered departments that offered a terminal masters, not just a PhD, cutting the number significantly. And then I started firing off e-mails to professors whose research seemed interesting.

The emails went along the lines of: "Dear professor X: I am an environmental consultant interested in applying to grad school for a masters degree. I saw that one of your research interests is Y. I have done (some work vaguely related to Y) and find it interesting because Z. Are you currently working on area Y and are you looking for graduate students? Sincerely, Short Geologist."

This got a variety of responses, and if everything seemed to fit, further correspondence. Once I'd established that I did want to apply, I asked the professor how I should submit my application or who I should talk to about that aspect. I did go and visit most of the schools that fit what I was looking for. I'm not sure how common this is, but I had no idea what I was doing and that's what I did for undergrad. I also contacted my undergrad advisor to ask him what he thought of the various schools, but he didn't have a strong opinion either way on most of my options. So that was it.

My situation was slightly different from that of a stereotypical student because I wasn't coming right from undergrad. If you're working in contamination-related stuff, you find that a lot of the students may have worked in the environmental field in some capacity before going to grad school. Who has more of an advantage? Well, this is turning into an e-novel, so I'll save that for later...