Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Courses for horses

I have been practicing the technique of sleeping with my eyes open while attending a safety course. Some of the presentations were among the worst I have ever witnessed. One of the talks consisted of 66 text filled slides, that were read out by the lecturer over the course of an hour. Another talk consisted of the lecturer zooming through a rather colourful powerpoint presentation while telling us "its all written in the handouts". Unfortunately the attractive blue stripey design of the slides rendered the handouts illegible. Arghhh! The audience were a motley crew too and included some rather pale denizens of the deep. It is ironic that the courses that are the most important ie could save your life, are the ones that have the least inspiring teachers. Well, apart from lectures on fire safety. These are usually given by middle-aged men, usually ex-firemen, who deliver a collection of unforgettable and rather grisly anecdotes. However at least we all remember the correct way to check whether there is a fire on the other side of a closed fire door. We also learnt how to correctly identify fire extinguishers containing foam, however this was knowledge I had retained from my extra-curricular student activities!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Fiddlers elbow

It's been a couple of weeks since I have felt the urge to write, but I needed to document my latest time-wasting escapades.

I persuaded the HOD (yes he who is stepping down) to splash out on a new communal computer for the student office. He agreed, providing that I got the best quote, and set the computer up. "Fine" I thought, it shouldn't take longer than an hour. After all Macs are supposed to be easy to set up. All I needed was to fill out a couple of forms; one for software, and one to get the computer connected to the network, then pop over to the computing centre.

Today after a mindnumbing 6 hours, I finally did it. I won't go into the tedious detail, but briefly (or not as the case may be) this task required 5 trips to the computer centre, 4 phone calls, talking to 2 different computer assistants, 4 forms, removal of 3 shelving brackets (the computer didn't fit!, 4 signatures, 4 CDs and a partridge in a pear tree.

Experiments performed - zero.
Grants written- zero.
Papers read- zero.
Lectures prepared- zero.
Emails read- 10
Emails written - 4
Swear words- n where n is a number between 20 and 100.

The reward for my endeavour? One of the students told it was fantastic that they could play songs from someone else's Itunes library! A former boss told me that buying someone a computer never made them more productive. I am turning into that man.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

And on that bombshell.....

A torrid week. The cold war is over and hostilities have resumed. First the announcement from our HOD that he was going to step down. Since this left our small department somewhat vulnerable in the shark-infested university pool, he also announced that we would be merging with another larger department. This was announced at our weekly departmental meeting and was greeted with an eerie silence (watch "Shooting Stars" to see the effect). During the day, it was the main topic of conversation, with biscuits coming in a close second. Little huddles of people formed spontaneously throughout the day and little work was done.

I had been told in person a few days before. I was expecting it; our HOD had looked increasingly weary, had complained about academic politics and had spoken about a sabbatical. I have not always agreed with his leadership but he has been a honest man doing a thankless job. He had reached the end of his tether and personally I am glad for him.

In the main, the senior staff were supportive. Predictably MC was extremely angry about this decision and has let it be known that does not want to be part of a merger. Where this would leave him is not entirely clear. He called me into his office and ranted at me for a full 40 minutes. His main complaint was not about what would happen to the department but how he would be "screwed over" by the new HOD. In essence, "me,me,me,me". My philosphy in dealing with these people (I shared an office with a similar ranter) is to say little, nod and then try and find an escape route. Unfortunately it became clear that he wanted my support and I had to make it known that while I appreciated some of his arguments (not!), I would not be joining the rebel force. He who runs away lives to fight another day.

It seems that I will not be a millionaire after all. After avoiding me all week, the Technology Transfer Officer told me that my moneyspinning idea had been turned down. Despite impressing the "suits" (they told the TTO that we gave the best presentation on the day), it was rejected by another panel of experts. Clearly they had different criteria to the "suits" but without any feedback it is hard to learn anything from the exercise, except that it wasn't worth the effort. I discussed this bad news with my research assistant. If none of my remaining grant applications get approved, she will be unemployed. Kinda puts the childish tantrums of tenured academics into perspective!

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Where's Desmond Morris when you need him?

I mostly try to avoid contact with my work colleagues on the basis that like my relatives, I had no say in choosing them. As Chromatin has pointed out, people who work in the same field tend to share certain unsavoury and antisocial characteristics. From time to time I am forced into meetings where I can observe these chacteristics like a poor man's Desmond Morris. Usually meetings consist of a beleagured chairman, selfish sods (SFS) who make demands and moan, jokers who take the piss and moan, miserable sods who just moan, people who say nothing but take copious notes, and snoozers (me). These meetings are usually dominated by the SFS who tend to get angrier as the meeting progresses. Perhaps these invitations to these meetings should be prefaced with the sentence "No timewasters please". Yesterday I was surprised to find myself awake during a meeting. This was because the meeting had a clear agenda, and was run by people who were professionals. The leader of the group demonstrated amply why he was in charge; he had a strong personality, excellent communication skills, did not patronise his audience and was constructive. Similarly others in his team gave precise and constructive answers.No blame culture here. For once the moaners, rather than running the meeting, were exposed as the people holding back progress. God, I can't believe I am writing this, I am usually such a miserable sod. Sadly the meeting was not a scientific meeting but one set up by the computing department. Sigh......

Monday, January 17, 2005

The great smell of Pledge

At our weekly departmental meeting, our HOD announced that the head of a very important medical charity would be visiting our university. He requested that: A) People go to the labs instead of sitting in the offices playing computer solitaire. B) Once in the labs, they put on a lab coat and did something useful. This is exactly the sort of motivational speech that will send everyone scurrying to the sanctuary of the tea room (and so it proved).

The next day, the VIP arrived, greeted by the unmistakeable aromas of recently employed cleaning products. They probably should have given him a pair of bowling shoes for his visit because the floor was so shiny. Unfortunately he arrived precisely at the time when most people in the building were having a tea break. Even worse it was "biscuit" day so the tea room was heaving with human gannets. Hopefully the VIP was impressed by the clean but empty labs, and the high level tea room discussions being held between the motivated staff. Fantasy conversation-"I have been doing experiments through the night, and this is my first break for food and drink". Real conversation -"These custard creams are a bit stale aren't they?" or "I can't believe it. They finally moved all that crap that was outside the lab."

Ultimately my fate does not lie with impressing a big wig with the great smell of pledge. No the power lies with those anonymous folks who review my grants. Maybe they need their furniture polishing too?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Save the trees

One week back at work and the paperwork is accumulating. My head of department (HOD) told me that I would have to carry out appraisals for all my staff. He pointed out appraisals were a good way of assessing performance over the last year and for identifying training needs. He then told me (violins softly playing in the background) that due to cuts in departmental budgets, he would not be able to pay for all requested training anyway. Furthermore he told me categorically that appraisals were not to be used to justify promotions or to criticise the performance of staff. So I asked if an appraisal who still be required for someone who would be leaving within the next two months. After all, there would be no concern about training because that would depend on the next job. The employee had been not been at work for most of the year, for various medical and personal reasons. So not much I could write about performance since this was related to "confidential" matters that were off-limits. Predictably (why do I bother?) he said it was very important that the appraisal should still occur. Doh! The member of staff in question, has admitted that the last year was a "annus horribilis" and does not want an appraisal. They do have the right to refuse an appraisal. This is a disciplinary offence but by the time anyone realises, they will have left so the University won't be able to take any further action. Hmm..........maybe I can fight against the system after all.

Another irritation is the need for a formal probation period for new members of staff. In their wisdom, human resources have deemed that this should be extended from 6 months to 12 months. So I am in the situation where I have someone on a 12 month contract. I will need to have probation interviews and report on progress; upon arrival, then at 3,6 and 9 months. After 9 months I get to make a formal decision on whether they pass the probation period and continue their employment for another 3 months. Incidentally the probation forms need to be signed by me, the staff on probation, a "mentor" who is independent, and the head of department. Technically if I was successful and got a new grant to keep on this member of staff, it would count as a new post and I would have to go through this whole process again! At this point it would be worthwhile to place plastic caps over all my teeth to prevent me grinding them down to stumps during the course of the next year.

While idly perusing the student noticeboards, I read a print out of an email warning female students to be vigilant while on campus. Two female students were assaulted on separate occaisons last year when walking after dark. I then realised that despite many notices (by email and during departmental meetings) about bloody appraisals, waste control, staff training, seminars etc, I had not heard this important news. I asked a colleague about this, and he said that he had gone to the HOD last year. The HOD told him, that any formal announcements about safety had to come from the Health and Safety Department. However my colleague should alert female members of staff informally, which he did. Surprise, surprise Health and Safety never issued the notice. I am now convinced that my HOD was recruited from the Civil Service. Nevermind Elvis, common sense has well and truly left the building!

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Back on the chain gang

So here I am back after an extended Christmas holiday of visiting relatives and excessive eating. Had a very calorific christmas, in fact if I was a goose, I would be a prime candidate for pate production. Anyway my resolution to actually spend some time in the lab and less time on the computer, is already looking foolish. Somehow in my post grant euphoria (and aided by Christmas ale) I agreed to become a guest editor for a journal. Now in the cold light of the new year, I realise how much work this will actually entail and as Graham Taylor once said "I do not like that". This was compounded by the appearance of a medic who wanted me to read her MD thesis by the end of the week. She had been let down by her supervisor. Since I was feeling charitable (had just given to Tsunami fund), I agreed to help her out. My second resolution to spend more time watching rubbish TV (so that I could join in the tea room banter and become socially acceptable) is now also looking dodgy.

There was an interesting article on the BBC website about the pitfalls of work related blogs (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4115073.stm), together with a helpful list of rules. It seems that I break most of the rules, but the point of this blog is give a realistic view of a scientist's work day. For a few heady years it was all about exciting hypotheses and performing groundbreaking experiments, but now it is mostly about shuffling paper. Like other professions we deal with people and bureaucracy. We have similar levels of frustration and career disatisfaction too. Hopefully readers will find a few laughs (thanks Pogo for nice comments) among all the whingeing comments. For me it's cheaper than getting a therapist. Happy new year!

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