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Tea is important.

The first time a human found that putting bits of bush into water we’d boiled over a fire to make a slightly bitter drink was an important moment in human history. From there, human society developed around tea and into caves/huts with our collections of leaves, fiercely defending our hot water making fire with sharpened sticks. The next several thousand years has all been about bigger caves/huts, collecting more leaves, making better fire and wielding sharper sticks.

But despite these millennia of tea drinking, making tea has for some reason not become the cornerstone of every office and work environment. Often, making something as fundamental as a cup of tea is fraught with difficulty.

1. Find a mug

There may be mugs around that people say you can use. These mugs are traps – half of them will belong to people who, on seeing you drinking from it, will swear a decade long vengeful vendetta against you. The other half have been the shared mugs for so long that their glaze is now made up a unique microbial mix that will almost certainly kill anyone that hasn’t slowly built up a tolerance.

So most people have their own, and the sensible ones make sure that it’s GPS tracked and secured with a claymore based defence system. It may well be worth it for your career and your health to pop out and buy one before carrying on with this list.

2. Find tea

Now before I carry on, I should add that my definition of tea is very broad and all encompassing, while the obvious king of tea is a cup of Earl Grey… but a delicious cup of berry tea is still tea and should not be looked down on as any less relaxing and delicious.

This broad description of what tea is is a helpful start for looking for some tea in an office as you’re going to need to be very not picky. Your selection is likely to consist of left over tea bags from various old boxes of tea left by ex employees. Ignoring the probably ancestral age of this tea, it is worth taking time to double check that the ex employees left happily and not in a poisonous rage.

The obvious solution to this is to have brought your own tea bags which, like the mug, you carefully guard and protect from possible co-workers ‘borrowing’. If you don’t already have some I suggest you stop reading and pop out again and go buy some. If you want a recommendation M&S English Breakfast is delicious.

3. Find hot water

Now armed with a mug and tea you need to find a way of adding hot water. Making hot water is a very simple skill and has been something humans mastered a million years ago. However, primitive humans with no technology living in forests didn’t have the difficulties that we do trying to make hot water in an office.

First off, no office health and safety policy is okay with your starting fires in order to make hot water. I personally feel this denies a bit part of our heritage but I’m willing to accept that the amount of paper makes it possibly dangerous. If you’re lucky enough to work in a physics research office you may be able to find some more high tech and safety sources of fire like lasers or scary electrical power sources. But most of us will need to rely on the humble kettle.

Many offices have shared kettles. These are so low cost that no matter how stingy the management you can normally rely on a cheap white plastic kettle being available. Sadly like the shared mugs using the kettle is a quick route to an early death. Shared kettles mean shared cleaning which means no cleaning. Every shared kettle is within a very short time span about half cheap plastic and half limescale. Being cheap and covered in limescale this makes the average kettle about as safe to use as a live grenade being repeatedly hit with a hammer.

Wise and long lived researchers tend to know this and you’ll see that many have their own kettles. I strongly suggest that before going further you go buy a small kettle to keep in your desk.

4. Find a place to make it

Now that you have all the items needed to make a cup of tea you need to actually make it. At this point I’d like to plead with you to please not make the cup of tea in the office. Having someone boil a kettle right next to you while you’re trying to work is impossibly annoying. So have some decency and find somewhere away from your work space.

You might have access to a shared office kitchen, which may seem like the obviously choice of making a hot drink. However, this is first of all going to be busy the second you even think about making a cup of tea. Nothing inspires others to make tea more than seeing someone get their tea bags out of the special tea safe. So by the time you get to the kitchen it will be packed with people.

Your best bet is to look for somewhere quiet and isolated where you can make your cup of tea in peace. Look for the small unused meeting room or even the cleaning cupboard that’s been left unlocked. It’s worth taking something with you to make sure you can defend you tea making location, the last thing you want is others trying to get in on your tea space.

5. Drink

By now, if you’ve followed the advice on this list, you should be quietly huddled in a small closet with your personal tea making kit and a sharpened pencil. Just the way your primitive ancestors would have liked it.

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These are volatile times. In politics, financially, and even literally, if you work for a company that makes self-destructing clocks. And with volatility comes all the normal uncertainty about jobs, housing and even if the company you work for will be the same one when you come into work in the morning.

Now there’s lots of reasons for your company changing overnight. The labs you work in could have burnt to the ground, been flooded, been used as a butt scratcher for a passing Godzilla, or any one of many plausible disaster scenarios. But far more destructive for a lab is arriving to the discovery that your employer has now merged/been taken over.

Mergers are simple things. You take two companies that do things that could maybe help each other. Lock their owners and their lawyers in a room with some romantic music and after a few hours they come out with massive smiles and often both inexplicably richer. I might be getting it a bit wrong but my lack of any management training tells me that description is fairly close.

Now for more office-based institutes, mergers are initially very simple. There are two finance officers, there needs to be one finance officer, provide a slide rule and call for the cleaner when they’ve finished deciding.

But labs are different – there are so many nuanced differences between them it’s very hard to even identify which parts overlap. Yes they’ll have their own spread of projects but projects often overlap and interconnect (particularly over equipment) like some kind of multilayer jelly. To take them apart and then add them to another jelly creates frankenstein jelly that theoretically should have all the parts of the best jelly but just looks a bit like someone scraped it off the floor.

Now there’s lots of reasons your jelly/lab ends up looking this way. Trying to merge two labs into one means combining the people, the equipment and then the small items like chemicals and reagents. All into one unified jelly… sorry team. And that’s not easy.

Starting with staff, in small labs one person can have 15 different jobs and some of which are easy to transfer and some are impossible. Accidentally letting go the one scientist that knew which screw to tighten on the HPLC to stop it making a “CRONK” noise is a hard thing to quantify in justifying staff.

Then there’s the equipment. Ridiculously specialised and with crazy complicated spec sheets. Buying half of this equipment is an exercise measured in days of research and careful consideration about how having the one with 5000 extra widgets is better than the 4896 one. But come a merger you have a choice of two and the person deciding will probably pick based on which one looks cooler… actually I’m not sure I disagree with that method. Coolness of lab equipment is an important factor.

Lastly there’s the reagents. Every lab is a unique collection of crazy stuff slowly hoarded over years and countless projects. Collections of materials, small consumables and chemicals which are obviously things that absolutely must be kept. That leaves you with a huge pile of reagents that are pretty common. No lab needs 2 massive containers of salt and obviously you can select between the two by the time tested method of which one has the nicer label.

Of course the easiest way to merge labs is simply to get similar bottles of stuff and just combine them into one bottle. Firstly it’s quick and secondly there is a chance that doing it might lead to the very sudden reduction from two labs to one lab and some new empty real estate.

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If you are reading this while sat in an open office then congratulations you are currently enjoying the latest in modern trendy office environment. The rise of the open plan office (particularly in research) is so prolific that I wouldn’t be surprised if those of you in small (1-5 person) offices are being quietly moved into larger spaces while you’re distracted reading this.

Now, I am just a simple researcher and despite having worked in a wide range of open plan offices I’ve always been inherently sceptical and fearful of open plan offices. Like all researchers I prefer to hide in a corner only coming out for sugary snacks and to print journal papers to use as bedding.

So having recently moved back into an open plan office I thought it worth taking a moment to focus on the great benefits open plan spaces can give you and your colleagues. Given their prolific rise I can only assume they must have them.

Increased communication

Almost every time I’ve ever been shepherded into an open plan office by management this has been the first go-to positive thing. The logic is flawless – two colleagues in two separate rooms can’t talk, take down the wall and they can talk.

That is of course assuming that they want to talk in the first place, but that’s a minor detail. If they can talk then surly they will. The walls were the only thing holding these discussions back and now without them the communication will flow, leading to a new golden age of colleague dialog.

Obviously initially there’ll be some awkwardness and complaints. Some people might complain that they aren’t talking to their colleagues because their other colleagues are busy trying to work. But you and your colleagues will quickly lose this basic human politeness and find talking loudly just behind someone working completely natural.

Collaboration

Now obviously as the open plan office is flawlessly enhancing communication it is going to lead to lots of amazing new collaborative projects and ideas! As Steve Jobs said “Ideas don’t happen in the boardroom, they happen in corridors” and what could possibly be better than turning the entire office into a corridor!

Think of all those conversations that would have been limited to happening in the space between offices that can now happen anywhere, no more do you eve have to get up from your desk as your desk is part of that special ideas forming corridor space!

Better yet, you’re no longer limited to your space as you can have these idea forming conversations right next to the desks of your other colleagues while they try and work on their own projects.

Workplace happiness and team building

So with everyone working on collaborative projects and happily chatting away, you and your colleagues will start finding that this office environment is vastly increasing your ‘workplace happiness’.

This advantage is very hard to quantify and some would cynically suggest it’s just a buzzword randomly used as justification in open office planning. But that’s obviously wrong for very good yet somehow undefinable reasons.

And with happiness will come a sense of closeness and a sense of being together. It has long been studied that when you put people together in close quarters they will form a warm bond and come together as a unit. Examples of this include groups of people in hostage situations, people stranded in inhospitable environments and even people that collectively experience severe trauma. In no time at all an Open Plan office will have a very similar effect.

Budget

Now unlike the previous advantages the budget isn’t about you or your colleagues – this is about the managers and people charged with looking after you and your work space. Companies/universities are hard to run and cost lots of money and two of the biggest expenses are people and somewhere to put people. Finding novel solutions to reducing the costs on space can save the big bucks.

And open offices are certainly space saving. By giving researchers half the normal desk space, no shelves and one tiny set of draws with a key that’s instantly lost a manger can pack in over 50% more researchers per square meter than before.

Those managers can feel a warm sense of accomplishment that they’ve found a solution that saves so much money and has so many clear and unarguable positives for researchers. And with all that money saved they’ll be able to design new even denser office space.

And as a researcher sitting in the office you might now share with 100 other people, take a moment to think about all these advantages and, more importantly, how much value you’re helping to make to the bottom line.

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Starting a new job is an exciting, terrifying and exhausting experience. You’ll almost certainly have a giant volume of new scientific material to absorb as well as countless names to fail at remembering and office fridge etiquette to understand. But before you get to any of those problems you still have to make friends with the tentacle monster.

Tentacles

Admin (or if you’re feeling fancy ‘administration’) is the sprawling structure around research that ensures that you don’t kill yourself (health and safety), kill someone else (security), order things that might kill people (purchasing), hire someone that might kill you (human resources) and if you do then there’s even one to make sure that everyone is fine with being lots of newly dead people (marketing).

Now admin doesn’t work like a normal structure – it has many ‘arms’ that reach deep into every aspect of research. Each arm, or tentacle, of admin is armed with its own particular secretion of rules and paperwork which must be adhered to lest you anger the beast.

Every institution has one of these tentacled admin beasts with their slimy arms integrating themselves into your research.

Different tentacle monsters

But while every admin beast is made up of broadly the same tentacles, no beast is the same, so you have to relearn how to survive an encounter every time you change institution. A well aimed B60 that might tame the HR tentacle at one university would simply enrage it at another.

You would think that all tentacle monsters could be trained to be the same, but as anyone that has worked with one for a while will realise you can’t control a giant tentacle admin monster. Not even the head of a company or the chancellor of a university can control a tentacle monster. The monster controls you.

Training/acceptance

The key with the many tentacled beast is not to fight but to just accept that you will now have to live with this new slimy presence. When you start a new job this is often discussed as orientation or induction to make it sound better, but the actual intent is simple – you are used to dealing with other tentacle monsters and you now need to be introduced to this one and need to accept that you will now be living with its tentacles hovering over everything you do.

This can take days, but don’t think of it as mandatory 3 hours of HR induction or 4 hours of Heath and Safety training, it’s simply all tentacle charming. Knowing exactly which form to put in the suckers of which tentacle can be invaluable information for any new starter and avoid awkward moments of tentacle confusion.

It can be difficult and particularly if you’re used to your previous tentacle admin beast you might be tempted to try and fight and even suggest new things the tentacles might prefer. This is a mistake.

How to survive

As a new starter your best bet is to give in to the tentacles and try to get through without either accidentally treading on one or letting one of them in places a tentacle really shouldn’t go.

Tentacle orientation/induction only lasts a few days and in no time at all you’ll have welcomed the new tentacle beast into your work and will be merrily on your way to working alongside its oozing mass. You’ll forget it’s even there.

Whatever you do, don’t provoke the many tentacled beast. There are plenty of ways to upset it and they have long memories and vindictive tendencies. Avoid doing anything that might be viewed as disrespectful like, for example, writing a 650 word blog post comparing them to a tentacled beast in your first week on the job…

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It’s almost the end of 2017 and it’s been quite a year. Which is about as nicely as I can talk about 2017. But here on ErrantScience 2017 we’ve had some amazing content and while everyone is busy eating giant meals, hiding from family members and looking for gift receipts I thought it would be good to highlight some of the most popular blog posts of the year.

Below are the five most read articles from 2017. If you missed them then go read and find out why they were so popular, if you’ve already read them then go read them again and enjoy them a second time! [Click on the titles to go read them!]

Should you do a PhD? – A flow diagram

Ever been a bit conflicted over if you should be starting a PhD in 2018. Well this surprisingly useful and almost accurate flow diagram should help you out. If you do a PhD based on this and don’t like we cannot be held legally responsible. But you can be mad at us.

How to survive a PhD viva: a terrible guide no one should follow…

PhD viva’s are scary things but what makes them scarier is not being properly prepared. This guide provides all the tips you need to absolutely avoid if you want to pass your viva. Best of luck!

Explaining the academic system of self inflicted overworking

This article explains why I’m writing this summary at 22:20 on Christmas eve and not during normal working hours. The TL;DR is that academics work too hard and it’s only partially their fault.

Your project is going to fail, everything will explode and you’ll probably get fired

Every project starts with a lot of emotions and worry about it’s future. This article talks about how scary it is to start on something hard, difficult and unknown but that’s okay. This article is best read at about 2am when you’re having a panic attack about how everything in your project is failing.

The importance of the coffee break

Amazing though it might seem but not everyone is convinced of how amazing coffee breaks are. This is a travesty and these people must be properly educated at once. This article should go someway to helping you explain the importance of coffee (or tea) breaks to a happy researcher environment… also biscuits.

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Today is the last day of our comic telling of An Academic Christmas Carol where Professor Scrooge finally learns an important lesson. If you’ve missed the other ones then go back and read Page 1 and Page 2!

You can download all threes pages in this handy PDF, download and share with any academics in your life that need a bit of Christmas cheer.

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Today we’re continuing An Academic Christmas Carol, the three page Christmas comic special. Today is page 2, if you missed page 1 then go back and read it here.

Page 3 is now available with a thrilling ending.

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Instead of a blog post this week enjoy this short 3 page comic of An Academic Christmas Carol. In a change from the normal one week – one blog post schedule the three pages will be posted one a day over the next three days. So today enjoy Page 1 of An Academic Christmas Carol.

Come back tomorrow for Page 2 and ghosts!

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