Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Risky business

Semester starts on Monday. I don't know why but that news comes as a shock. Somehow, the 25th February seemed to be an impossibly distant date — like Y2K. But it's on its way and there's not much we can do to stop it bar bringing about the end of the world as we know it. And even I recognise that causing the destruction of humankind just so I can avoid the first years is an over-reaction*.

The Honours students enrolled a couple of weeks ago and have already embarked on their projects. We ran through their risk assessments today.

Remember the old days — I'm thinking of last Thursday — when an assessment consisted of identifying the potential risks of a procedure (experiment, field trip, staff meeting) and working out ways in which those risks could be eliminated or, at least, minimized? All on one form. Okay, two. But no more than that.

Now, a risk assessment requires seven forms. The first one is my favourite**. It categorizes potential risks and tells you which of the other six forms are applicable. It doesn't have a section for field work but it does have a list of hazards that includes:
  • Heat (e.g. fire, flames)
  • Air conditioning
  • Electromagnetic radiation
  • Gravity
They forgot to add rifts in the space-time continuum and wandering black holes.

It does make yer think about how it used to be. When I was a postgraduate, we'd head off on field trips into the back of beyond without a first aid kit or radio*** and we'd often not even bother to let anyone know where we were going.

Not that it helped when we did. I recall a trip where someone insisted that we filed a travel plan with an estimated time of return. If we did not report back by that deadline, they'd alert the local authorities — such as they were. Anyway, we did run into difficulties in the shape of a couple of slack-jawed, banjo-playing nutters, who thought that giving us a hard time would be hilarious. One of the very few occasions when I've thought it would've been useful to have the rifle in the back of the Landcruiser****. In lieu of an armed response, we talked our way out of it and left. But because our departure was delayed by the half-witted hicks, we didn't get back until waaaaaay past the deadline … to find that the responsible person had buggered off and left us to our fate. That's one of the other times I hankered for the rifle*****.

Those days are over, which is just as well. But, really … gravity?


* Of course, you know it's not really the students I want to avoid.
** In a novel use of the word.
*** But we always remembered the beer.
**** Not with any great degree of seriousness, though.
***** See ****


Anonymous said...

Snail! You are kidding! As an ex-postgrad (successfully completed despite REAL risks) - I gotta say all field trips were risky if we'd forgotten the petrol, beer, ammo and ice (cheers Roy and HG). Six weeks in the scrub at a time, the risks were running out of said supplies. The heat was the ambient air temperature, air-conditioning came from the wing-beats of the flies - either that or you could stick your head out the window of the 4WD and risk a mouth full of dust (and flies), EMR - WTF? No mobile phone repeaters in our neck of the woods, and gravity - well we might have fallen out of our swags sleeping off the previous night's activities following a hard day of data collection. First Aid kit? (Box of bandaids and panadol - see gravity risks.) Communications? We were given HF radios and told to earth the antennae by pissing on the ground where we embedded the base. Day 2 of our first trip and the idiot I was working with pissed on the radio instead and shorted it out! I think I'd hate your job too. Sounds like you work for idiots. Get out! Now!

A very sympathetic ex-Academic

Anonymous said...

I thought risks to Honours Student's projects were more like:
- picking a crap supervisor,
- picking a crap thesis topic,
- being led to believe you were brighter than you really are by a crap supervisor desperate for any student,
- all of the above.

Snail said...

You had a radio? Luxury!

I took a quick poll of the people at work (the nice ones) and we all agree with the first post. We're just waiting for the chance to bugger off.

Oh, and with the second one too. But we're all exemplary supervisors with stunning projects, so none of that applies to us, of course. Just them.

Points down the corridor.

Anonymous said...

Regarding risky supervisors/risky projects as opposed to the risk of basing your thesis on eight months of painstakingly prepared histological sections and losing them just before you assess them ("Honestly Prof! I walked into the lab at 3am last night and there it was! A bloody great rent in the space-time continuum! Swallowed them all up!") ...you know what I mean. You're sitting in a staff meeting discussing the new students for the year and almost everyone's thinking "Hmmm, what sucker picked Dr Moreau** as a supervisor this year?" No slight intended on yourself or those you hold in high regard.

(** If there really is a "Dr Moreau" out there who takes offense - cool name! But I just made it up for the example - and with the obvious connection.)

FNQ sounds like the place to be... in about 9 weeks... unless you have a boat.

(Sympathetic ex-Academic)

Snail said...

I'm still pointing down the corridor.

Supervisors who give their students autecological projects on species with annual life cycles ... And give the same project to students year after freakin' year because no one ever gets a decent result.

And all those supervisors who use their honours students as techies. More than once I've wanted to stand up in a meeting about projects and yell at a staff member 'This is all very nice but where's the freakin' science, numbnuts?'

I could go on all day ...

In fact, I probably will. I feel a rant coming on.