Wednesday, 30 November 2016

University of life

As Michaelmas term draws to an end, and I begin to feel a sense of relief that the worst bit of the academic year is behind me, I look around at the stupids and realise that although the faces and names change from year to year, the characters are always the same.
I've been doing this job for over twenty years now and seen all sorts from 'normal' everyday people, through shy retiring types too afraid to speak up or look you in the eye, to arrogant loud-mouthed wankers whose very presence puts me on edge and makes me start looking around the workshop to see which tools would make the most effective weapons.

My direct involvement with most is fleeting, but it's surprising how quickly you can form a first impression that turns out to be right on the money.
I have nothing to do with first or second year students beyond trying to avoid moving around the department between lectures when there's the risk of being caught up in a tide of smelly bodies clutching rucksacks and cycle helmets, all talking at once while staring at their phones.
Those who I have more to do with are in the third year of their bachelors degree, when they carry out a series of lab experiments as part of their coursework.
At this point I start to notice those that stand out - the late and disorganised, the lame excuse inventors, the keen but misguided, those who don't really want to be here but also don't know what else to do with their lives, and of course the obligatory in-your-face fuckwit. Every year has one.

As soon as the year's arrogant tosser has been identified, he's a marked man (not had a female pain-in-the-arse yet), and the whole team keeps a careful eye on him.
We try our best to be professional and treat everyone the same, but as with life in general, you tend to treat others the way they treat you. So when some 21-year-old upstart struts in and starts talking to you like you're something nasty they've found stuck to the sole of their shoe, it should come as no surprise when their attitude comes back to haunt them.

Every year we have a few students doing projects for their Masters degree, by which time most of the unpleasant troublemakers have been carefully weeded out to avoid the risk of getting blood up the wall. The occasional one slips through but thankfully it's a rarity, with most of them being the best that the previous year had to offer. There's still the odd one who doesn't know their arse from their elbow, but we do our best to guide them through the process.
By the time we get to those doing their PhD, we generally find ourselves dealing with pretty good people. Most are hard working, determined individuals who quickly achieve a rapport with the technicians.
Some need a bit of firm house-training in terms of their understanding of what is involved in making things; the physical processes and the time they take. Most things they need are prototypes that need to be designed and built from scratch, and as the average engineering student doesn't even know which end of a hammer to hold, it can all come as a bit of a shock to them.
By the time they've done their three year stint and been 'doctored', the majority leave here with a good job in industry. Over the years I've seen them go on to research jobs with companies including Rolls Royce, Lockheed Martin, and Renault and Ferrari F1 teams, and it's a good feeling to know that I've been a part of enabling them to achieve that.
I've also witnessed them develop as people and got to know them reasonably well, so by the time they leave I'm sorry to see them go.

Of course there have been one or two that it was a relief to see the back of, but it's impossible to avoid every over-confident dickhead with all the social skills of a honey badger on crack.
If it was, the world would be a better place.
It would also be a better place if members of the 'Cambridge University Engineering Society' refrained from wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the phrase 'Trust me, I'm an engineer'.
No you're not, you're just good at maths.

Schlieren image of a Mach 1.5 shockwave
taken during the 3rd year teaching lab.