Life learnings beyond a PhD

paper towel

Refilling the paper towel dispenser. Nailed it!

Q. How many researchers does it take to fill an empty paper towel dispenser?

A. None. Purely because we don’t know how and are too embarrassed to ask. Elucidating the chemical structures of unknown compounds? Too easy. Elucidating the workings of a paper towel dispenser? That’s just crazy-hard.

The PhD has taught me a range of skills beyond research but sometimes I think I missed out on some essential learnings.

In the PhD days I joined a speaker program promoting the benefits of learning maths to high school students. Great for logical thinking I would say. And logical thinking Is great for solving problems.

I firmly believed that until the day I tried to use logic to find eggs in Woolworths supermarket. Near the fresh produce? Or the baking aisle? Um….breakfast cereals? No, I found them next to sauces. Obviously.

Which is when I realised that life functions in a realm beyond logic, sometimes entering into the world of black magic. This is clearly the case with any administrative task. After getting some samples were analysed externally, I tried to fill out the forms using logic instead of chicken bones and failed.

Me: So, I don’t need to fill out a good received form, right? On account of there being no actual goods received?

Chicken bones: Yeah you do.

On another occasion one of the forms called for a ‘Brief description of goods.’

Me: Um…Acetonitrile?

Chicken bones: Nope. Catalogue number. Obviously.

See? Voodoo.

I tried to use a stapler the other day. These staplers haven’t work since the administrative assistant left a couple of years back but I thought I might give it a go. Of course it got stuck. I spent the next half hour trying to prise it open again.

By comparison, HPLCs are not a problem. I can easily to pull one apart and put back together. Other mechanical devices are also fine. One time I even built a fully functioning rotary evaporator from spare parts found around the lab. But staplers are just something else.

There have been some small triumphs. The printer has gotten stuck so often that now, with the help of the large diagrams and step by step guides, I can confidently retrieve a jammed piece of paper. The dishwasher is also no longer a minefield of indecipherable buttons and dials thanks to the guidance of knowledgeable tech experts.

The PhD has taught me much but there is still so much to learn. Fortunately, the real world has many amazing people – admin masters, tech experts and lab specialists to name but a few – from whom I can learn new and useful skills.

In time, with patient tuition and the development of standard operating procedures that contain detailed diagrams, I may just be able to master the paper towel dispenser. Maybe.


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