Thursday, August 20, 2015

Of Mice and Paperwork

 Seeing as I'm getting close to the end of my degree, I decided that I would need to get a real “adult” job (i.e. not serving gullible tourists overpriced steak) this summer that I could continue to do next semester, since I only have 9 credits to make up, or the equivalent of 3 classes.
So I got a job at a lab at the Hebrew University Campus in Ein Kerem. This was sort of a friend of a friend type networking and they must have been pretty desperate because I was hired immediately at the interview and started the next day. The job involves genotyping mice, and my previous experience with animals was obviously a plus here since the doctoral student who interviewed me and with whom I'd be working is afraid of mice. She's ok with them as long as they're not moving (in other words dead) and I prefer them alive and with all their organs intact so we complement each other perfectly. I did a lot of nodding and tried not to say anything too stupid but I think it was the fact that I can look at animals without having a nervous breakdown that decided her.
The next day I was given the “grand” tour and taken to the secretaries' office, where I was told that I couldn't technically start working there until the woman who deals with the paperwork came back the next week and could process me. This surprised me not at all because I have run up against HU's bureaucracy more than once and the bureaucracy always wins. So I took the stack of forms (yes, I said stack) to fill out later and unofficially worked until the next week when the one person who could process me came back from maternity leave (which begs the question, what did they do for 4 months without the only person who could process new employees?).
In addition, I had to receive temporary permission to work in the animal unit with the mice until attending the proper courses. Permission to work in the animal unit with the doctoral student present at all times was attained by the veterinarian in the elevator on the way up, the form officially requesting a temporary ethics number until the animal unit course a month later was filled out and sent in, as was registration for the course itself. I received no actual confirmation about the form, besides an email response saying, “got it, thanks” or any information whatsoever about the course (including details about where it would be held).
When the secretary finally came back the next week, I handed her my forms, my ID to photocopy, and a passport photo to be used for my work ID, which she assured me would arrive in a few days (by that she clearly meant a month later, which is when it actually came). In the meantime she asked me how many hours I was planning on working a week so I could get paid. I told her I really didn't know yet and she informed me that if I told her more hours than I would actually be working I would get paid for the numbers of hours I actually worked but if I underestimated the number of hours a week and ended up working more, I could only get paid for the estimated number of hours. This is possibly one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard uttered. Why in G-d's name must this be complicated?! You know how it works in every other place on earth? You tell them how many hours you worked and then they pay you. End of story, no guessing or estimation necessary. This is when I realized that there must be a whole bunch of devious, sadistic bureaucrats wringing their hands and cackling to themselves while a Persian cat sits on their lap wandering the halls of HU. There is no other explanation for this system of salary payment.
The professor I was working for (whom I'd never actually met since he was on sabbatical at Harvard until August, and can only assume is a real person) sent me an email requesting that I fill out an additional form for the “summer program” which he explained was a program that encouraged researchers to hire first degree students in their labs by paying the students' salary for 2 months. It essentially makes absolutely no difference to me because I get paid by someone regardless (assuming I don't underestimate the number of hours I'll be working that month). Obviously he was interested in saving the money from his own budget though, so he sent me to the secretary to fill out this form. She sent me to the dean's secretary, where they handed me another stack of forms to fill out (to my dismay). Ten minutes and halfway through the forms later, she decided to look up my records on the computer and informed me that I don't even qualify for the program since my average isn't high enough. It would have been nice had she informed me of this before I started filling out a billion forms with questions I couldn't answer (like my army ID number- who remembers their army ID number 5 years later?! I'm lucky I can remember my current phone number). She was very sorry about the whole thing and I had to comfort her by telling her that it wasn't my idea to sign up for the program anyway and I hadn't even known about it 2 days before. Apparently only good students are worthy of work experience and jobs after their degree. The rest of us are thrown under the number 68 bus (after our tuition is fully paid of course). I don't even bother looking at all the “opportunities” the school publishes since I know they don't apply to my moron self anyway.
I was a little bit afraid that they would fire me and hire someone with a higher average just so they wouldn't have to dig into their own budget, but when I informed the professor, he just responded, “oh well, that's how it goes.” So I continued to follow the doctoral student around, learning to hole punch mouse ears (turns out I have a hidden talent for this), and run DNA through PCR and gel electrophoresis to determine whether they carry the gene for a specific brain protein they're investigating. 95% percent of people will have no idea what I just wrote, which is why you should never ask a scientist what he does. Another reason is the following conversation which took place between my dad and me. He learned this lesson the hard way.
My dad: so what did you do at work today?
Me: we chopped up mouse brains and put them in a test tube.
*He turns green*

Me: yeah, you should probably not ask me about work anymore.

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