The career path of the Geotechnical Practitioner –  From student to graduate, to professional and mentor.

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Published 10 July 2020
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The career path of the Geotechnical Practitioner –  From student to graduate, to professional and mentor.

1. Geotechnical Practice: Advice and Guidance for younger readers on their career path: from student to Graduate, through Professional to Mentor

THE EDITORS OF NZ Geomechanics News and George Brink of Tonkin and Taylor have developed an initiative to provide a regular feature for younger readers: a series of articles directed towards those undergraduate and graduate students who intend to develop a career in geotechnical practice – either as engineering geologists or geotechnical engineers.

They suggest the name “Geotechnical Practitioners” describes the people of our profession and that a sequence of four stages broadly defines the career progression, from Current student to Graduate to Professional to Mentor.

The aim of these articles is to provide our younger members with advice and guidance about the geotechnical profession, management of their professional development and progression towards their longer-term goals.

I have been asked to submit an article on the topic of the “Mentor” stage in the career of the Geotechnical Practitioner.

2. Being a mentor

I am delighted to accept the invitation and feel very humble about the opportunity to communicate with you. A “mentor” is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as an “experienced and trusted adviser”. I am fortunate to have accumulated ample and varied experience over the years, and I hope I have earned your trust sufficiently to deserve mentor status.

I am yet, and always will be, a student. Throughout our career, we learn from each other, from personal experience and advance our knowledge together, not in isolation. It is a privilege to guide, teach and advise current students and graduates. Their questions and assertions are both stimulating and challenging. Together it is a rewarding and exciting progression. Mentoring is about two-way communication and learning, to and from one another with mutual respect, regardless of which stage you are at in the seamless story of your career.

At this point in time I am acutely aware that you are all seriously challenged by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of you could be suffering from stress, disappointment, unemployment and hardship. Economic contraction (we hope not a collapse) and the possibilities of clients pulling back, diminishing fees and lack of job opportunities for graduates are all daunting prospects.

From a relatively “safe” position in “semi-retirement”, I am hesitant and sensitive about commenting on the career of the Geotechnical Practitioner and the mentor’s role at this time, lest it be perceived merely as a story of good fortune, from a by-gone era.

However, even if that were so, there are lessons to learn and new opportunities to discover from the past. These remain relevant in this time of unprecedented, sudden, world-wide change.

3. Previous experience and serious challenges

It is informative to review the experience acquired from working on large, complex infrastructure projects, university research programmes, other investigations with colleagues in consultancies and supervising graduate student research theses. These endeavours were engineering geological and geo-hazard investigations carried out over many decades. All were intensely interesting and rewarding with positive outcomes. No project was straight forward. Amongst them were serious challenges, from adverse physical conditions and construction failures.

There have also been challenging times of dwindling work and fewer jobs.

It is useful to reflect upon the experience gained and the lessons learned. These provided a rich experience which led to reviewed publications and case histories for research-informed teaching.
From that arose further opportunities for professional development and mentoring. I would like to enlarge upon these a little and comment about how we might now look after those people starting out on their careers:

4. What I learned when I started out.

There were no courses in engineering geology in New Zealand when I graduated with a 4 year BSc (Hons) in Geology. Course options did not exist. We studied the whole spectrum of geology and did lots of hands-on lab work and field exercises. In the Honours year, reading the primary literature and attending seminars with leading experts of the time was constant and exciting. Graduate classes were small and collaboration and cooperation were the norm. The Staff were leading international scientists and very generous with their time. They involved us with their research. This gave us an excellent education including a very useful insight into the regional geology of much of New Zealand, how to map and interpret terrain, develop geological and geomorphic models and produce drawings and reports. Many of us participated in leading research of the time, in New Zealand and Antarctica. We were included in joint publications in journals such as “Nature”

Hence we were well prepared as geologists when we started out. I hold the view that to be an effective and well-trained engineering geologist, you must first be a well-educated and practical geologist.

5. What we did not realise that we did not know, but needed, was a basic understanding of engineering geology, hydrogeology and geomechanics.

To correct this, during the mid-1960s, many of us were sent to be trained in engineering geology and basic geo-mechanics and hydrogeology in Australia. This was done by secondment to the huge Snowy Mountains Scheme and to the Hydro-electric commission of Tasmania and to the South Australia mines department, engineering geology and groundwater section. This enlightening opportunity was immensely valuable. I am ever grateful for it and for the mentoring received from our Australian peers who were generous with their time and expertise. For six months, I was put to work on a variety of active construction sites and investigation programmes. In many ways Australia was a geotechnical leader in the world at the time.It was a decisive and formative practical experience.

For the current student and graduates of today, in New Zealand Universities, there are excellent courses and graduate degrees in Engineering Geology and aligned subject areas. The programmes now do provide training in hydrogeology and geo-mechanics for geologists, not so available back in the 1960s.

Those programmes do not replace the need for a broad education in the regional geology, tectonics and geomorphology of the complex and active plate boundary in Aoteoroa. This underpins our knowledge of the “Surficial geology” or the complex upper “layers” and “zones” of Quaternary age. These are the “regolith, sediments, slope deposits, young volcanics, coastal deposits” and much more. They are very thick in New Zealand and understanding them is critical to successfully “engineer with the Earth”.

6. Lessons from failures and unexpected adverse ground conditions

Several projects stand out. This is not the place to digress into the case history of any of these. I shall summarise only a few, very briefly, and then indicate how we overcame the challenges and moved successfully forward.

  • Concrete gravity dam site in closely fractured lava rock tongue abandoned when excavation exposed soft very weak alluvium.
  • Hydro power station and penstocks site in residual clays of highly altered and weathered andesite lava and breccia, with clay seams, flanking landslides and very hot water seeps from the geothermal field below.
  • Tailrace canal line from the same power station through clays, silts and alluvium with temperatures of 100 C at proposed excavation invert level above a geothermal aquifer.
  • Tunnel collapses in hot swelling clays of andesitic massifs and in faulted, saturated alluvium and clays in the ring plain deposits of active andesite volcanoes.
  • Large viaduct sites across deep, steep-sided gorges in actively uplifting Late Tertiary weak mudstone and sandstones. Large and complex active landslides adjacent to the sites and beyond.

7. Meeting these challenges and moving forward with confidence.

The challenges in all these examples were investigated by engineering geological mapping and aerial photograph interpretation at the regional scale, local scale and within the sites in detail. This was essential to provide the geological setting and the local context for each site. The mapping was enhanced and extended with a range of geophysical methods and /or construction logging. Boreholes shafts and drives were used to determine actual in situ conditions. Geological models were made.

8. These activities took place under the umbrella of collaboration, cooperation, mentoring and discussion within the project teams.

The involvement of outside experts in geophysics, geothermal alteration mineralogy and in drilling of geothermal fields provided much needed guidance and extended the mentoring. Full scale dewatering trials of the redesigned tailrace was able to be made over several months. Discussion and collaboration with the tunnelling contractors provided free flow of information and strategy. The dam site, and another linked to it, were moved upstream and changed to much smaller earth dams. In all cases the information was shared with the profession at conferences and published either in refereed international journals or refereed proceedings and/or extended abstracts. Doctoral student research projects and post-doctoral research teamwork was designed in the regions around the sites and including the site areas. This provided extended discussion and mentoring for younger geotechnical professionals and advanced our understanding of the engineering geological setting.

In each case, the role of mentoring from senior people and between team members was crucial to success.

9. Looking after those starting their careers.

We were fortunate to enjoy advice, experience and mentoring from senior project geotechnical practitioners and from each other.

The range and quality of the project experience for new graduates, which we all were at the outset, was exceptional and one of constant total immersion. The experience and discussion was extended and reviewed over the years through the joint research projects, with a new generation of younger graduates.

Sharing the experience through collaborative research and publication in the geotechnical community and building it into the teaching of graduate university courses, research theses and dissertations are all parts of the mentoring process. This transfers knowledge to younger professionals and helps to advance their career aspirations.

It does not necessarily need to be confined to formal research and teaching structures.

A spontaneous approach to those of us who find ourselves in a mentoring role with experience to share is always welcome. We are open to conversations and informal meetings in a relaxed setting.

10. The importance of professional ethics.

The chartered membership of Engineering New Zealand provides younger professionals with another dimension to aspire to for their career. For all of us it gives structure to our professional responsibilities – and opportunities. As more of us join the Professional Engineering Geologist pathway, it will become more embedded in the wider community, which we are all part of.

It will become recognised and “socialised”, if you like. Others of us also bring parallel chartered membership from other countries. Chartered membership and professional ethics define our service to the whole community and help us to reach our beyond our comfort zone and “home” organisations to other professions, industries, enterprises, commercial and social endeavours……We are dependent upon each other. The present pandemic and looming economic crises are the reality of that.

It is easy to remain in our “silos” but it is formative and rewarding to venture beyond, thus creating new links and opportunities, whilst keeping our core practice discipline in good shape.

11. Shaping our future.

It is inspiring and reassuring to witness, at first hand, the awesome performance of young practitioners (of all ages) within our Geotechnical community. I stand in admiration of the way in which you are tackling the current unprecedented situation, with your energy and professionalism.
I encourage you all to continue to:

  • Reach out to each other
  • Communicate, collaborate and cooperate, with mutual respect.
  • Seek assistance with conference presentations, abstracts and full publications
  • Have informal group discussions and one to one , face to face conversations
  • Do not wait to be asked to contribute ideas or to ask for help
  • All questions and suggestions are valuable and welcome
  • Give encouragement and help, praise and recognition.
  • Venture out to other areas of society and see what we can contribute.

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ISSN 0111-6851