I’ve often complained that many of the skills you need to succeed in science are not taught in graduate school. Rarely does anyone receive formal instruction in teaching, presenting, grant-writing, managing a group, or schmoozing --- which are all pretty important skills for practicing academics. Most of us eventually learn to do these things competently, even though these are not necessarily the things that we are really good at.

At Oxford, academics are expected to have skills that really stretch into the realm of the completely ridiculous. The reason for this is that each college is run (and in some ways owned) by its governing body –-- essentially the tenured professors (see the discussion here). As a result, we professors have to make decisions on everything from investing the college endowment to hiring the gardeners. We are certainly smart enough to realize that we know nothing about these things and as much as possible we try to consult people who actually do know something. Nonetheless, there are inevitably times when we have to ring-in on something that we know absolutely nothing about.

This week, Somerville College held interviews for a Deputy Head of Catering. In assembling the interview panel, it was deemed necessary that a certain number of members of governing body sit on this panel. Having avoided many odious tasks over the last year, this time I drew the short straw. So this week I sat through an entire day of interviewing caterers… as if I have any clue what these guys do. I suppose in some ways it was interesting: by the end of the day I learned that the caterers at Somerville actually do a whole lot --- from putting together the food for the students, preparing fancy formal meals, holding events and conferences, dealing with the health authorities (who randomly come by and inspect everything) and so forth. Obviously what I actually know about this profession is pretty close to nil. Yet I was still asked to form some sort of opinion about the candidates. Fortunately, there were two people on the interview panel who actually did know what they were looking for. I think I was there just for --- well, actually, I’m not entirely sure why I was there, but somehow it was deemed important that I be there anyway.

Never a dull moment…