Archive for the Education Category

At a Lecture

Posted in Education, Poetry with tags , , , on November 27, 2014 by telescoper

Since mistakes are inevitable, I can easily be taken
for a man standing before you in this room filled
with yourselves. Yet in about an hour
this will be corrected, at your and at my expense,
and the place will be reclaimed by elemental particles
free from the rigidity of a particular human shape
or type of assembly. Some particles are still free. It’s not all dust.

So my unwillingness to admit it’s I
facing you now, or the other way around,
has less to do with my modesty or solipsism
than with my respect for the premises’ instant future,
for those afore-mentioned free-floating particles
settling upon the shining surface
of my brain. Inaccessible to a wet cloth eager to wipe them off.

The most interesting thing about emptiness
is that it is preceded by fullness.
The first to understand this were, I believe, the Greek
gods, whose forte indeed was absence.
Regard, then, yourselves as rehearsing perhaps for the divine encore,
with me playing obviously to the gallery.
We all act out of vanity. But I am in a hurry.

Once you know the future, you can make it come
earlier. The way it’s done by statues or by one’s furniture.
Self-effacement is not a virtue
but a necessity, recognised most often
toward evening. Though numerically it is easier
not to be me than not to be you. As the swan confessed
to the lake: I don’t like myself. But you are welcome to my reflection.

by Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)

 

 

Working for Different Masters

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , , on November 1, 2014 by telescoper

Quite a few times recently, current and prospective students (or parents thereof) have asked me what the difference is between the different forms of Masters degrees that you can get in the United Kingdom, chiefly the distinction between an MSc  and one of the variations on the MPhys or MMath we have here in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here at the University of Sussex. I have to admit that it’s all very confusing so here’s my attempt to explain.

The main distinction is that the MSc “Master of Science” is a (taught) postgraduate (PG) degree, usually of one (calendar) year’s duration, whereas the MPhys etc are undergraduate (UG) degrees usually lasting 4 years. This means that students wanting to do an MSc must already have completed a degree programme (and usually have been awarded at least Second Class Honours)  before starting an MSc whereas those doing the MPhys do not.

Undergraduate students wanting to do Physics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex, for example, can opt for either the 3-year BSc or the 4-year MPhys programmes. However, choosing the 4-year option does not lead to the award of a BSc degree and then a subsequent Masters qualification;  graduating students get a single qualification usually termed an “integrated Masters”.

It is possible for a student to take a BSc and then do a taught MSc programme afterwards, perhaps at a different university, but there are relatively few MSC programmes for Physics  in the UK because the vast majority of students who are interested in postgraduate study will already have registered for 4-year undergraduate programmes. That’s not to say there are none, however. There are notable MSc programmes dotted around, but they tend to be rather specialist; examples related to my own area include Astronomy and Cosmology at Sussex and Astrophysics at Queen Mary.  To a large extent these courses survive by recruiting students from outside the UK because the market from home students is so small. No department can afford to put on an entire MSc programme for the benefit of just one or two students. Often these stand-alone courses share modules with the final year of the undergraduate Masters, which also helps keep them afloat.

So why does it matter whether one Masters is PG while the other is UG? One difference is that the MSc lasts a calendar year (rather than an academic year). In terms of material covered, this means it contains 180 credits compared to the 120 credits of an undergraduate programme. Typically the MSc will have 120 credits of courses, examined in June as with UG programmes, followed by 60 credits worth of project work over the summer, handed in in September, though at Sussex some of our programmes are split 90 credits coursework and 90 credits of project.

The reason why this question comes up so frequently nowadays is that the current generation of applicants to university (and their parents) are facing up to fees of £9K per annum. The cost of doing a 3-year BSc is then about £27K compared to £36K for an MPhys. When rushing through the legislation to allow universities to charge this amount, the Powers That Be completely forgot about PG programmes, which have accordingly maintained their fees at a similar level. For example, the MSc Astronomy at Sussex attracts a fee of about £5K for home students and about £15K for overseas students. These levels are roughly consistent with the UG fees paid by  home students on the previous fee regime (approx £3.5K per annum, bearing in mind that you get 1.5 times as much teaching on an MSc compared to a year of an MPhys).

Being intelligent people, prospective physicists look at the extra £9K they have to pay for the 4th year of an MPhys and compare it with the current rate for an entire MSc and come to the conclusion that they should just do a BSc then switch. This seems to be not an unreasonable calculation to make.

However, there are some important things to bear in mind. Firstly, unlike UG programmes, the fee for PG programmes is basically unregulated. Universities can charge whatever they like and can increase them in the future if they decide to. See, for example, the list at Sussex University which shows that MSc fees already vary by more than a factor of four from one school to another. Incidentally, that in itself shows the absurdity of charging the same fee for UG degrees regardless of subject…

Now the point is that if one academic year of UG teaching is going to cost £9K for future students, there is no way any department can justify putting on an entire calendar of advanced courses (i.e. 50% more teaching at an extremely specialist level) for less than half the  income per student. The logical fee level for MSc programmes must rise to a mininum of about 1.5 times the UG fee, which is a whopping £13.5K (similar to the current whopping amount already paid by overseas students for these programmes). It’s therefore clear that you cannot take the current MSc fee levels as a guide to what they will be in three years’ time, when you will qualify to enter a taught PG programme. Prices will certainly have risen by then.

Moreover, it’s much harder to get financial support for postgraduate than undergraduate study.  MSc students do not qualify for student loans as undergraduates do, for example. Also the MSc fee usually has to be paid in full, up front, not collected later when your income exceeds some level. Some PG courses do run their own bursary schemes, such as many of those at Sussex, for example, but generally speaking students on taught PG programmes have to find their own funding. On the other hand,  undergraduate students often qualify for generous packages, including fee waivers and reduction in accommodation, especially if they qualify for support for widening participation, such as the “First Generation Scholar” scheme at Sussex.

I’d say that, contrary to what many people seem to think,  if you take into the full up-front fee and the lack of student loans etc, the cost of a BSc + MSc is  already significantly greater than doing an MPhys, and in future the cost of the former route will inevitably increase. I therefore don’t think this is a sensible path for most Physics undergraduates to take, assuming that they want their MSc to qualify them for a career in Physics research, either in a university or a commercial organization, perhaps via the PhD degree, and they’re not so immensely rich that money is no consideration.

The exception to this conclusion is for the student who wishes to switch to another field at Masters level,  to do a specialist MSc in a more applied discipline such as medical physics or engineering. Then it might make sense, as long as you can find a way to deal with the need to pay up-front for such courses.

There are indications that the government might be planning to introduce student loans for postgraduate degrees similar to those currently offered for undergraduates, but for me that would only make sense if the fees were to increase as described above, so this would not be an entirely positive move (to say the least).

In conclusion, though, I have to say that, like many other aspects of Higher Education in the Disunited Kingdom, this system is a mess. I’d prefer to see the unified system of 3 year UG Bachelor degrees, 2-year Masters, and 3-year PhD that pertains throughout most of continental Europe. To colleagues there, the system of two types of Masters degree looks like a complete mess.  Which it is. In fact some countries do not accept out integrated Masters as preparation for a PhD at all.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out an even worse anomaly. I did a 3-year Honours degree in Natural Science at Cambridge University for which I was awarded not a BSc but a BA (Bachelor of Arts). A year or so later this – miraculously and with no effort on my part – turned into an MA. Work that one out if you can.

What’s the point of conferences?

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 19, 2014 by telescoper

Well, here I am back in the office making a start on my extensive to-do list. Writing it, I mean. Not actually doing any of it.

It was nice to get away for a couple of weeks, to meet up with some old friends I haven’t seen for a while and also to catch up on some of the developments in my own field and other related areas. We do have pretty good seminar series here at Sussex which should in principle allow me to keep up to date with developments in my own research area, but unfortunately the timing of these events often clashes with other meetings  that I’m obliged to attend as Head of School. Escaping to a conference is a way of focussing on research for a while without interruption. At least that’s the idea.

While at the meeting, however, I was struck by a couple of things. First was that during the morning plenary lectures given by invited speakers almost everyone in the audience was spending much more time working on their laptops than listening to the talk.  This has been pretty standard at every meeting I’ve been to for the last several years. Now that everyone uses powerpoint (or equivalent) for such presentations nobody in the audience feels the need to take notes so to occupy themselves they spend the time answering emails or pottering about on Facebook. That behaviour does not depend on the quality of the talk, either. Since nobody seems to listen very much the question naturally arises as to whether the presentations have any intrinsic value at all. It often seems to me that the conference talk has turned into a kind of ritual that persists despite nobody really knowing what it’s for or how it originated. An hour is too long to talk if you really want people to listen, but we go on doing it.

The part of a conference session that’s more interesting is the discussion after each talk. Sometimes there’s a genuine discussion from which you learn something quite significant or get an idea for a new study.  There’s often also a considerable amount of posturing, preening and point-scoring which is less agreeable but in its own way I suppose fairly interesting.

At the meeting I was attending the afternoons were devoted to discussion sessions for which we split into groups. I was allocated to “Gravitation and Cosmology”; others were on “Cosmic Rays”, “Neutrino Physics and Astrophysics”, and so on. The group I was, of about 25 people, was a nice size for discussion. These sessions were generally planned around short “informal” presentations intended to stimulate discussion, but generally these presentations were about the same length as the plenary talks and also given in Powerpoint. There was discussion, but the format turned out to be less different from the morning sessions than I’d hoped for. I’m even more convinced than ever that Powerpoint presentations used in this way stifle rather than stimulate discussion and debate. The pre-prepared presentation is often used as a crutch by a speaker reluctant to adopt a more improvisatory approach that would probably be less polished but arguably more likely to generate new thoughts.

I don’t know whether the rise of Powerpoint is itself to blame for our collective unwillingness inability to find other ways of talking about science, but I’d love to try organizing a workshop or conference along lines radically different from the usual “I talk, you listen” format in which the presenter is active and the audience passive for far too long.

All this convinced me that the answer to the question “What is the point of conferences?” has very little to do with the formal  programme and more with the informal parts, especially the conversations over coffee and at dinner. Perhaps I should try arranging a conference that has nothing but dinner and coffee breaks on the schedule?

Mathematical and Physical Sciences Open Day at Sussex

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on October 4, 2014 by telescoper

It’s another open day at the University of Sussex so I’m on campus again to help out as best I can, although I have to admit that all the hard work is being done by others! It’s been extremely busy so far; in fact, I’m told that about 6000 visitors are on campus today. This a good sign for the forthcoming admissions round, probably buoyed by the improved position of the University of Sussex in the latest set of league tables and in excellent employment prospects for graduates.

Anyway the good folks of  the Department of Physics & Astronomy  and Department of Mathematics were here bright and early to get things ready:

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All morning we’ve had a steady stream of visitors to the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (which comprises both Departments mentioned above). While I’m at it let me just give a special mention to Darren Baskill’s Outreach Team (seen in the team photograph below).
outreachThey have had absolutely amazing year, running a huge range of events and activities that have reached a staggering 14,000 people of all ages (including 12,000 of school age).

Anyway, I think I’ll toddle off and see if I can sit in on one of today’s lectures. It’s about time I learned something.

 

UPDATE: Here is Mark Hindmarsh about to get started on his lecture.

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You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw that he had included a quote from this blog in his talk:

I’ve worked in some good physics departments in my time, but the Department of Sussex is completely unique both for the level of support it offers students and the fact that so many of the undergraduates are so highly motivated.

And, yes, I did mean every word of that.

The Curse of Assessment-led Teaching

Posted in Education with tags , , on October 2, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday I took part in a University Teaching and Learning Strategy meeting that discussed, among other things, how to improve the feedback on student assessments in order to help them learn better. It was an interesting meeting, involving academics, administrative staff and representatives of the Students Union, that generated quite a few useful ideas. Looking through my back catalogue I realise that around this time year I was at a similar event based in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex of which I am Head.

Positive though yesterday’s discussion was, it didn’t do anything to dissuade me from a long-held view that the entire education system holds back the students’ ability to learn by assessing them far too much. One part of the discussion was about trying to pin down essentially what is meant by “Research-led Teaching” which is what we’re supposed to be doing at universities. In my view too much teaching is not really led by research at all, but mainly driven by assessment. The combination of the introduction of modular programmes and the increase of continuously assessed coursework has led to a cycle of partial digestion and regurgitation that involves little in the way of real learning and certainly nothing like the way research is done.

I’m not going to argue for turning the clock back entirely, but for the record my undergraduate degree involved no continuous assessment at all (apart from a theory project I opted for in my final year. Having my entire degree result based on the results of six three-hour unseen examinations in the space of three days is not an arrangement I can defend, but note that despite the lack of continuous assessment I still spent less time in the examination hall than present-day students.

That’s not to say I didn’t have coursework. I did, but it was formative rather than summative; in other words it was for the student to learn about the subject, rather for the staff to learn about the student. I handed in my stuff every week, it was marked and annotated by a supervisor, then returned and discussed at a supervision.

People often tell me that if a piece of coursework “doesn’t count” then the students won’t do it. There is an element of truth in that, of course. But I had it drummed into me that the only way really to learn my subject (Physics) was by doing it. I did all the coursework I was given because I wanted to learn and I knew that was the only way to do it.

The very fact that coursework didn’t count for assessment made the feedback written on it all the more useful when it came back because if I’d done badly I could learn from my mistakes without losing marks. This also encouraged me to experiment a little, such as using a method different from that suggested in the question. That’s a dangerous strategy nowadays, as many seem to want to encourage students to behave like robots, but surely we should be encouraging students to exercise their creativity rather than simply follow the instructions? The other side of this is that more challenging assignments can be set, without worrying about what the average mark will be or what specific learning outcome they address.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the idea of Learning for Learning’s Sake, which is what in my view defines what a university should strive for, is getting lost in a wilderness of modules, metrics, percentages and degree classifications. We’re focussing too much on those few aspects of the educational experience that can be measured, ignoring the immeasurable benefit (and pleasure) that exists for all humans in exploring new ways to think about the world around us.

Athena SWAN Bronze for Physics & Astronomy at Sussex

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on September 25, 2014 by telescoper

Athena Swan

Only  time for the quickest of quickies today, but I have some very good news to pass on so, without further ado, here we go. Today we learned that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has received a the Athena SWAN Bronze Award in recognition of our commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research. The Athena SWAN charter has been running since 2005, recognising the commitment of the higher education sector to address gender inequalities, tackle the unequal representation of women in science and to improve career progression for female academics.

This award has been the result of a huge effort led by Dr Kathy Romer but also involving many other members of staff in the Department and across entire  the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences generally. The Department scored at or above the national average in all key areas: student intake (UG, PGT, PGR), research staff, academic staff, REF submissions and so on. That said, the Athena SWAN process has highlighted several areas where improvements can be made, such as in the mentoring of female postdoctoral researchers, and enhanced levels of training in equality and diversity matters such as the influence of unconscious bias. We are very pleased to have received the bronze award, but there is still a very great deal to do. Many other institutions and departments have already progressed to the Silver or even Gold award, but our Bronze is at least a start!

 

 

Life, Work and Postgraduate Research

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Education with tags , , , , on September 21, 2014 by telescoper

A very busy Freshers’ Week at the University of Sussex is now behind us and lectures proper start tomorrow morning. As far as I was concerned all the Freshers’ events were superimposed on a week that was already filled with other things, some good (of which more anon), and some not so good (of which I will say nothing further).

After welcome receptions at the weekend, Freshers’ Week for me began with an induction lecture with all the new students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) or at least as many as could rouse themselves for a 10am start the day after a big welcome party. In the event, the turnout was good. I then gave another little speech at a much less formal event in the Creativity Zone (which is situated in the building occupied by MPS. I then had to dash off to a couple of meetings but when I returned a couple of hours later the party was still going, so I helped myself to a beer and rejoined the socializing.

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Welcome to the new students in MPS!

And so it was for the rest of the week, dominated by meetings of one sort or another including one in London, until Friday and my last formal induction task in the form of a session for new postgraduate students in MPS. Since this happened at the end of Induction Week there wasn’t much of a practical nature say to the students that they hadn’t already heard during the School-based induction sessions that preceded it, so I decided to scrap the Powerpoint I had planned to use and just give a general pep talk. Doing so was quite an interesting experience because it reminded me of the time I started my own postgraduate education, here at Sussex.

As a matter of fact it was on the corresponding day in 1985 (Sunday 22nd September) that I moved down to Brighton in advance of starting my DPhil (as Sussex doctorates were called in those days). It’s hard to believe that was 29 years ago. As it turned out, I finished my thesis within three years and stayed on here at Sussex as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astronomy Centre until 1990, whereupon I left to take up a teaching and research position at what is now Queen Mary, University of London. That was the start of a mini-tour of UK universities that ended up with me returning to Sussex last year as Head of the same school in which I started my research career.

This morning I noticed a story in the Times Higher about the loneliness and sense of isolation often faced by postgraduate research students which often leads to a crisis of confidence. I can certainly attest to that, for reasons I will try to explain below, so tried to reassure the students about it in the induction session on Friday.

The point is that a postgraduate research degree is very different from a programme of undergraduate study. For one thing, as a research student you are expected to work on your own a great deal of the time. That’s because nobody else will be doing precisely the same project so, although other students will help you out with some things, you’re not trying to solve the same problems as your peers as is the case with an undergraduate. Your supervisor will help you of course and make suggestions (of varying degrees of helpfulness), but a PhD is still a challenge that you have to meet on your own. I don’t think it is good supervisory practice to look over a research student’s shoulder all the time. It’s part of the purpose of a PhD that the student learns to go it alone. There is a balance of course, but my own supervisor was rather “hands off” and I regard that as the right way to supervise. I’ve always encouraged my own students to do things their own way rather than try to direct them too much.

That loneliness is tough in itself, but there’s also the scary fact that you do not usually know whether your problem has a solution, let alone whether you yourself can find it. There is no answer at the back of the book; if there were you would not be doing research. A good supervisor will suggest a project that he or she thinks is both interesting and feasible, but the expectation is that you will very quickly be in a position where you know more about that topic than your supervisor.

I think almost every research student goes through a phase in which they feel out of their depth. There are times when you get thoroughly stuck and you begin to think you will never crack it. Self-doubt, crisis of confidence, call it what you will, I think everyone who has done a postgraduate degree has experienced it. I certainly did. A year into my PhD I felt I was getting nowhere with the first problem I had been given to solve. All the other research students seemed much cleverer and more confident than me. Had I made a big mistake thinking I could this? I started to panic and began to think about what kind of job I should go into if I abandoned the idea of pursuing a career in research.

So why didn’t I quit? There were a number of factors, including the support and encouragement of my supervisor, staff and fellow students in the Astronomy Centre, and the fact that I loved living in Brighton, but above all it was because I knew that I would feel frustrated for the rest of my life if I didn’t see it through. I’m a bit obsessive about things like that. I can never leave a crossword unfinished either.

What happened was that after some discussion with my supervisor I shelved that first troublesome problem and tried another, much easier one. I cracked that fairly quickly and it became my first proper publication. Moreover, thinking about that other problem revealed that there was a way to finesse the difficulty I had failed to overcome in the first project. I returned to the first project and this time saw it through to completion. With my supervisor’s help that became my second paper, published in 1987.

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are general lessons. One is that if you are going to complete a research degree you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. I was talking to a well-known physicist at a meeting not long ago and he told me that when he interviews prospective physics students he asks them “Can you live without physics?”. If the answer is “yes” then he tells them not to do a PhD. It’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it kind of job being a scientist. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’d imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well. Being “stuck” on a problem is part-and-parcel of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it. I have a large stack of prize dictionaries to prove that this works!

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way. I’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research. I do think however that it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my PhD research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Time spent sitting at your desk isn’t guaranteed to be productive.

So, for what it’s worth here is my advice to new postgraduate students. Work hard. Enjoy the challenge. Listen to advice from your supervisor, but remember that the PhD is your opportunity to establish your own identity as a researcher. Above all, in the words of the Desiderata:

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

Never feel guilty about establishing a proper work-life balance. Having more than one dimension to your life is will not only improve your well-being but also make you a better researcher.

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