Archive for April 24, 2014

Astronomy (and Particle Physics) Look-alikes, No. 92

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on April 24, 2014 by telescoper

Although it’s not strictly an astronomical observation, I am struck by the resemblance between the distinguished particle physicist and blogger Professor Alfred E. Neuman, of University College London, and the iconic cover boy of Mad Magazine, Jon Butterworth. This could explain a lot about the Large Hadron Collider.

PP_Lookalike

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Why Graduate Teaching Assistantships Should Be Scrapped

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on April 24, 2014 by telescoper

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Times Higher about the variability in pay and working conditions for Graduate Teaching Assistants across the UK Higher Education sector. For those of you not up with the lingo, Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) are (usually) PhD students who fund their doctoral studies by doing some teaching for the department in which they are studying. As the piece makes clear, the use of GTAs varies widely between one university and another across the country and indeed between one department and another within the same university. The use of such positions is higher in arts and humanities departments than in science and engineering, because the latter general have more opportunity to fund scholarships for PhD students, either from one of the Research Councils or elsewhere. Such scholarships pay a stipend (tax-free) as well as the fee for studying as a PhD student.

When I arrived at the University of Sussex last year I found that the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences operated a GTA scheme in parallel with Research Council bursaries. Students funded by a research council scholarship received a stipend paid at a national rate of about £13,600 per annum, but were able to top this up by undertaking a limited amount of teaching in the School (e.g. marking coursework, helping with workshops, or demonstrating in the teaching laboratories). Externally funded students did teaching on a voluntary basis. The GTAs on the other hand were required to undertake a fixed amount of teaching without remuneration in order to cover their fees.

I found this two-tier system unfair and divisive, with students funded as GTAs clearly treated as second-class citizens. One of the first major decisions I made as Head of School was to phase out the GTA scheme and replace it with bursaries on exactly the same terms as externally-funded ones with the same opportunity to top up the stipend with some teaching income. I announced this at a School meeting recently and it was met with broad approval, the only reservation being that it would be difficult if too few students opted to do extra teaching to cover the demand. I think that’s unlikely, actually, because although the stipend is not taxable so is equivalent to a somewhat higher amount in salary terms, Brighton is quite an expensive part of the country and most students would opt for a bit of extra dosh. Also, it is actually very good for a PhD student to have teaching experience on their CV when it comes to looking for a job.

Existing GTA schemes make it too easy for departments engage in exploitative behaviour, by dumping a huge amount of their teaching duties on underpaid and unqualified PhD students. It’s also unfair for the undergraduate students, nowadays paying enormously high fees, to be fobbed off onto PhD students instead of being taught by full-time, experienced and properly trained staff. Of course the system I’m advocating will be difficult to implement in departments that lack external funding for PhD students. Having to pay a full-stipend for each student will be more expensive and will consequently lead to a reduction in the number of PhD students that can be funded, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the whole structure of undergraduate teaching will have to change in many departments. From what I’ve seen in the National Student Survey, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing either…

As I’ve argued a number of times on this blog, the current system drastically overproduces PhD students. The argument, a matter of simple arithmetic, is that on average in a steady state each potential PhD supervisor in the university system will, over their entire career, produce just one PhD student who will get a job in academia. In many fields the vast majority of PhDs have absolutely no chance of getting a permanent job in academia. Some know this, of course, and take their skills elsewhere when they’ve completed, which is absolutely fine. But I get the strong feeling that many bright students are lured into GTAs by the prospect that an illustrious career as an academic awaits them when really they’re just being hired as cheap labour. The result is a growing pool of disillusioned and disaffected people with PhDs who feel they’ve been duped by the system.

The British system of postgraduate research study is that it basically takes three years to do a degree. In the United States it usually takes much longer, so the employment of students as GTAs has less of an impact on their ability to complete their thesis on schedule. Although there are faults with the UK’s fast-track system, there is also much to recommend it. Not, however, if the student is encumbered with a heavy teaching load for the duration. The GTA scheme (which incidentally didn’t exist when I did my PhD nearly thirty years ago) is a damaging American import. In much of continental Europe there are far fewer PhD students and in many countries, especially in Scandinavia, PhD students are actually paid a decent wage. I think that’s the way we should go.

Elsevier journals — some facts

Posted in Open Access with tags , , on April 24, 2014 by telescoper

Read this, and weep as you learn that Elsevier’s ruthless profiteering continues unabated…

Gowers's Weblog

A little over two years ago, the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier journals began. Initially, it seemed to be highly successful, with the number of signatories rapidly reaching 10,000 and including some very high-profile researchers, and Elsevier making a number of concessions, such as dropping support for the Research Works Act and making papers over four years old from several mathematics journals freely available online. It has also contributed to an increased awareness of the issues related to high journal prices and the locking up of articles behind paywalls.

However, it is possible to take a more pessimistic view. There were rumblings from the editorial boards of some Elsevier journals, but in the end, while a few individual members of those boards resigned, no board took the more radical step of resigning en masse and setting up with a different publisher under a new name (as some journals have…

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