Archive for the Education Category

Why Universities should ignore League Tables

Posted in Bad Statistics, Education with tags , , , , , on January 12, 2017 by telescoper

Very busy day today but I couldn’t resist a quick post to draw attention to a new report by an independent think tank called the Higher Education Policy Institute  (PDF available here; high-level summary there). It says a lot of things that I’ve discussed on this blog already and I agree strongly with most of the conclusions. The report is focused on the international league tables, but much of what it says (in terms of methodological criticism) also applies to the national tables. Unfortunately, I doubt if this will make much difference to the behaviour of the bean-counters who have now taken control of higher education, for whom strategies intended to ‘game’ position in these, largely bogus, tables seem to be the main focus of their policy rather than the pursuit of teaching and scholarship, which is what should universities actually be for.

Here is the introduction to high-level summary:

Rankings of global universities, such as the THE World University Rankings, the QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities claim to identify the ‘best’ universities in the world and then list them in rank order. They are enormously influential, as universities and even governments alter their policies to improve their position.

The new research shows the league tables are based almost exclusively on research-related criteria and the data they use are unreliable and sometimes worse. As a result, it is unwise and undesirable to give the league tables so much weight.

Later on we find some recommendations:

The report considers the inputs for the various international league tables and discusses their overall weaknesses before considering some improvements that could be made. These include:

  • ranking bodies should audit and validate data provided by universities;
  • league table criteria should move beyond research-related measures;
  • surveys of reputation should be dropped, given their methodological flaws;
  • league table results should be published in more complex ways than simple numerical rankings; and
  • universities and governments should not exaggerate the importance of rankings when determining priorities.

No doubt the purveyors of these ranking – I’ll refrain from calling them “rankers” – will mount a spirited defence of their business, but I agree with the view expressed in this report that as they stand these league tables are at best meaningless and at worst damaging.

Still Thinking of Applying for a PhD Place in Physics or Astronomy?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by telescoper

Last term I gave a short talk to interested students within the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University about postgraduate research in which I aimed to pass on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. Since the time is rapidly approaching when applications need to be sent in, I thought I’d repeat here a few general remarks that might be useful to people elsewhere who are thinking of taking the plunge when they graduate. I’m aiming this primarily at UK students applying for places in the UK; special considerations apply for students wanting to do graduate research abroad.

What is a PhD? The answer to that is relatively easy; it’s a postgraduate research degree. In order to obtain a PhD you have to present a thesis like that shown on the left (which happens to be mine, vintage 1988), typically in the range 100-250  pages long. A thesis has to satisfy two conditions for the award of the degree: it should contain original research, which is publishable in an academic journal; and it should present a coherent discussion of that original work within the context of ongoing work in the area of study. In Physics & Astronomy, the PhD is pretty much a prerequisite for any career in academic research, and it usually takes between 3 and 4 years to complete. After submission of the thesis you will have to undergo a viva voce examination conducted by two examiners, one internal and one external. This is quite a tough test, which  can last anywhere between about 2 and about 6 hours, during which you can be asked  detailed questions about your research and wide-ranging questions about the general area.

The Money Side. In the UK most PhDs are supported financially by the research councils, either EPSRC (most physics) or STFC (nuclear & particle physics, astronomy). These generally award quotas of studentships to departments who distribute them to students they admit. A studentship will cover your fees and pay a stipend, currently £14296 pa. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you should at least remember that it is a stipend rather than a wage; it is therefore not taxed and there is no national insurance payable. There is a fee (currently £4121) payable for a PhD course, but that only comes into play if you are planning to fund yourself. If you receive a studentship it will normally cover the fee as an additional component. What I mean by that is you don’t need to pay it out of the stipend, it is separate. In top of that, research council funding also supplies a Research Training Grant which covers, e.g., travel and small items of equipment so you don’t need to pay for those out of your stipend either.

How do I choose a PhD? During the course of a postgraduate degree you are expected to become an expert in the area in which you specialize. In particular you should reach the point where you know more about that specific topic than your supervisor does. You will therefore have to work quite a lot on your own, which means you need determination, stamina and enthusiasm. In my view the most important criterion in your choice of PhD is not the institution where you might study but the project. You need to be genuinely excited by the topic in order to drive yourself to keep through the frustrations (of which there will be many). So, find an area that interests you and find the departments that do active research in that area by looking on the web. Check out the recent publications by staff in each department, to ensure that they are active and to have something to talk about at interview!

Qualifications. Most universities have a formal requirement that candidates for admission to the PhD should have a “good honours degree”, which basically means at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree. Some areas are more competitive than others, however, and in many disciplines you will find you are competing with a great many applicants with First Class degrees.

How to apply successfully. The application procedure at most universities is quite simple and can be done online. You will need to say something about the area in which you wish to do research (e.g. experiment/theory, and particular field, e.g. cosmology or star formation). You’ll also need a CV and a couple of references. Given the competition, it’s essential that you prepare. Give your curriculum vitae some attention, and get other people (e.g. your personal tutor) to help you improve it. It’s worth emphasizing particular skills (e.g. computing). If you get the chance, make use of your summer vacations by taking on an internship or other opportunity to get a taste of research; things like that will undoubtedly give your CV an edge.

The Interview. Good applicants will be invited for an interview, which is primarily to assess whether you have the necessary skills and determination, but also to match applicants to projects and supervisors. Prepare for your interview! You will almost certainly be asked to talk about your final-year project, so it will come across very badly if you’re not ready when they ask you. Most importantly, mug up about your chosen field. You will look really silly if you haven’t the vaguest idea of what’s going on in the area you claimed to be interested in when you wrote your  application!

Don’t be shy! There’s nothing at all wrong with being pro-active about this process. Contact academic staff at other universities by email and ask them about research, PhD opportunities. That will make a good impression. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Although we’re all keen to recruit good PhD students for our own departments, we academics are  conscious that it is also our job to give impartial advice. Ask your tutor’s opinion.

How many places should I apply for? Some research areas are more fashionable than others so the level of competition varies with field. As a general rule I would advise applying for about half-a-dozen places, chosen because they offer research in the right area. Apply to fewer than that and you might lose out to the competition. Apply to many more and you might not have time to attend the interviews.

What’s the timetable?  Most applications come in early in the new year for entry to the PhD in the following September/October. The Christmas break is therefore a pretty good time to get your applications sorted out. Interviews are normally held in February or March, and decisions made by late March. STFC runs a deadline system whereby departments can not force students to accept or decline offers before the end of March, so there should be ample time to visit all your prospective departments before having to make any decisions.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope at least some of these comments are useful to undergraduates anywhere in the UK thinking of applying for a PhD. If there are any further questions, please feel free to ask through the comments box. Likewise if I’ve missed anything important, please feel free to suggest additions in the same manner…

Studying Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on January 9, 2017 by telescoper

I just came across this video (featuring, among others, my colleagues Haley Gomez, Carole Tucker and Chris North) advertising the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. Since the annual recruitment cycle gets properly under way at this time of year I thought I’d share this here for the benefit of prospective students. We had a record intake last year, for both undergraduates and postgraduates. With outstanding successes in research over the past year (including the discovery of gravitational waves and the opening of a new venture in compound semiconductors) there’ll hopefully be a lot of interest again this year! We’re a friendly lot here, and Cardiff is a great city to live in, so why not get in touch?

A New Head for the Old School

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on December 13, 2016 by telescoper

Just a brief post to pass on the news (which I just heard this morning) that the University of Sussex has now formally announced that Professor Philip Harris will be taking over as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, the position I held until this summer.

I worked a lot with Philip during the time I was at Sussex as he was Head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy for part of that period. I’m sure he’ll do a great job and I wish him – and indeed the whole School – all the very best for the future!

Incidentally, the news item announcing Philip’s appointment contains the following snippet:

Both departments are ranked first in the UK for graduate prospects in the Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2017 (Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Survey, 2015-16), with 100% of Mathematics BSc students being in work or further study within six months.

I wasn’t aware of this interesting news before today, and I’m sure it will provide a boost to the School’s efforts in the currently rather challenging student recruitment market. Of course Philip Harris can now take credit for anything good that happens to the School, whereas if anything goes wrong he can always blame it on the old Head of School!

 

The Culture of Over-Assessment in STEM

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on December 7, 2016 by telescoper

This afternoon I went to yet another meeting about assessment and feedback in University teaching involving members of staff and students from the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University as well as some people from other schools and departments. Positive though this afternoon’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. This is a topic that I’ve blogged about a few times before over the years (see, e.g., here) but given that the problem hasn’t gone away (and indeed is probably going to get worse as a result of the Teaching Excellence Framework which the Westminster government is trying to impose on universities),  I make no apologies for repeating the main points here.

One important point we need to resolve 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 don’t know why we’ve got into this situation but it can’t be allowed to continue.

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. I think we need to establish that as a basic principle of education in physics (and similar subjects).

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 of us humans in exploring new ways to think about the world around us.

R.I.P. John M Stewart (1943-2016)

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 23, 2016 by telescoper

john-stewartI was very sad this morning to hear of the death of distinguished mathematical physicist Dr John M. Stewart (left). Apart from a few years in Munich in the 1970s John Stewart spent most of his working life in Cambridge, having studied there as an undergraduate and postgraduate and then returning from his spell at the Max Planck Institute to the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics for forty years.

John’s research mostly concerned relativistic fluid dynamics. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of numerical relativity in the United Kingdom, and he applied his knowledge to a number of problems in early Universe cosmology and structure formation. I think it is fair to say that he wasn’t the most prolific researcher in terms of publications, which is perhaps why he only got promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2000 and never made it to a Chair, retiring as Reader in Gravitational Physics in 2010. However, his work was always of a very high technical standard and presented with great clarity and he was held in a very high regard by those who knew him and worked with him.

The tributes paid to John Stewart by King’s College (of which he was a Life Fellow) here and his colleagues in the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology here give a detailed account of his research achievements, so I refer you to them for more information about that aspect of his career.

I just wanted to add a personal note not about John Stewart’s research, but about something else mentioned in the obituaries linked to above: his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have him as a lecturer when I was studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge during the early 1980s. In the second year (Part IB) I specialised in Physics and Mathematics, and John taught part of the Mathematics syllabus. He was an absolutely superb teacher. For a start he was superbly well organized and had clearly thought very deeply about how best to present some quite difficult material. But it wasn’t just that. He projected a very engaging personality, with nice touches of humour, that made him easy to listen. His lectures were also very well paced for taking notes. In fact he was one of the few lecturers I had whose material I didn’t have to transcribe into a neat form from rough notes.

I have kept all the notes from that course for over thirty years. Here are a couple of pages as an example:

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Anyone who has ever seen my handwriting will know that this is about as neat as I ever get!

When I was called upon to teach similar material at Cardiff and Sussex I drew on them heavily, so anyone who has learned anything from me about complex analysis, contour integration, Green’s functions and a host of other things actually owes a huge debt to John Stewart. Anything they didn’t understand was of course my fault, not his..

I also remember that John came to Queen Mary to give a seminar when I worked there in the early 90s as a postdoc. I was still a bit in awe of him because of my experience of him in Cambridge. His talk was about a method for handling the evolution of cosmological matter perturbations based on an approach based on the Hamilton-Jacobi formalism. His visit was timely, as I’d been struggling to understand the papers that had been coming out at the time on this topic. In the bar after his talk I plucked up the courage to explain to him what it was that I was struggling to understand. He saw immediately where I was going wrong and put me right on my misconceptions straight away, plucking a simple illustrative example apparently out of thin air. I was deeply impressed, not only by his ability to identify the issue but also with his friendly and helpful demeanour.

Rest in Peace, Dr John M. Stewart (1943-2016).

50 Years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2016 by telescoper

On Saturday (15th October) I was back in Brighton for the first time since I left my job there at the end of July. The occasion was a very nice lunch party to celebrate 50 years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex, which started properly in 1966. It was a pleasant occasion, and great to have the chance to catch up with some people I haven’t seen for far too long. I had two stints in the Astronomy Centre: once as a student then postdoc from 1985 to 1990, and the other from 2013 to 2016 when I was Head of the School of which the Astronomy Centre is part. I had a lot more time to do research in the first incarnation than in the second!

Quite a few people present hadn’t realised I was no longer working at Sussex, which led to one or two slightly awkward conversations, but I was thankfully very far from being the centre of attention.

After the lunch itself we had short speeches from various alumni of the Astronomy Centre: esteemed science writer John Gribbbin (who was one of its first MSc students in 1966); Lord Martin Rees (who was briefly a Professor at Sussex, before he returned to Cambridge to take up the Plumian Professorship); John Barrow (who was my supervisor while I was there); Carlos Frenk (who was a postdoctoral researcher when I arrived in September 1985, but who left to take up a lectureship in Durham at the end of that year so we overlapped only for a short time); Andrew Liddle (who arrived near the end of my stay and was there for 22 years altogether, leaving at the end of 2012 to take up a post in Edinburgh); and Peter Thomas (current Director of the Astronomy Centre).

When I arrived in 1985 there were only four permanent faculty in the Astronomy Centre itself – Roger Tayler, Leon Mestel, John Barrow and Robert Smith – but research there was thriving and it was a great environment to work in. I count myself very lucky at having made such a good choice of a place to do my PhD DPhil. Leon and Robert both worked on stellar astrophysics, but after Leon’s retirement the centre increasingly focussed on cosmology and extragalactic astrophysics, which remains the case today. Roger Tayler sadly passed away in 1997, but Leon is still around: he is 89 years old and now lives in Cambridge.

Those present at the lunch were given a booklet featuring around 50 academic papers or other research “highlights”(e.g. the launch of Planck), approximately one for each year of the Astronomy Centre, chosen to be the “best” of that year. Each page was also shown as a slide during the lunch. I was thrilled to see that two of my papers (from 1987 and 1991 respectively) made it into the collection. The second one was published after I’d left Sussex, but I definitely did the work on it and submitted it while an employee of the Astronomy Centre. Andrew Liddle and John Barrow have the largest number of “greatest hits”, but the most famous paper is probably the classic “DEFW” which won Carlos Frenk and his collaborators the Gruber Prize about five years ago.

The book also contains various bits of interesting bibliometric information, such as this, which shows that the variation in the productivity of the Astronomy Centre over time.

us-astronomy-50-powerpoint

Anyway, for those who are interested, the whole collection of slides can be viewed here:

Thanks to Seb Oliver and the rest of the Astronomy Centre for organizing this very enjoyable event – and for sending me the slides! Here’s to the next 50 years of Astronomy at the University of Sussex!