Archive for Cardiff University

Why I’m moving to Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2017 by telescoper

Over the past few weeks quite a number of people have asked me why I decided to move to Ireland, so thought I’d write a post about it in case anyone out there is interested.

The simple answer that I was offered a full-time permanent and rather well paid job at Maynooth University. I’m currently on a part-time fixed term contract at Cardiff University.  The salary wasn’t the main factor, but the low value of the £ relative to the € means that I will do quite well financially out of the move. On top of that I will be joining a final salary pension scheme which has far more favourable terms that the scheme that applies to UK academic staff. Oh, and there’s neither a Research Excellence Framework nor a Teaching Excellence Framework nor a Knowledge Exchange Framework nor punitive levels of student tuition fees nor any of the many other  idiocies that have been inflicted on UK universities in recent years. It will be a relief to be able to teach and do research in environment which, at least for the time being, regards these as things of value in themselves rather than as means of serving the empty cycle of production and consumption that defines the modern neoliberal state. Above all, it’s a good old-fashioned professorship. You know, teaching and research?

That’s the simple answer, but there’s a bit more to it than that. I left Sussex in 2016 with the intention of taking early retirement as soon as I could do so. My short exposure to  a role in senior management, as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, convinced me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life  in a system that I felt had lost all sight of what universities are and what they are for. I was (and still am) deeply grateful to Cardiff University for throwing me a lifeline that enabled me to escape from what I increasingly saw as a dead-end job, and giving me an interesting job to do to tide me over until next year, when I am 55 and therefore eligible for early retirement.

I think I have done everything that was asked of me in my current position at Cardiff, on a half-time salary but often up against very short timescales. The two MSc courses I was brought in to set up are both now running and looking to expand. On top of that we also managed to secure funding for a Centre for Doctoral Training. I only played a small part in doing that, but I think it has put the Data Innovation Research Institute on the map.  When both of these successes had been secured earlier this year, I felt that there was no way that leaving now would have a negative effect either on the Data Innovation Institute or the School of Physics & Astronomy. By about April this year I had firmly decided to retire completely from academia in mid-2018.

The problem with this plan had been apparent since 2016: Brexit.  I think it’s still quite possible that the Brexit project will fail under the weight of its own contradictions, but that no longer matters. The damage has already been done. The referendum campaign, followed by the callous and contemptuous attitude of the current UK Government towards EU nationals living in Britain, unleashed a sickening level of xenophobia that has made me feel like a stranger in my own country. Not everyone who voted `Leave’ is a bigot, of course, but every bigot voted for Brexit and the bigots are now calling all the shots. There are many on the far right of UK politics who won’t be satisfied until we have ethnic cleansing. Even if Brexit is stopped the genie of intolerance is out of the bottle and I don’t think it well ever be put back. Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.

So, having spent most of my working life in the UK higher education system and decided that my heart was no longer in that, I then had to face that my heart was no longer in this country at all. Could I face years of retirement in mean-spirited down-market Brexit Britain? What was I to do?

I’ve mentioned many times on this blog how lucky I have been that opportunities have come along at exactly the right time. In May, a friend pointed out the advertisement for a job in Maynooth with an application deadline just a few days away. Cosmology was specifically mentioned as one of the possible areas. I felt that they would probably be looking for someone younger, and my research output over the last few years has been patchy given my other commitments, but at the last minute I sent off an application.

Ireland has a particularly strong attraction for me because I have Irish ancestry through which I am eligible for citizenship without having to go through the naturalisation process (which takes 5 years, still less than many EU countries). Together with an Irish EU passport comes a continuation of the rights – especially freedom of movement – that UK citizens will shortly lose. It seemed like outrageously good luck that this post came up just at the right time, but the end of July came and went without any news. I assumed I hadn’t been shortlisted, so forgot about the idea.

Then, in September I received a letter inviting me for interview just a couple of weeks later. I’m not sure why the process was  so delayed, but was overjoyed to find out there was still a chance. The date clashed with a prior commitment, so I had to do the interview via Skype (over a flaky internet connection from a hotel room) rather than in person.  I thought it went very badly, but I ended up being offered the job. I visited Maynooth University shortly after being informed of this, to discuss terms.

The people at Maynooth were keen to have me start there as soon as possible, but given the lateness of the interview date I had already committed to teaching in Cardiff this forthcoming Semester and I wasn’t going to leave my current colleagues and students in the lurch. There was an obvious solution, however. I am employed here at 50% FTE so I could start in Maynooth at up to 50% without having to resign. We quickly agreed this transitional arrangement was workable, and I started there on 1st December.  The period from February to April will be very busy, as I will be working either side of the Irish Sea, but it’s only for a relatively short time. Next summer I plan to relocate completely to Ireland.

You probably think I’m a bit old to be starting a new life in another country, even one that’s relatively nearby, but I reckon I have time for this one last adventure before I retire. In the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, `It is not too late to seek a newer world’.  I have worked in British universities since 1988. That’s almost 30 years. I reckon I can still contribute something in the last 10 I have before I pull down the shutters for good. Who knows, maybe I’ll even experience the joy of living in a United Ireland before long?

The press have covered a number of stories of EU nationals who have been living in Britain and who have decided to leave because of Brexit. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to those, like myself, who are also EU nationals but who happen have been born in Britain. I know more than a few academics who are weighing up their options, as well as those born abroad I know who have already departed.  The Brexodus has already begun and its pace seems likely to accelerate very quickly indeed. Other have personal situations that are more complicated than mine, such as partners and children, so not everyone will find it easy to follow a similar path to the one I’ve chosen, but I those that can get out will do so.

Because I’ve lived here all my life I thought I would find it difficult to leave Britain. I was quite traumatised by the Brexit referendum, as one would be by the death of a close relative, but it made me reexamine my life. There is a time when you have to move on, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m done here.

 

 

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

Posted in Education with tags , , on December 11, 2017 by telescoper

Back in Cardiff at the start of Week 11, the last week of teaching before Christmas, I realise that some final-year undergraduate and Masters students will be using the forthcoming vacation to think about applying for PhD places. As I have done for a few years now, I thought I’d use this opportunity  to pass on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. 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, including the Irish Republic…

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 £14553 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 £4284) 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…

A Message from Maynooth

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on December 1, 2017 by telescoper

Today I started a new job, as Professor of Theoretical Physics in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, in County Kildare in the Irish Republic.

I haven’t resigned my job at Cardiff University. I’m currently employed there only half the time – or at least that’s what my contract says! – and I’m joining Maynooth on a 50% basis also so I can do one job alongside the other. In particularly I will be teaching in Cardiff next semester as planned.

Although I will be sharing my time equally between Wales and Ireland for the immediate future, I do intend to relocate fully to Ireland, as and when this becomes practicable and can be done in such a way as to not have any impact on ongoing activities in Cardiff.

I’ll post more about Maynooth in due course, but today is filled with organisational things: getting on the IT system, arranging tax and related matters, and finding somewhere to live. In the meantime I’m staying in St Patrick’s House, part of the Catholic seminary on Maynooth University’s South Campus. It’s a lovely building, with rooms that are basic but clean, comfortable and very inexpensive. It was too dark when I arrived last night to take a picture of the place but here’s one from the net:

It’s not quite as summery at the moment, either. It was very cold when I arrived last night and that has continued into today. I will take a snap at some point, but there was a rather ugly-looking crane at the front of the building and would prefer to take a picture when it has gone!

I’ve never been in a seminary before. Although everyone I’ve met here has been wonderfully nice and friendly, I have to say the corridors have more than a hint of The Shining about them:

Anyway, that’s all for now. I hope to have some time at the weekend to have a look around Dublin, which is only 30 minutes or so away by train from Maynooth, and where I may end up living in the not-too-distant future!

 

Determining the Hubble Constant the Bernard Schutz way

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 19, 2017 by telescoper

In my short post about Monday’s announcement of the detection of a pair of coalescing neutron stars (GW170817), I mentioned that one of the results that caught my eye in particular was the paper about using such objects to determine the Hubble constant.

Here is the key result from that paper, i.e. the posterior distribution of the Hubble constant H0 given the data from GW170817:

You can also see latest determinations from other methods, which appear to be in (slight) tension; you can read more about this here. Clearly the new result from GW170817 yields a fairly broad range for H0 but, as I said in my earlier post, it’s very impressive to be straddling the target with the first salvo.

Anyway, I just thought I’d mention here that the method of measuring the Hubble constant using coalescing binary neutron stars was invented by none other than Bernard Schutz of Cardiff University, who works in the Data Innovation Institute (as I do). The idea was first published in September 1986 in a Letter to Nature. Here is the first paragraph:

I report here how gravitational wave observations can be used to determine the Hubble constant, H 0. The nearly monochromatic gravitational waves emitted by the decaying orbit of an ultra–compact, two–neutron–star binary system just before the stars coalesce are very likely to be detected by the kilometre–sized interferometric gravitational wave antennas now being designed1–4. The signal is easily identified and contains enough information to determine the absolute distance to the binary, independently of any assumptions about the masses of the stars. Ten events out to 100 Mpc may suffice to measure the Hubble constant to 3% accuracy.

In in the paper, Bernard points out that a binary coalescence — such as the merger of two neutron stars — is a self calibrating `standard candle’, which means that it is possible to infer directly the distance without using the cosmic distance ladder. The key insight is that the rate at which the binary’s frequency changes is directly related to the amplitude of the gravitational waves it produces, i.e. how `loud’ the GW signal is. Just as the observed brightness of a star depends on both its intrinsic luminosity and how far away it is, the strength of the gravitational waves received at LIGO depends on both the intrinsic loudness of the source and how far away it is. By observing the waves with detectors like LIGO and Virgo, we can determine both the intrinsic loudness of the gravitational waves as well as their loudness at the Earth. This allows us to directly determine distance to the source.

It may have taken 31 years to get a measurement, but hopefully it won’t be long before there are enough detections to provide greater precision – and hopefully accuracy! – than the current methods can manage!

Above all, congratulations to Bernard for inventing a method which has now been shown to work very well!

A Year Back

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on September 1, 2017 by telescoper

So, with the summer drawing to a close, and the contents of my weekly veggie box changing to autumnal varieties, I realise that today is the first anniversary  of my first day back in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University. In other words, I’ve now been in office in the Data Innovation Research Institute for a full year.  Very soon we get to the official launch of a couple of things that have started during this time – including a new Centre for Doctoral Training in Data-Intensive Science and two new MSc course which have recruited their first students for entry this year.

 

I seem to remember this day last year mainly involving running around dealing with administrative matters: taking my P45 to the Human Resources Department, getting my new Staff ID card, trying to get myself set up on the University computer network, and so on. I moved into a large empty office, but it’s now gradually filling up with staff: a couple of Research Software Engineers have been appointed, together with an administrators, and two members of Supercomputing Wales are joining us soon too.

Anyway, I’m shortly off to London for the weekend to catch up with an old friend I haven’t seen for ages. I’m currently pissed off with Great Western Railways for failing to pay a compensation claim I lodged back in June and for slow running on the mainline to Paddington today due to planned engineering to works, so I’ll be travelling to the Big Smoke and back by National Express Coach.

 

 

 

Clearing Advice for Physics and Astronomy Applicants!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 17, 2017 by telescoper

Today’s the day! This year’s A-level results are out today, Thursday 17th August, with the consequent scramble as students across the country to confirm places at university. Good luck to all students everywhere waiting for your results. I hope they are what you expected!

For those of you who didn’t get the grades they needed, I have one piece of very clear advice:

1-dont-panic

The clearing system is very efficient and effective, as well as being quite straightforward to use, and there’s still every chance that you will find a place somewhere good. So keep a cool head and follow the instructions. You won’t have to make a decision straight away, and there’s plenty of time to explore all the options.

As a matter of fact there are a few places still left for various courses in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. Why should you choose Cardiff? Well, obviously I have a vested interest since I work here, but here’s a video of some students talking about the School.

For further information check here!

MSc Opportunities in Data-Intensive Physics and Astrophysics

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on June 22, 2017 by telescoper

Back to the office after external examining duties, I received an email this morning to say that the results have now been posted in Cambridge. I also had an email from Miss Lemon at Sussex that told me that their finalists’ results went up last Friday. We did ours in Cardiff last week. This provides me with a timely opportunity to congratulate all students at all three of these institutions – and indeed everywhere else – on their success!

It also occurred to me tha,t now that most students know how well they’ve done in their undergraduate degree, some may be thinking about further study, at postgraduate level. It seems a good opportunity to remind potential applicants about our two brand new MSc courses at Masters (MSc) level, called Data-Intensive Physics and Data-Intensive Astrophysics and they are both taught jointly by staff in the School of Physics and Astronomy and the School of Computer Science and Informatics in a kind of major/minor combination.

The aim of these courses is twofold.

One is to provide specialist postgraduate training for students wishing to go into academic research in a ‘data-intensive’ area of physics or astrophysics, by which I mean a field which involves the analysis and manipulation of very large or complex data sets and/or the use of high-performance computing for, e.g., simulation work. There is a shortage of postgraduates with the necessary combination of skills to undertake academic research in such areas, and we plan to try to fill the gap with these courses.

The other aim is to cater for students who may not have made up their mind whether to go into academic research, but wish to keep their options open while pursuing a postgraduate course. The unique combination of physics/astrophysics and computer science will give those with these qualifications the option of either continuing or going into another sphere of data-intensive research in the wider world of Big Data.

The motivation for these courses has been further strengthened recently by the announcement earlier this year of extra funding for PhD research in Data-Intensive Physics. We’ve been selecting students for this programme and making other preparations for the arrival of the first cohort in September. We’ve had many more applicants than we can accommodate this time, but this looks set to be a growth area for the future so anyone thinking of putting themselves in a good position for a PhD in Data-Intensive Physics or Astrophysics in the future might think about preparing by taking a Masters in Data-Intensive Physics or Astrophysics now!

I just checked on our admissions system and saw, as expected, conditional offers turning into firm acceptances now that the finals exam results are being published across the country but we have still got plenty of room on these courses so if you’re thinking about applying, please be assured that we’re still accepting new applications!