Archive for PhD

Research in Modelling Ocean Systems

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 26, 2014 by telescoper

Time to do a favour for an old friend of mine (who was in fact a graduate student at Sussex at the same time as me, back in the 80s, and is an occasional commenter on this blog), Adrian Burd. Adrian moved to the US of A some time ago and now works on Oceanography (that’s Wave Mechanics, I guess..). Anyway, he now has an opportunity for a PhD student which is suitable for a candidate with a background in Mathematics or Physics. Since I’m Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, I thought I’d put the advertisement up on here and see if there are any takers. Looks like an interesting one to me!


You can download a pdf of the flyer here.

Please direct any queries to Adrian!

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.


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.

Via Beato Angelico

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by telescoper

So here I am, then, in Milan(o). I’m just here for a short visit in order to participate in a PhD examination tomorrow at the Universita Degli Studi di Milano. I’m looking forward to it, actually, as I’ve never done such an examination in the Italian system before. It will also give me the chance to meet up with a couple of old friends I haven’t seen for a while before flying back to London tomorrow night.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before on this blog but I was a fairly long-term resident in Milan some years ago. In fact I’ve just checked the dates and it was in 1994, i.e. twenty years ago. Time flies indeed. All those years ago I was here as a Professore a Contratto, which means I gave some lectures and did a small research project. The invitation for this came via Silvio Bonometto. I didn’t get paid a huge amount for this visit, but as part of the deal I did get use of an apartment organized by the University. It was on the Via Beato Angelico and this photograph, which I have just ripped off from my own facebook page, shows the view from the balcony:

Via Beato Angelico

It was a nice enough flat and in a good location just around the corner from the University. The one thing I remember well is that one of the main tram lines ran along the street below; their sound has stuck with me through the years, as they often woke me up very early in the morning. I think there was an ice cream place over the road too.

During my stay here I was accompanied by a friend, Anna, whom I invited to come when they told me I was going to have use of an apartment. Anna wanted to try to find a job in Italy so it seemed a great chance to spend three months or so looking around while I worked. The place was easily big enough for two and I was grateful for the company in the evenings. We had a lot of fun doing the tourist things, visiting night clubs, and the rest. Most people thought we were an item, I suppose, but we weren’t. Her long red hair gave her the nickname Anna Dai Cappelli Rossi, after the cartoon character. Here is a picture of Anna I took on the roof of the Duomo:


Anyway, when it was time for me to return to England, Anna stayed in Milan because she had found a job (and a man). She did return to England though and now lives in the Midlands in a place called Liverpool.

I’m mentioning all this because the hotel I’m now staying in, the Hotel Dieci, is just a short walk from that old place. I’ll probably have enough time in the morning to take a walk past and see if I can find it. I wonder how much the area around here has changed in the last twenty years? I’ll have time to find out tomorrow but for tonight I had better read the thesis again!

Viva Elsewhere…

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on December 18, 2013 by telescoper

I just came back from a meeting of the Heads of  the science Schools here at the University of Sussex where, among other things, we discussed PhD completion rates across the University. I sat there smugly because ours in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences are pretty good. The meeting started at 10am which also happens to have been the starting time for a PhD examination in at Cardiff University involving my (former) student Ian Harrison. I would have liked to have been there, but unfortunately I have several appointments today in Sussex so couldn’t make it.

It’s not normal practice for the supervisor of a PhD to be present at the examination of the candidate. The rules allow for it – usually at the request of the student – but the supervisor must remain silent unless and until invited to comment by the examiners. I think it’s a very bad idea for both student and supervisor, and the one example that I can recall of a supervisor attending the PhD examination of his student was a very uncomfortable experience.

I always feel nervous when a student of mine is having their viva voce examination, probably because I’m a bit protective and such an occasion always brings back painful memories of the similar ordeal I went through twenty-odd years ago. Although I have every confidence in Ian, I can’t help  sitting in my office wondering how it is going. However, this is something a PhD candidate has to go through on their own, a sort of rite of passage during which the supervisor has to stand aside and let them stand up for their own work. Usually, of course, I would be there for the event (if not actually present in the examination room), but now I’m a considerable distance away it feels a bit strange.

I’ve actually blogged about a paper of Ian’s already. He finished his thesis well within the usual three-year limit and has moved to the Midlands (Manchester, to be precise) to take up a postdoctoral research position there.  He’s not technically allowed to call himself Doctor Harrison yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. In the words of Miss Jean Brodie, my students are, without doubt, la crème de la crème.

It’s now 11.45. Fingers crossed for some news soon…

UPDATE: 13.00. Still no news…

UPDATE: 13.07. Congratulations, Dr Harrison!


Sussex Astronomy Research – The Videos!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2013 by telescoper

As autumn turns to winter the thoughts of many an undergraduate turn to the task of applying for PhDs. Nowadays this involves a lot of trawling through webpages looking for interesting projects and suitable funding opportunities.

In order to help prospective postgraduates this year, the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex has produced a number of videos to give some information about the available projects. To start with, here are four examples, covering topics in theoretical, computational and observational astrophysics:

For information, we’re expecting to offer at least six PhD studentships in Astronomy for September 2014 entry. Also there’s a University-wide postgraduate open day coming up on December 4th..

Your PhD Questions Answered (?)

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2013 by telescoper

As I mentioned last week, one of the main items on the agenda at the moment is recruitment of new PhD students. As usual, this finds me having to operate on both sides of the fence,  playing a role in selecting students whilst also trying to advise students on how to target their applications, prepare for interview, and choose between offers (for those who manage to get a place).

In my field (astrophysics), the primary route for funding a PhD comes through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which operates a national deadline (31st March) before which candidates can not be required to make a decision. This deadline sets the timescale for departments to decide too, as we clearly want to make sure all our first choice applicants get their offers before the cutoff date.

The national deadline prevents students from being pressured into making decisions before they have heard back from all the institutions to which they have applied, so in that sense it’s a good idea. On the other hand, it does mean that there’s often frantic activity on deadline day as offers are accepted or declined. Reserves have to be contacted quickly when a favoured candidate withdraws to go somewhere else and not all of them may still be available. A student who has been waiting anxiously without a first-choice offer may suddenly receive a lifeline on deadline day.

Getting offers is one thing, but deciding between them is quite another. There are many things to take into account, and the criteria are by no means clear. I’m not the only person to have been thinking about this. There are personal matters, of course. Is it a nice place? Are the people friendly? Do you think you can get on with your potential supervisor? That sort of thing. But there’s also the actual research. Is the project really what you want to do? Is is likely to open up a future career in research, or just be a dead end? Is the mixture of theory and experiment (or observation) what you would like?

One of the issues that often arises when I discuss research with potential PhD students is how structured the project  is. Some projects are  mapped out by the supervisor in great detail, with specific things to be done in a specific order with well-defined milestones against which progress can be measured. Others, especially but not exclusively theoretical ones, are much more of the nature of “here’s an interesting idea – let’s study it and see where it leads”. Most PhDs are somewhere between these two extremes, but it’s probably true that experimental PhDs are more like the former, whereas theoretical ones are more like the latter. Mine, in theoretical astrophysics, ended up evolving quite considerably from its starting point.

I’ve always been grateful to my supervisor for allowing me the freedom to follow my own curiosity. But I think it was essential to be given an initial focus, in the form of a specific project to cut my teeth on. Getting a calculation finished, written up and published gave me the confidence to start out on my own, but I did need a lot of guidance during that initial phase. We a;ll need to learn how to walk before we can run.

Another aspect of this is what the final thesis should look like. Should it be a monolithic work, focussed on one very specific topic, or can it be an anthology of contributions across a wider area?  Again, it’s a question of balance. I think that a PhD thesis should be seen as a kind of brochure advertising the skills and knowledge of the student that produced it. Versatility is a good quality, so if you can do lots of different things then your thesis should represent that. On the other hand, you also need to demonstrate the ability to carry out a sustained and coherent piece of research. Someone who flits around knocking out lots of cutesy “ideas papers” may get a reputation for being a bit of a dabbler who is unable or unwilling to tackle problems in depth. The opposite extreme would be a person who is incapable of generating new ideas, but excellent once pointed in a specific direction. The best scientists, in my opinion, have creative imagination as well as technical skill and stamina.  It’s a matter of balance, and some scientists are more balanced than others. There are some (scary) individuals who are brilliant at everything, of course., but us mere mortals have to make the most of our limited potential.

The postdoc market that lies beyond your PhD is extremely tough. To survive you need to maximize the chances of getting a job, and that means being able to demonstrate a suitability for as many opportunities as possible that come up. So if you want to do theory, make sure that you know at least something about observations and data analysis. Even if you prefer analytic work, don’t be too proud to use a computer occasionally. Research problems often require  you to learn new things before you can tackle them. Get into the habit of doing that while you’re a student, and you’re set to continue for the rest of your career. But you have to do all this without spreading yourself too thin, so don’t shy away from the chunky calculations that keep you at your desk for days on end. It’s the hard yards that win you the match.

When it comes to choosing supervisors, my advice would be to look for one who has a reputation for supporting their students, but avoid those who want to exert excessive control. I think it’s a supervisor’s duty to ensure that PhD student becomes as independent as possible as quickly as possible, but to be there with help and advice if things go wrong. Sadly there are some who treat PhD students simply as assistants, and give little thought to their career development.

But if all this sounds a bit scary, I’ll add just one thing. A PhD offers a unique challenge. It’s hard work, but stimulating and highly rewarding. If you find a project that appeals to you, go for it. You won’t regret it.

I’m appalled

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on January 22, 2013 by telescoper

I was a research student at the University of Sussex from 1985 until 1988, as a result of which I can now put the letters DPhil after my name.  Now I’m gearing up to begin recruiting research students at Sussex when I move there at the end of this month; a list of available projects can be found here, if you’re interested.

However, in the course of this I learned that the University of Sussex has changed the abbreviated form of its postgraduate doctoral degree from DPhil to PhD. Future Susssex researchers will therefore be deprived of the ability to write the letters MADPhil after their name as I do.

The idea that anything in academia should ever actually change sets a dangerous precedent.  What were they thinking of? Everyone knows that PhD just stands for Doctor of Photocopying.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m appalled…


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