Archive for PhD

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…

Dress Codes

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , on January 11, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a very quick one before I scoot off to London for this month’s Royal Astronomical Society meeting (and subsequent Club dinner).

Today is the last day of “Revision Week” so I had a two-hour revision class this morning. I gave my final proper lecture at Cardiff University before Christmas, in fact, but this morning was the last teaching of any sort I’ll be doing here before I move to Sussex at the end of the month. If any of the students taking The Physics of Fields and Flows happens to read this, then I wish them the best of luck in next week’s examination!

I won’t be able to mark the scripts (and thus find out how well they’ve all done) until I return from a trip to Brighton next week to carry out interviews for three lectureships in astronomy at Sussex recently advertised. I’m looking forward to that, but I think the three days will be just as gruelling for the panel as for the candidates.

There were some sarcastic comments at the start of today’s class about the fact that I was wearing a suit and tie. It reminded me of an old joke: “Q: What do you call a ‹insert name of institution> graduate who’s wearing a suit? A: The Accused.” I think I can guess which institution most Cardiff students would pick as the butt of that one.

In fact the reason I’m wearing a suit today is that there’s a dress code for the RAS Club, which dines at the Athenaeum. It’s not very strict, actually, just jacket-and-tie, but I usually dust off one of my suits for the occasion as I don’t mind dressing up now and again. The only other clubs I’ve been to that operate a dress code have been very different, but I’ll draw a hasty veil over that.

The RAS Club isn’t particularly posh, actually, nor is it as stuffy as people seem to think. This evening is the Parish Dinner at which the Club elects new members. It’s nice to see quite a few youngsters among the candidates, but the election procedure is so dotty it’s impossible to predict who will get in!

Coincidentally, I got an email about the dress code for next week’s interviews. “Smart casual”, apparently. Since I don’t really know what that means I think I’ll wear a suit, which presumably most of the male candidates will too.

It always seems to me rather peculiar, this thing of dressing up for interviews. The default style of dress for academics is “scruffy”, so it’s a bit odd that we all seem to pretend that it’s otherwise for interviews. I suppose it’s just to emphasize that it’s a formal occasion from the point of view of the interview panel, and to show that the candidates are taking it seriously. I don’t really pay much attention to what interviewees wear, other than that if they look like they’ve just been dragged through a hedge one might infer that they’re  a bit too disorganized even to be a member of the academic staff at a University or that they’re not really putting enough effort into the whole thing.

On the other hand, some people feel so uncomfortable in anything other than jeans and a T-shirt that putting on a suit would either be an unbearable ordeal for them or conflict with their self-image in some fundamental way. Neither of these are intended, so if that’s going to be the case for you, just dress as you normally do (but preferably with something reasonably clean).

This is the time of year that many undergraduate students are putting in their applications for PhD places too. I sometimes get asked (and did yesterday, in fact) whether a (male) candidate for a PhD place should wear a suit and tie for the interview. Having conducted interview days for many years at a number of different institutions, my experience is that a small proportion dress formally for PhD interviews than for job interviews. My advice to students asking about this is just to say that they should try to look reasonably presentable, but suit–and-tie are definitely not compulsory. It’s unlikely the staff interviewing you will dress formally, actually…

Anyway, my views may well differ from those of  my readers so here’s a poll.

I realise this post is written from a male perspective, as women’s clothes are a mystery to me. I hope someone can explain through the comments box what the equivalent categories are for female persons?  At least women are spared the choice of whether or not to wear a tie. Is there an equivalent quandary?

Open Day and Subject Fair

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2012 by telescoper

Today was the Postgraduate Open Day for Cardiff University, so I trooped off at lunchtime to man person the School of Physics & Astronomy stand in the Great Hall of the Students in the Students’ Union for the Subject Fair. It’s the first time I’ve ever been in the Great Hall, in fact, for no other reason than it’s for the students not the staff. Anyway, I have to say it didn’t look all that great, although at least it was warm. There’s no heating in my office right now, you see. And they provided coffee and biscuits.

Other than that it was just me, some leaflets and an uncountable infinity of Herschel Space Observatory souvenir pens sitting there for two hours. And there was lousy mobile coverage so I couldn’t even tweet. I got a bit bored, actually. I wish I’d taken my knitting. I did take a picture though…

It has to be said that a general Postgraduate Open Day like this isn’t a very effective method of recruiting postgraduate students, not in Physics and Astronomy at least. Most potential applicants come to apply by looking at web pages and/or listening to advice from people in the department where they are doing or did their first degree. People have already decided between Physics and, say, Astronomy and certainly between either of those and Sociology, so the idea of stalls competing for custom is a bit absurd.

Still, as Director of Postgraduate Studies I decided that it was good for Physics and Astronomy to show willing by maintaining a presence at such events, and if as a bonus we recruit even one promising PhD student then it’s probably worth the investment in time. The additional complication with this now is that I’m soon leaving to go to Sussex University, so I was tempted to tell visitors about opportunities there. I didn’t though. Mainly because I hardly spoke to anyone all afternoon…

The moral of this tale – if there is one – is that recruitment in different subjects is very different, so the “one size fits all” centralised approach isn’t always the right way to proceed. Schools and departments know their market better than anyone, so they need to be allowed to do their own thing at least part of the time.

I suspect this is an argument I’ll shortly be making elsewhere.

Physics and other things that make life worth living…

Posted in Biographical, Education, Jazz, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 24, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday we hosted a seminar by João Magueijo from Imperial College. It was a really interesting talk but the visit also a number of staff and students, including myself, the chance to chat to João about various things. In my case that primarily meant catching up on one another’s news, since we haven’t talked since early summer and a lot has happened since then. Then we had drinks, more drinks, dinner, drinks and then cocktails, finishing about 2am. A fairly standard night out with João, actually.

Among the topics discussed in the course of an increasingly drunken conversation was the fact that physicist Stephon Alexander had recently moved to Dartmouth College, a prestigious Ivy League institution in New Hampshire. I don’t know Stephon very well at all as I don’t really work in the same area as him. In fact, we’ve only ever met once – at a Cosmology School in Morocco (in 1996 or thereabouts); he was a graduate student and I was giving some lectures. On the left you can see a snap of him I took at that time. Can that really have been so long ago?

Anyway, I’ll resist the temptation to bemoan the passage of time and all that and get back to the point which is the connection that formed in my head between Stephon, yesterday’s post about the trials and tribulations facing prospective PhD students, and an older post of mine about  the importance of not forgetting to live a life while you do a PhD.

The point is that although there are many things that may deter or prevent an undergraduate from taking the plunge into graduate studies, one thing shouldn’t put you off and that is the belief that doing a PhD is like joining a monastery in that it requires you to give up a lot of other things and retreat from the outside world. Frankly, that’s bollocks. If I’m permitted to quote myself:

I had plenty of outside interests (including music, sport and nightlife)  and took time out regularly to indulge them. I didn’t – and still don’t – feel any guilt about doing that. I’m not a robot. And neither are you.

In other words, doing a PhD does not require you to give up the things that make life worth living. Actually, if you’re doing a physics PhD then physics itself should be one of the things that make life worth living for you, so I should rephrase that as “giving up any of the other things that make life worth living”.

Having a wide range of experiences and interests to draw on can even help with your research:

In fact, I can think of many times during my graduate studies when I was completely stuck on a problem – to the extent that it was seriously bothering me. On such occasions I learned to take a break. I often found that going for a walk, doing a crossword, or just trying to think about something else for a while, allowed me to return to the problem fresher and with new ideas. I think the brain gets into a rut if you try to make it work in one mode all the time.

I’d say that to be a good research student by no means requires you to be a monomaniac. And this is where Stephon comes in. As well as being a Professor of Theoretical Physics, Stephon is an extremely talented Jazz musician. He’s even had saxophone lessons from the great Ornette Coleman. I have to admit he has a few technical problems with his instrument in this clip, but I’m using him as an example here because I also love Jazz and, although I have a negligible amount of talent as a musician, have rudimentary knowledge of how to play the saxophone. In fact, I remember chatting to him in a bar in Casablanca way back in ’96 and music was the sole topic of conversation.

Anyway, in the following clip Stephon talks about how music actually helped him solve a research problem. It’s basically an extended riff on the opening notes of the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps which, incidentally, I posted about here.

Generational Guilt

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 23, 2012 by telescoper

Exhausted near the end of an exceptionally busy week, I found myself taking a short break after a two-hour lecturing session when a student knocked at my door to ask for some advice about applying for PhDs. I was happy to oblige, of course, but after he’d gone it struck me how much tougher things are for today’s generation, compared with how easy it was for me.

I got a scholarship to the local grammar school (The Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne) by passing the 11+ examination back in 1974. I got a good education that most pupils at the School had to pay for (or at least their parents did). I got good 0 and A levels, and then passed the post A-level examination to get me into Cambridge. Through contacts at school I got a job for nine months working for a British Gas research station in Cramlington, during which time I earned a nice wage. I went to Cambridge with a healthy bank balance on top of which I received a full maintenance grant. There were no tuition fees then either. When I graduated I was solvent and debt-free.

When I applied for PhDs I did so with no real idea about what research I might do. I wasn’t an outstanding undergraduate student and my personal statement was vagueness personified, but I got a place nonetheless. The stipend was modest, but one could live on it. I never had money worries as a PhD. Nor have I since. It all seems so simple, looking back.

Today’s students have no such luck. The Direct Grant system that paid my school fees was discontinued shortly after I benefited from it. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got into University had I gone to the local comprehensive. Then maintenance grants were discontinued and fees introduced (then rapidly increased from £1000 to first £3000 and then £9000). Graduates now are usually burdened with huge debts. Moreover, when students apply for postgraduate study are nowadays often expected to not only to know precisely what they’re going to do but also be outstandingly good

The pressure we put on graduates now is out of all proportion to what I experienced. The reason? There are more of them overall, so there are more with first-class degrees chasing PhD funding. Many students who are much better than I was at the same stage of my career won’t make it just because of the arithmetic. Many will be discouraged by the finances too. It’s tragic that talented young people should be denied the chance to fulfil their ambitions by not having wealthy parents.

I’m often impressed (and even inspired) by those students who show a determination to pursue academic ambitions despite all the difficulties, but at the same time I feel guilty that it was so much easier in my day. Mine is the generation that decided to transfer the cost of higher education onto students and their families. Mine is also the generation that wrecked the economy by living beyond our means for too long.

To all those young people whose ambitions are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control all I can say is I’m sorry we oldies stole your future.

Rubbishing the Viva

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by telescoper

There’s a strange article today in the Times Higher that claims that the UK’s system of examining PhD students is “a scandal” and that it is “way behind the rest of the world”. These comments are from a chap called Ron Barnett (an emeritus professor at the Institute for Education, who explains

“Students can spend five years doing their PhD, present their thesis and come up against the maverick view of an independent examiner and in effect be rubbished,” he commented.

“I’ve seen it happen far too many times,” he told a Westminster Higher Education Forum seminar on the future of postgraduate education, held in London on 17 October.

I have to say I find it hard to reconcile such remarks with the business of examining PhDs as I’ve observed it, in Physics and Astronomy. And I’ve done quite a few over the years; see, e.g., here. For a start, it’s extremely rare for a student to spend five years doing a PhD in my field – the Research Councils put extremely strong pressure on departments to ensure that students submit within four years, and most research students take less time than this to produce their thesis.

But it’s the idea that a maverick external examiner can sabotage a PhD that I find hardest to recognize. If that looks like happening the internal examiner should stand up for the candidate. In fact, here in Cardiff we have an additional safeguard against this sort of eventuality: each viva has a Chair as well as the two examiners. The Chair is just there to ensure fair play and that proper procedure is followed, but is rarely (if ever) called upon to intervene in practice.

I can’t speak for other fields, of course, and it may indeed be more of a problem in other disciplines. Curiously, Prof. Barnett says that he has seen it happen “far too many times”. I wonder how? As internal examiner? In which case he should have stepped in to stop it? If not as internal then in what capacity was he privy to the conduct of a PhD viva? I’m confused.

Anyway, in a couple of weeks I’ll be participating in a PhD examination in another country (Denmark). There the defence is public, and it involves two external “opponents”, but I don’t know whether it is easier or harder for the candidate than the British system so I won’t comment on whether it’s fairer or more rigorous than what we have in the UK. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works, actually.

In my opinion, if there is a “scandal” in the system of UK PhD examinations, at least in science disciplines, it’s not the one Prof. Barnett describes. It’s that we produce far too many low-quality PhDs based on dull, incremental research and that, if anything, externals are not tough enough.

There, I’ve said it. No doubt you’ll have a go at me through the comments box!

How many hours per week should a graduate student work?

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 11, 2012 by telescoper

Here’s one of those things from Blogland that is flying around the Twittersphere today..

The original post revealed a leaked email  “sent to the entire graduate student body enrolled in the well-regarded astronomy program at Unnamed Academy” containing such gems as this:

We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work.  There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers.  However, if you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school.  No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so.  We were almost always at the office, including at night and on weekends.

This missive has already provoked a number of responses (e.g. here and here), but I couldn’t resist putting in a few comments myself.

The first and most obvious thing is that I don’t think the faculty members mentioned above were telling the truth. It’s by no means a new phenomenon for oldies to pretend that they worked harder than the younger generation. “When I were a lad…”, etc. This is either  form of delusion that accompanies ageing or a kind of one-upmanship designed to create a impose some sort of authority over the junior members of the department.  A supervisor who demands such things of a PhD student is likely to be someone who regards a grad student simply as a form of cheap labour and doesn’t care at all about their development as a researcher or indeed as a human being.

The following sentence gives the game away

No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so.

It is clearly intended to mean No one told us, but we’re sure as hell telling you…“.

My advice to a young PhD student would be: if your supervisor tells you to put in 100 hours per week on the project, find another supervisor –  because he/she clearly hasn’t put sufficient thought into the practical feasibility of your project. The fact is if you have to work 100 hours per week to get your work done you must be exceptionally inefficient or working on a stupid project or simply nuts. Or all three.

The email is correct in saying that it’s “productivity” that counts. I’m sure there are many people who can sit at their desks for 11 hours a day without producing anything very much at all. It’s not the hours that matter, but what you do with them. In no way will indulging your outside interests (sporting, cultural, political, or “other”…),   or simply relaxing, detract from your ability to do research. I think such diversions actually improve your work, as well as (of course) your general well-being.

I had plenty of outside interests (including music, sport and nightlife)  and took time out regularly to indulge them. I didn’t – and still don’t – feel any guilt about doing that. I’m not a robot. And neither are you.

In fact, I can think of many times during my graduate studies when I was completely stuck on a problem – to the extent that it was seriously bothering me. On such occasions I learned to take a break. I often found that going for a walk, doing a crossword, or just trying to think about something else for a while, allowed me to return to the problem fresher and with new ideas. I think the brain gets into a rut if you try to make it work in one mode all the time.

But there is an element of truth in the paragraph quoted above. There were indeed many times during my time as a research student – and have been since – that I worked extremely long hours. I wouldn’t say exactly that was because I “enjoyed” it, but that I wanted to know the answer and couldn’t get the problem out of my head.  I’ve stayed up into the early hours of the morning trying to finish a crossword too. Not because I had to, but because I couldn’t put it down unfinished. I know that makes me a saddo in many minds, but I think that’s the sort of obsessiveness and tenacity a researcher needs: becoming so absorbed by the task in hand that you don’t notice the passage of time.

Anyway, as  a research student I certainly didn’t work 80-100 hours per week routinely, although I might have done a few times when things were getting interesting. I think an average working week of 40 hours is perfectly fine for a PhD student, as long as you use that time efficiently and are prepared to step up a gear when motivated to do so.

It’s been a while since I last had a poll, so let’s see if we can generate some statistics on this…

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