Archive for PhD

Thirty Years as a Doctor!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 11, 2019 by telescoper

A chance discovery while rummaging around in my filing cabinet reminded me that today is the anniversary of a momentous event. What I found was this:

It’s the programme of the summer Graduation Ceremony in 1989 at which I formally received my DPhil (Doctor of Philosophy). As you will see that was precisely thirty years ago today!

I actually submitted my thesis the previous summer (either at the end of August or start of September 1988) but had to wait a few months for the examination, which I think was in December.  By the time I had done my corrections (mainly typographical errors) the next available date for the degree to be formally conferred was in July 1989 so that’s when I officially got doctored. I was actually still in Brighton at the time, as had started work as a postdoctoral researcher soon after I had submitted my thesis.

Here’s my thesis:

In those days they actually printed the thesis title in the programme, alongside the graduand’s name in the case of DPhil degrees.

It’s normal practice for people to assume the title of Doctor as soon as they have passed the viva voce examination but although I’ve never objected to that,  I’ve always been a bit unsure of the legality. Probably one doesn’t actually have a doctorate until it is conferred (either at a ceremony or in absentia).

Anyway, here is a picture of me (aged 26!)  emerging from the Brighton Centre wearing the old-style Sussex doctoral gown just after I received my DPhil:

Graduation

Unfortunately the University of Sussex decided a while ago to change the style of its academic dress recently to something a bit more conventional and as far as I know it’s not possible to obtain the old-style gowns any more. They also changed the title DPhil to PhD because it confused potential students, especially those not from the UK.

My first degree came from Cambridge so I had to participate in an even more archaic ceremony for that institution. The whole thing is done in Latin there (or was when I graduated) and involves each graduand holding a finger held out by their College’s Praelector and then kneeling down in front of the presiding dignitary, who is either the Vice-Chancellor ot the Chancellor. I can’t remember which. It’s also worth mentioning that although I did Natural Sciences (specialising in Theoretical Physics), the degree I got was Bachelor of Arts. Other than that, and the fact that the graduands had to walk to the Senate House from their College through the streets of Cambridge,  I don’t remember much about the actual ceremony.

I was very nervous for that first graduation. The reason was that my parents had divorced some years before and my Mum had re-married. My Dad wouldn’t speak to her or her second husband. Immediately after the ceremony there was a garden party at my college, Magdalene, at which the two parts of my family occupied positions at opposite corners of the lawn and I scuttled between them trying to keep everyone happy. It was like that for the rest of the day and I have to say it was very stressful. A few years later I got my doctorate from the University of Sussex, at the Brighton Centre on the seafront. It was pretty much the same deal again with the warring family factions, but I enjoyed the whole day a lot more that time. And I got to wear the funny gown.

The Signs of Age

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 23, 2018 by telescoper

I was feeling very tired yesterday evening and in my vegetative state I suddenly realised that last month I missed a significant personal anniversary. In September 1988, now over thirty years ago I submitted my DPhil thesis at the University of Sussex. Here it is..

It was to be another couple of months until I had my viva (an experience I’d definitely rather forget) so I didn’t get to receive the postgraduate degree formally until the following summer, but at least I finished and submitted within the three years my funding allowed. Incidentally, mine was one of the first generation of theses at the University of Sussex to be typeset in LaTeX. At least I avoided the hassle of having carbon copies made!

The field of cosmology has changed so much in the three intervening decades that I’m sure current graduate students would find my thesis as incredibly simple-minded as I do. There weren’t any measurements of CMB temperature patterns in those days (the COBE results were not announced not until 1992) so I had to generate simulated observations, for example. Still, a few of the things in my thesis have stood the test of time, in the form of papers that still get cited to this day. I was lucky that my research  was in an area that was about to take off, rather than one that was already in decline, and that there will still problems around that were easy enough for me to tackle!

The way of working was very different too: the fact that my generation didn’t have computers on our desks makes younger graduate students wonder how we managed to do anything at all! I still amuse my colleagues with my habit of writing out bits of code in longhand on paper  and `desk-checking’ them before typing them in.

The fact that I now have over 30 years’ postdoctoral experience definitely adds to the feeling of getting very old, along with the all-pervading fatigue, the random aches and pains that afflict me from time to time, failing eyesight, and the tendency of Facebook to send me advertisements about stairlifts, hearing aids, and (worst of all) golf equipment.

The start of University term in late September brings with it a new intake of students that always looks even  younger than the last. That produces a strange alternation of feelings. On the one hand, working in a University means that you’re always surrounded by bright young students which is a good thing when you’re getting on a bit in that it reminds you that you were once like that. On the other, the proliferation of young persons around does force you to face up to how old you actually are.

I remember some years ago I was teaching a module on astrophysics as part of which I did a lecture on supernovae. In the middle of that I said to my class: “of course, you will all remember SN 1987A” (which was detected while I was a PhD student). Blank faces. I then realized that none of them had even been born in 1987. Nowadays it is the case that I was already a Professor when all my undergraduate students were born.

But these signs of age are as nothing compared to the shock I underwent when a few months ago I discovered that I’m older than Nigel Farage.

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…

Preparing for a PhD Interview in Physics

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on February 1, 2016 by telescoper

The other day I was chatting to a group of our 4th-year MPhys students about the process for applying  (and hopefully being interviewed) for a PhD. This is the time when students in the UK have started to apply and are awaiting decisions on whether they have to go for an interview. Final decisions are usually made by the end of March so those with interviews have a busy couple of months coming up.

I actually quite enjoy doing PhD interviews, because that involves giving excellent young scientists their first step on the ladder towards a research career. I’m sure it’s not so pleasant for the candidates though. Nerves sometimes get the better of the students in these interviews, but experienced interviewers can calibrate for that. And if you’re nervous, it means that you care…

Anyone reading this who is nervous about doing a PhD interview (or has experienced nerves in one they’ve already had) might reflect on my experience when I was called to interview for a PhD place in Astronomy at the University of Manchester way back in 1985. I was very nervous before that, and arrived very early for my grilling. I was told to wait in a sort of ante-room as the previous interview had only just started. I started to read a textbook I had brought with me. About five minutes later, the door of the interview room opened and the interviewers, Franz Kahn and John Dyson, both of whom are sadly no longer with us, carried out the unconscious body of the previous candidate. It turned out that, after a couple of friendly preliminary questions, the two Professors had handed the candidate a piece of chalk and told him to go to the blackboard  to work something out, at which point said candidate had fainted. When it was my turn to be handed the chalk I toyed with the idea of staging a mock swoon, but resisted the temptation.

The question, in case you’re interested, was to estimate the angle through which light  is deflected by the Sun’s gravity. I hadn’t done any general relativity in my undergraduate degree, so just did it by dimensional analysis which is easy because an angle is dimensionless. That gets you within a factor of a two of the correct answer which, in those days, was pretty goood going for cosmology. That seemed to go down well and they offered me a place … which I turned down in favour of Sussex.

In those days, before detailed information about research in University departments was available online, the interview generally consisted of a discussion of the various projects available and a few odd questions about Physics (and possible Astronomy) to see if the candidate was able to think on their feet (i.e. without fainting).

Nowadays it’s a bit different. You can still expect a bit of questioning about undergraduate material but that is normally preceded by the chance to talk about your final-year project. One reason for that is that selectors are interested in project work because it can provide evidence of an aptitude for research. The other is simply that it gives the candidate a chance to get over any initial nerves by talking about something that they hopefully know well, as they will have been working on it for some time.

My first piece advice for students who have been offered an interview, therefore, is to prepare a short (~10 minute) verbal summary of your project work so you’re not wrong-footed if asked to talk about it.

Students nowadays are also expected to know a bit more about the thesis topic in advance, so my second tip is to  read up a bit of background so you can talk reasonably intelligently about the proposed research. If, for example, you have decided to work on Dark Energy (as many seem to these days), you won’t come across very well if you don’t know what the main issues are. What’s the observational evidence? What kind of theories are there? What are the open questions? Same goes for other fields. It also will do no harm if you read a couple of recent papers by your prospective supervisor, for reasons of flattery if nothing else.

Anyway, I think those are the two main things. If anyone has other advice to offer prospective PhD students, please feel free to add via the comments box.

 

 

 

My PhD Tree

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 23, 2015 by telescoper

Last week I discovered that somebody has kindly constructed my PhD Tree. I later discovered that similar things have been constructed for quite a few other scientists of my acquaintance. Perhaps even yours?

Anyway, here is my academic lineage. As you can see, I have some distinguished ancestors. In particular, my great-grandfather (academically speaking) was Paul Dirac

PhD Tree

Incidentally, you might like to see Dirac’s hand-written notes for his PhD Thesis, which you can find here. It dates from 1926. As far as I am aware this is the first PhD thesis ever written on the subject of Quantum Mechanics. It’s also worth mentioning the tremendous contribution to British science made by R.H. Fowler. Fifteen Fellows of the Royal Society and three Nobel Laureates (Chandrasekhar, Dirac, and Mott) were supervised by Fowler in Cambridge between 1922 and 1939.

Loans for PhD Fees?

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , on May 5, 2015 by telescoper

Just a short post to remind (or perhaps just tell) interested parties that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is running a consultation on issues connected with postgraduate education. According to the BIS website:

We’re seeking views on proposals to introduce loans for postgraduate taught master’s degrees and to improve support for research students.

The consultation closes on May 29th 2015. The Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society are putting together collective responses for Physics and Astronomy respectively, but anyone can submit an opinion.

The scope of the consultation seems carefully worded as not to suggest explicitly  that loans might be extended to postgraduate research (i.e. PhD) students, but the implication is there. If the system of providing research council scholarships to PhD students were to be scrapped in favour of loans I think that would have a devastating effect on the future of UK science, as another sizeable loan on top of the debts accumulated as an undergraduate would put most potential research students completely off the idea of doing a PhD.

I wonder though if there might be actually be a limited role for loans in funding PhD students that might actually have a positive effect. I’ve stated before on this blog that I’m not opposed to the principle that students who can afford to make a contribution to the cost of their education should be required to do so, as this releases funding to support students who can’t afford to make such a contribution. I’ve never agreed with transferring the entire burden onto the student – which the current system effectively does – but I think it is reasonable for students to chip in a few grand when they can. It is true that having a better educated population benefits the country as a whole, which is why the taxpayer should support university students, but there is no question that the students themselves do benefit financially so they should share some of the cost too. Offering susbsidised loans to enable them to do this makes it quite a reasonable proposition.

One advantage of students having to contribute to their fees emanates from the fact that people tend to value things more if they have to pay for them. It seems quite clear to me that students, generally speaking, show far greater levels of engagement with their courses now that they are investing their own money in them.

Universities charge fees for posgraduate courses too, including the PhD, though these are much lower than for undergraduates. At my institution, the University of Sussex, for example, fees for a PhD in a science subject are about £4K per annum. Students funded by a research council bursary get this fee paid on their behalf on top of a stipend of around £14k per annum, and most are probably not even aware that the fee even exists. Students not in receipt of external funding usually have either have to pay their fee by working for it (possibly by teaching) or have to convince the institution to waive it, in which case the Department concerned does not cover its costs. If a student has a bursary that covers a fee plus a stipend for up to 4 years there isn’t much of an incentive for a PhD student to take a shorter time to complete.

So my suggestion is that it might be worth thinking about moving to a system wherein PhD students would be able to access loans to cover their fees rather than having them funded by a research council bursary or by having to work to earn the money. Such a scheme would save the cash-strapped research councils part of what they currently contribute and it would actually help students finance their own PhD if they had no access to such contributions. Having to borrow the money to pay the fee might deter some potential PhD applicants, but it might also improve completion rates by giving an incentive to finish promptly rather than hanging about. Note that a student with a PhD can expect to earn, on average, about 23 per cent more over a lifetime than someone only holding a Bachelors degree so it seems to me to be reasonable to ask a student to stump up part of the cost of doing a research degree through a loan which need only be paid back when the salary reaches a certain level.

I think this suggestion does have a positive side, but it is by no means a complete solution to the problem that, at least in the UK, we produce many more people with PhDs than are needed to sustain academic research and we need to think much more carefully about whether this route provides the correct career development for scientists in the wider world.

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!

GradFlyer

You can download a pdf of the flyer here.

Please direct any queries to Adrian!