Archive for postgraduate

Yes, science produces too many PhDs

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on February 19, 2015 by telescoper

I came across a blog post this morning entitled Does Science Produce Too Many PhDs? I think the answer is an obvious “yes” but I’ll use the question as an excuse to rehash an argument I have presented before, which is that most analyses of the problems facing yearly career researchers in science are looking at the issue from the wrong end. I think the crisis is essentially caused by the overproduction of PhDs in this field. To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider the following.

Assume that the number of permanent academic positions in a given field (e.g. astronomy) remains constant over time. If that is the case, each retirement (or other form of departure) from a permanent position will be replaced by one, presumably junior, scientist.

This means that over an academic career, on average, each academic will produce just one PhD who will get a permanent job in academia. This of course doesn’t count students coming in from abroad, or those getting faculty positions abroad, but in the case of the UK these are probably relatively small corrections.

Under the present supply of PhD studentships an academic can expect to get a PhD student at least once every three years or so. At a minimum, therefore, over a 30 year career one can expect to have ten PhD students. A great many supervisors have more PhD students than this, but this just makes the odds worse. The expectation is that only one of these will get a permanent job in the UK. The others (nine out of ten, according to my conservative estimate) above must either leave the field or the country to find permanent employment.

The arithmetic of this situation is a simple fact of life, but I’m not sure how many prospective PhD students are aware of it. There is still a reasonable chance of getting a first postdoctoral position, but thereafter the odds are stacked against them.

The upshot of this is we have a field of understandably disgruntled young people with PhDs but no realistic prospect of ever earning a settled living working in the field they have prepared for. This problem has worsened considerably in recent  years as the number of postdoctoral positions has almost halved since 2006. New PhDs have to battle it out with existing postdoctoral researchers for the meagre supply of suitable jobs. It’s a terrible situation.

Now the powers that be – in this case the Science and Technology Facilities Council – have consistently argued that the excess PhDs go out into the wider world and contribute to the economy with the skills they have learned. That may be true in a few cases. However, my argument is that the PhD is not the right way to do this because it is ridiculously inefficient.

What we should have is a system wherein we produce more and better trained Masters level students  and fewer PhDs. This is the system that exists throughout most of Europe, in fact, and the UK is actually committed to adopt it through the Bologna process.  Not that this commitment seems to mean anything, as precisely nothing has been done to harmonize UK higher education with the 3+2+3 Bachelors+Masters+Doctorate system Bologna advocates.

The training provided in a proper two-year Masters programme will improve the skills pool for the world outside academia, and also better prepare the minority of students who go on to take a PhD. The quality of the  PhD will also improve, as only the very best and most highly motivated researchers will take that path. This used to be what happened, of course, but I don’t think it is any longer the case.

The main problem with this suggestion is that it requires big changes to the way both research and teaching are funded. The research councils turned away from funding Masters training many years ago, so I doubt if they can be persuaded to to a U-turn now. Moreover, the Research Excellence Framework provides a strong incentive for departments to produce as many PhDs as they possibly can, as these are included in an algorithmic way as part of the score for “Research Environment”. The more PhDs a department produces, the higher it will climb in the league tables. One of my targets in my current position is to double the number of PhDs produced by my School over the period 2013-18. What happens to the people concerned seems not to be a matter worthy of consideration. They’re only “outputs”…

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Scholarships for Masters in Physics, Astronomy and Quantum Technology at Sussex

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 3, 2015 by telescoper

Although I’m in the middle of a very busy day (with no time for a lunch break) I thought I’d take a few minutes to advertise a very special one-off opportunity. As many of you will be aware, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Autumn Statement last year that loans of up to £10,000 would be made available to students on postgraduate (Masters) courses from 2016/17 onwards.  Welcome though this scheme may be it does not apply to students wanting to start a Masters programme this September (i.e. for Academic Year 2015/16).

But fear not. The University of Sussex has come to the rescue! Last week the University unveiled a generous new funding scheme to bridge the gap. In particular, a huge  boost to the University’s flagship Chancellor’s Masters Scholarships means that 100 students graduating this summer with a first-class degree from any UK university will be eligible to receive a £10,000 package (non-repayable)  to study for a Masters degree at Sussex. There are also specific schemes to support students who are already at Sussex; see here.

I’m drawing this to the attention of readers of this blog primarily to point out that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex is one of relatively few UK universities to have a significant and well-established programme of Masters (MSc) courses, including courses in Physics, Particle Physics, Cosmology, and Astronomy. In particular we are the only Department in the United Kingdom to have an MSc in Quantum Technology, an area which has just benefitted from a substantial cash investment from the UK government.

This is a huge opportunity for high-flying physics graduates to get a funded place on any of our MSc programmes to start later this year. Indeed, the deal that is being offered is so good that I would recommend students who are currently in the third year of 4-year MPhys or MSci integrated Masters programmes, perhaps at a dreary University in the Midlands, to consider switching to a BSc bailing out of your current course, and graduating in June in order to take up this opportunity. The last year of an integrated Masters consists of 120 credits of material for which you will have to be a further £9K of fees; a standalone Masters at Sussex would involve 180 credits and be essentially free if you get a scholarship.

Think about it, especially if you are interested in specializing in Quantum Technology. Sussex is the only university in the UK where you can take an MSc in this subject!

Note for Sussex students: if you’re on the 3rd year of an MPhys here at Sussex the situation is a bit more complicated and the incentive to move to MSc is much weaker because we have additional Scholarships to offset the £9K fee for the 4th year. Please feel free to discuss this with me if you want some more information.

Why Graduate Teaching Assistantships Should Be Scrapped

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on April 24, 2014 by telescoper

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Times Higher about the variability in pay and working conditions for Graduate Teaching Assistants across the UK Higher Education sector. For those of you not up with the lingo, Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) are (usually) PhD students who fund their doctoral studies by doing some teaching for the department in which they are studying. As the piece makes clear, the use of GTAs varies widely between one university and another across the country and indeed between one department and another within the same university. The use of such positions is higher in arts and humanities departments than in science and engineering, because the latter general have more opportunity to fund scholarships for PhD students, either from one of the Research Councils or elsewhere. Such scholarships pay a stipend (tax-free) as well as the fee for studying as a PhD student.

When I arrived at the University of Sussex last year I found that the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences operated a GTA scheme in parallel with Research Council bursaries. Students funded by a research council scholarship received a stipend paid at a national rate of about £13,600 per annum, but were able to top this up by undertaking a limited amount of teaching in the School (e.g. marking coursework, helping with workshops, or demonstrating in the teaching laboratories). Externally funded students did teaching on a voluntary basis. The GTAs on the other hand were required to undertake a fixed amount of teaching without remuneration in order to cover their fees.

I found this two-tier system unfair and divisive, with students funded as GTAs clearly treated as second-class citizens. One of the first major decisions I made as Head of School was to phase out the GTA scheme and replace it with bursaries on exactly the same terms as externally-funded ones with the same opportunity to top up the stipend with some teaching income. I announced this at a School meeting recently and it was met with broad approval, the only reservation being that it would be difficult if too few students opted to do extra teaching to cover the demand. I think that’s unlikely, actually, because although the stipend is not taxable so is equivalent to a somewhat higher amount in salary terms, Brighton is quite an expensive part of the country and most students would opt for a bit of extra dosh. Also, it is actually very good for a PhD student to have teaching experience on their CV when it comes to looking for a job.

Existing GTA schemes make it too easy for departments engage in exploitative behaviour, by dumping a huge amount of their teaching duties on underpaid and unqualified PhD students. It’s also unfair for the undergraduate students, nowadays paying enormously high fees, to be fobbed off onto PhD students instead of being taught by full-time, experienced and properly trained staff. Of course the system I’m advocating will be difficult to implement in departments that lack external funding for PhD students. Having to pay a full-stipend for each student will be more expensive and will consequently lead to a reduction in the number of PhD students that can be funded, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the whole structure of undergraduate teaching will have to change in many departments. From what I’ve seen in the National Student Survey, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing either…

As I’ve argued a number of times on this blog, the current system drastically overproduces PhD students. The argument, a matter of simple arithmetic, is that on average in a steady state each potential PhD supervisor in the university system will, over their entire career, produce just one PhD student who will get a job in academia. In many fields the vast majority of PhDs have absolutely no chance of getting a permanent job in academia. Some know this, of course, and take their skills elsewhere when they’ve completed, which is absolutely fine. But I get the strong feeling that many bright students are lured into GTAs by the prospect that an illustrious career as an academic awaits them when really they’re just being hired as cheap labour. The result is a growing pool of disillusioned and disaffected people with PhDs who feel they’ve been duped by the system.

The British system of postgraduate research study is that it basically takes three years to do a degree. In the United States it usually takes much longer, so the employment of students as GTAs has less of an impact on their ability to complete their thesis on schedule. Although there are faults with the UK’s fast-track system, there is also much to recommend it. Not, however, if the student is encumbered with a heavy teaching load for the duration. The GTA scheme (which incidentally didn’t exist when I did my PhD nearly thirty years ago) is a damaging American import. In much of continental Europe there are far fewer PhD students and in many countries, especially in Scandinavia, PhD students are actually paid a decent wage. I think that’s the way we should go.

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…

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.

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.

Credentialism and Overexamination

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2012 by telescoper

Only time for a quick post this morning as I have to go into the department to get my things ready for tomorrow, when the Autumn Semester starts and I have to begin lecturing (at 9am on a Monday morning). Anyway, the text for today’s sermon is provided by Ed Smith’s Left Field column in the New Statesman, the latest issue of which I read yesterday. His topic is the rise of credentialism and the resulting excessive amount of examination in the British school system:

It is now widely accepted that British pupils are excessively over-examined. Teachers are so busy focussing on examinations that there is little time left for education. Exam-led cramming has become the year-round norm – like an election campaign that consumes the whole political cycle. Exams are obviously necessary. But there is an optimal amount of assessment and it has been far exceeded. Grade inflation – notwithstanding this year’s controversial “crackdown” – is simply accepted as a fact.

It’s well said, and it’s not just the school system that suffers from disproportionate emphasis on assessment over education. It’s rife throughout the university system too, starting with the reliance on A-level grades as criteria for assessing students’ suitability for university study, through the “modular” undergraduate degree programmes with examinations twice a year for three or four years.

We examine far too frequently and the effect of this has been to turn the entire education system into a meaningless exercise in box-ticking.

It is an unfortunate irony: in our age of credentialism, exams have never mattered more. And yet they have never been more unreliable as gauges of academic quality.

I’ve felt for some time that in my discipline, Physics (and Astronomy) A-levels are virtually useless as indicators of the suitability of a student for doing an undergraduate degree. Some of the very best students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach came into my university with modest A-level scores; and some students who came in with perfect grades at school never adjusted to the different, more independent type of study required of an undergraduate.

As Ed Smith points out, the increased emphasis on examination grades hasn’t expanded opportunity either.  It may appear to be fairer to base university entrance or award jobs on examination results rather than, say, interviews, but this has just led to a system that can be easily gamed – private tutors, cramming, re-sits to improve grades, and so on. He rightly concludes that the “correlation between exam results and intelligence has been steadily weakening”.

So what’s the alternative? Smith mentions the admissions process at Harvard University, which famously ignores high-school grades and relies on its own interview system. Interviews can be very biased if carried out in an inappropriate way. Subjecting a young person to a 30-minute grilling  in a room with a complete stranger can be enormously stressful for applicants who are shy, and would also play into the hands of those whose educational background has involved specific training for such ordeals. But one thing I’ve found by talking to students face-to-face is that it doesn’t take very long to identify precisely those things that the examination system does not: imagination, enthusiasm for the subject,  and a flair for thinking on your feet:

One teacher told me with regret that she had to advise her most academic pupil not to display her full intellectual range: in order to secure all the ticks, first you have to stop thinking freely.

If you don’t believe this, take a look at this GCSE Science Examination. A truly intelligent student would struggle to find any correct answer for many of the questions on that paper!

This is why we still place so much emphasis on interviews in the postgraduate admissions system: we take it for granted that all applicants for PhD places will have good undergraduate degrees. What marks out an excellent candidate for a position as  research student, however, is not the ability to pass exams but a mixture of creative flair and almost obsessive determination to surmount the difficult challenges involved in independent research. The correlation between these characteristics and degree results is by no means strong.

The problem for a UK University in adopting the Harvard approach is that credentialism is now running the system. Students apply to universities largely on the basis of their predicted A-level grades, lowering their sights if their predicted grades would not be expected to get them into a more “presitigious” department. But departments that take in students with low A-level scores also get marked down in the league tables for taking in “weaker” students. We’re all aware that A-levels are basically useless, but both sides are  bound so tightly into the system that there seems to be no escape.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know if there is one, but I’d love to see what would happen if all universities abandoned A-levels and instead set their own entrance examinations and interviews. It would be a huge amount of work, but it would make a refreshing change if universities could gather useful information rather than relying on the uninformative guff produced by the national examination boards.

And here is Smith’s closing remark that rings very true to me for personal reasons,

There is a further dimension to the problem of credentialism. It encourages life’s winners to underestimate their good fortune and to over-rate the extent to which they deserve their success. Far from advancing talent over privilege, credentialism has strengthened the grip of people already at the top.