Archive for STFC

The Zurich Letters

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2017 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post following up my previous piece on the Bullying Scandal at ETH Zurich.

As pointed out in a comment on that post, a letter of support for one of the named Professors (Marcella Carollo) has been signed by a number of astronomers, including some prominent senior professors. That letter can be found here (PDF).

A version of that letter which has been annotated by Chris Lintott to draw attention to some of its shortcomings can be found here. I won’t add much to Chris’s comments, but will mention that a dropout rate of 30% of students funded by the UK  Science and Technology Facilities Council would lead to financial penalties on the institution responsible. Moreover, ETH Zurich is a prestigious institution with a highly selective admissions policy for postgraduate students and a high level of funding. It is not unreasonable to expect a high completion rate under these circumstances.

Other than that, the two main messages of the first letter seem to be (a) `some people did well so it must all be OK’ and (b) `the ends justify the means’. I can’t agree with either of these points. Reaction I have seen on social media to the letter have been overwhelmingly negative, to the extent that Prof. Bryan Gaensler has drafted an alternative letter, in support of the ETH Researchers, and is collecting signatures. You can find that letter here, where you can also find a list of more than 300 nearly 700 signatories across all walks of astronomical life. You can add your name to this letter at any time until 2359 UTC on Wednesday November 1st, after which the letter and list of signatories will then be delivered to the researchers affected by this sorry affair.

P.S. I’ll just mention that as well as attracting a very large number of visitors (hopefully not all of them lawyers), my original post on this matter is the first I have written to generate over a hundred comments. The previous record was 98.

UPDATE: There’s an item about the second letter here.

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National STFC Data-Intensive Science Launch Event

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by telescoper

It’s been a very busy week here in Cardiff, as we have been hosting a National Event to launch the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)’s new Centres for Doctoral Training in Data-Intensive Science. There are eight new CDTs involving 19 institutions across the country (including the local one that involved the Universities of Cardiff, Bristol and Swansea). We were delighted to be chosen to host this event, which has had a tremendous buzz about it, as 120 new PhD students met with academics from all the CDTs, STFC staff, and representatives of industry partners, for a mixture of training and networking activities. I took part in a panel discussion this morning about careers, which was very interesting.

Last night we had a dinner at the Mercure Hotel in Cardiff (where the Real Madrid team stayed just before this summer’s UEFA Champions League Final in Cardiff). The dinner was preceded by a welcome from Professor Karen Holford (Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University), a talk by Brian Bowsher (Chief Executive of STFC) and Prof. Patrick Sutton of the Gravitional Physics group at Cardiff who gave an outstanding talk about the latest developments in gravitational waves. There was then a `showcase’ event to allow students and staff to talk about their work over a few drinks.

Here are some pictures of yesterday’s activities.

Prof. Karen Holford giving her welcome speech.

Dr Bian Bowsher, STFC Chief Executive

I noticed in Dr Bowsher’s talk that STFC has apparently moved the Boulby Mine from North Yorkshire (near Whitby) to Northumberland:

STFC sites (some of them in the correct geographical location).

Professor Mark Walport was unable to attend the event in person but did at least appear on a slide about the new UK Research and Innovation entity, which formally comes into existence in April 2018!

Professor Sir Mark Walport

Patrick Sutton doing his gravitational waves talk…

The Showcase Event

Showcase Event

And here are some of the members of the team from STFC who did most of the organization for this very successful and enjoyable event.

Some members of the STFC team!

The event finishes this afternoon, after which I think I’ll have a lie down!

Update: there’s a Cardiff University News item about this here.

Team News from the Vale

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 26, 2017 by telescoper

We have a short break in the schedule for our induction event here at the Cardiff Vale Resort Hotel. Yesterday we had a full schedule of presentations, an excellent interactive training session by Cardiff PhD student Ed Fauchon-Jones about version control and the use of Github, an ongoing `hackathon event’, and a networking event with our industrial partners. It’s been a busy but very exciting and enjoyable start to the new Centre for Doctoral Training. This afternoon we have more activities, but this morning the new students have been sent out into the countryside in land rovers for a `Team Building’ event, leaving us old fogeys behind to enjoy a little bit of peace and quiet back in the hotel.

One of the aims of the hackathon has been to build teamwork. The students are in groups of three or four. Each group has been given a bit of old software (written in Fortran) and charged with the task of figuring out what it does and then rewriting it in a modern programming environment (most of them are using Python). That plan was that by the end of this afternoon they should be able to present us a working piece of code. Unfortunately I don’t think we’ve allowed enough time so it may be that the teams don’t all finish their challenge, but it’s been fun to see how they’ve tackled the problems. I’m old enough to remember Fortran very well, so I was able to help a couple of the groups by explaining some of its idiosyncracies.

We discovered last night that the Leeds United football team is staying in this hotel in advance of their game this evening against Cardiff City. Some of the players were in the bar last night, but I didn’t recognise any of them. With Leeds currently top of the Championship I’m not sure to what extent their team needs building, but they’re playing a Cardiff City team which is in third place, level on points and separated only by goal difference, so it should be a good game tonight.

Anyway, I’d better get on and get some work done before the students get back. We have a full afternoon in front of us, and then we have to tackle the logistics of getting everyone back to Swansea, Cardiff and Bristol respectively!

Here is a picture of the students along with a few of the staff that attended the event, taken during the last afternoon. Happily the students all got back safely from their adventures this morning!

UPDATE: 27th September. This event finished yesterday evening and we left just as Leeds United were getting ready to depart in their team coach for their match against Cardiff City last night. Cardiff City won 3-1.

Induction at the Vale

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 25, 2017 by telescoper

So here I am, at the Cardiff Vale Hotel. It’s quite swanky. Apparently the Juventus team stayed here immediately before the UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff this summer. They lost, so perhaps they enjoyed their stay too much before the game! The view from my window this morning wasn’t bad at all:

I’m here participating in an Induction event for our new STFC-funded Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT), which involves the Universities of Cardiff, Bristol and Swansea. This is coordinated by the Data Innovation Institute at Cardiff University and it covers  a wide range of data-intensive research in particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology carried on at the three member institutions. ‘Data-intensive’ here means involving very big data sets, very sophisticated analysis methods or high-performance computing,  or any combination of these.

Since this Centre for Doctoral Training is being coordinated by Cardiff University we got to organize this launch event, at which we get the new students (14 of them), supervisors and industrial partners together to introduce the programme we’ve got in store. Over the next two days we’ll have some lectures, networking sessions, team-building exercises and a `hackathon’ challenge.

Hopefully all this will start to bring the students from the three institutions together as a cohort with its own identity, so that the CDT functions as more than the sum of three separate components. That’s the plan anyway.

Anyway, they seem a friendly bunch and I think this is going to be quite a lot of fun though it will be rather busy. Although we’re booked into this hotel as a `conference package’, the hotel is rather large and most of the clientele seem to be here to play golf…

Oh, and if you think all this luxury is probably a waste of money then I should point (a) the Cardiff Value Hotel has given us a very good deal for the accommodation and conference facilities and (b) this is induction week for new undergraduates and other postgraduates at Cardiff University and it would have been hard to find rooms for this event there. The splendid isolation of this `neutral’ venue will hopefully help folk concentrate on the matters at hand, away from the hustle and bustle of the new student arrivals.

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

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by telescoper

Last term I gave a short talk to interested students within the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University about postgraduate research in which I aimed to pass on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. Since the time is rapidly approaching when applications need to be sent in, I thought I’d repeat here a few general remarks that might be useful to people elsewhere who are thinking of taking the plunge when they graduate. 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.

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 £14296 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 £4121) 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…

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

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on October 12, 2016 by telescoper

This morning I am to give a short talk to interested students within the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University about postgraduate research in which I aim to pass on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. Since I’ve finished writing the talk more than the usual few minutes before I have to deliver it, I thought I’d jot down here a few general remarks that might be useful to people elsewhere who are thinking of taking the plunge when they graduate. 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.

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 £14296 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 £4121) 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…

The Supreme Leader of STFC Departs…

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on May 12, 2016 by telescoper

womersley

In case you haven’t heard yet, news has just broken that Professor John Womersley (above), currently Chief Executive of the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has been appointed Director-General of the new European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden, and will therefore be stepping down from his post as Chief Executive of STFC in the autumn.

John has been Supreme Leader at STFC for five years now and, in my opinion, has done an excellent job in circumstances that have not always been easy. He will be a hard act to follow. I know he’s an occasional reader of this blog, so let me take this opportunity to wish him well in his new role.

Now, perhaps I should open a book on the likely contenders for the post of next Chief Executive of STFC?