Archive for University College London

Viva Zoom!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 13, 2020 by telescoper

They say that there’s a first time for everything and this morning I conducted my first ever viva voce examination as an External Examiner via Zoom. Given the Covid-19 restrictions it was inevitable that I’d have to do this at some point! As it turned out candidate in question happened to be at University College London.

For those of you not familiar with how this sort of examination usually works, at least in the UK and Ireland, a PhD involves doing research into a particular topic and then writing up what you’ve done in a thesis. The thesis is a substantial piece of work, often in the region of 100,000 words (200 pages or so), which is then assessed by two examiners (one internal to the university at which the research was done, and one external). They read copies of the thesis and write preliminary reports assessing its suitability. Then the candidate has to defend the thesis in an oral examination, which was what happened today, after which the examiners make a final recommendation to the university about whether the degree should be awarded.

There aren’t many rules for how a viva voce examination should be conducted or how long it should last, but the can be as short as, say, 2 hours and can be as long as 5 hours or more. The examiners usually ask a mixture of questions, some about the details of the work presented and some about the general background. The unpredictable content of a viva voce examination makes it very difficult to prepare for, and it can be difficult and stressful for the candidate (as well as just tiring, as it can drag on for a long time). However, call me old-fashioned but I think if you’re going to get to call yourself Doctor of Philosophy you should expect to have to work for it.

As it happens, my own PhD examination (almost 30 years ago!)  was quite long (about 4hrs 30 minutes) and my external examiner was John Peacock. Today’s was a bit shorter – around three hours – and the internal examiner was Andrew Pontzen. Obviously I can’t give details of what went on in the examination except that the internal examiner Andrew Pontzen and I agreed to recommend the award of a PhD to the candidate, Krishna Naidoo. Although it was slightly strange doing this over Zoom instead of in person, it worked out OK. The only thing really missing was a blackboard or whiteboard. I also found it a bit awkward having the PDF thesis and videoconference on the same screen, but that was my fault for not appropriating a spare monitor.

At UCL as in most UK universities, the PhD examiners simply make a recommendation to a higher authority (e.g. Board of Graduate Studies) to formally award the degree, but only in very rare and peculiar circumstances do they not follow the recommendation.

The sad thing about these times of social distancing is that not being there in person I couldn’t shake the hand of the candidate at the end of the examination nor could I join him and his friends and colleagues for a drink afterwards. I’m sure they’ll find a way of celebrating. I couldn’t even join them remotely as I had another Zoom call to make. ..

P.S. If you want an idea of what is in  Krishna’s thesis you could have a look at one of the papers to come from it.

The Tim Hunt Debacle

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on June 14, 2015 by telescoper

After a whole day off yesterday to recover from an exceptionally busy week I’m back in the office on a Sunday to sort out a few things before leaving tomorrow on a short trip to the Midlands, of which more, perhaps, anon.

In a way I’m quite glad I have been so busy over the last few days, with Exam Boards and the like. Had I had time I might have been tempted to write a post at some point about the Tim Hunt affair which broke on Tuesday. As it turns out, everything moved so quickly that anything I wrote would have been overtaken by events. In any case I didn’t feel that I had much to add to the excellent response written by the Head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, Prof. Claudia Eberlein, in the Huffington Post on Thursday.  However, now I have a little bit of time I thought I would add a few comments.

I hope it goes without saying that I thought Tim Hunt’s comments about female scientists, made in public at an event in South Korea, were outrageous and indefensible.  My heart sank when I found out what he’d said. I might have believed his story that they were intended to be humorous had it not been for an awful non-apology on Radio 4, which effectively made that line of defence untenable. Nobel Prize winning biochemist he may be, but Tim Hunt clearly has a lot to learn about how to interact with people. When we find ourselves in a hole, most of us have the sense to stop digging.

I know my opinion here differs from that of some of my friends and colleagues, but I also think University College London did the right thing in asking him to resign. I’ve heard it argued that it over the top for him to lose his job over his remarks. But that’s not what happened. In fact, Tim Hunt is in his seventies and has been effectively retired for many years; his position at UCL was honorary (i.e. unpaid). I don’t think the severance of his relationship with UCL can be construed as an excessive punishment. In today’s Observer there’s a piece in which Tim Hunt claims he has been “hung out to dry” . I have to admit that I find his attempt to portray himself as victim to be as nauseating as his earlier apology.  I think UCL were fully justified in severing their relationship with Tim Hunt. This is not an issue of freedom of speech. Tim Hunt had every right to express his opinions. Those opinions are, however, completely incompatible with the values of the institution with which he was associated and his statement of them harmful to the reputation if UCL. He simply had to go.

On the other hand, there’s a lot about this story that troubles me greatly. Although some of the social media reaction to Tim Hunt’s comments was incisively humorous, some was unpleasant and some downright nasty. Worse, the Twitterstorm that raged last week also unleashed the gutter press, chiefly the Daily Mail, whose hacks tried to drag Prof. Mary Collins (Hunt’s wife) into the story. That was unpleasant, even by the standards of the Daily Mail. Mary Collins’ private life has nothing to do with her husband’s failings.

Anyway, I hope that a line will now be drawn under this episode. Tim Hunt should now be left alone to enjoy his retirement. As someone once said of someone else “I’ve nothing against his family, but I’m glad he will be spending more time with them”.

Nobody should be deluded that the departure of one high-profile academic will solve anything.  Tim Hunt was one senior academic stupid enough make offensive comments in public. There are countless others in positions of power and influence who hold very similar opinions but only express them behind closed doors, or under the cover of anonymity. Indeed, I know a number of senior academics who put on a public show of being in favour of equality and diversity but in private have acted deliberately to undermine the careers of, usually junior, female scientists. The culprits aren’t always men, either..

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure I should point that I have never met Tim Hunt so do not know what his views really are. Neither do I have any connection with University College London.