The Three Year PhD

This article in the Times Higher is an interesting, and probably perennial contention, that the standard Australian three-year PhD is not really fit for purpose.

I’d broadly agree that there are some issues with the current HDR (Higher Degree by Research) model which encompasses research masters and PhD student funding. My view, I suspect like the view of David Reilly from University of Sydney, is coloured by a range of international experience. Even within Australia, a three year PhD is not always quite what it seems though.

The Australian funding model allows students to complete a PhD in 4 years, but in general, will only provide scholarship funding for three, with some hope of a further six months depending on need. This differs slightly from the evolving UK model, in which funding tends to be available for three years, but much research council PhD funding can be flexibly used, and will typically be for 3.5 years at the outset and many of the Centres for Doctoral Training offer 4 years of funding, as do funders such as the Wellcome Trust. The proviso in the UK was that with extra funding flexibility there had to be a focus on more generic skills training, preparing students for their likely careers beyond academia. Such training takes many forms, including technical courses, professional skills training, outreach, cohort networking opportunities, external collaboration schemes and wider industry engagement.

I think this goes to the heart of the question as to what a PhD is for? We have two options: one in which it is a purely focussed research project, which you start on day 1 and complete when the final examiners reports are in. I accept this has validity and that it is what many students want out of their studies, but the truth is that it will often serve the student’s supervisor rather better than the student. I come down more strongly in favour of option two: a PhD student is just that, a ‘student’ and that we need to support them in all aspects of their development, both as a researcher, but also to prepare them for a non-academic career. Beyond this we surely develop better researchers if we broaden their horizons, even just a little bit.

My PhD was three years, no funding beyond, and no courses, although I did audit at least two full lecture courses on advanced quantum mechanics, did tutoring and lab demonstrating and helped out with IT student inductions. In my last year I even managed the long distance relationship thing when my now-wife moved to the other end of the UK. My first year was plagued with a laser system that was broken, but with the realisation that I had to get something to show for my time I made sure I worked towards the necessary end goal. I published a good set of papers, some first author, some as part of my research group and managed to write up on time as I had a job to start. I appreciate single data points are not worth much, but my experience tells me with the right mentality and the right support that three years is plenty. When those things are not present (and often the latter is needed for the former) that is where the issues start, and those are a discussion for a different time.

I have to say that I am a fan of the revamped UK system, while noting that it is not a one size fits all system, as many PhD projects do not enjoy enhanced funding or the opportunity to engage with quite so much professional development opportunities. Four years with a three year project at its heart seems to be about right. The US system, which tends to have students take around 5+ years to complete always seems to exploit students just a little too much, and for many such students the TA loads they need to take on to live will mean in effect that their study time is not quite as impressive as it might seem. The argument that three years is not enough for a substantive project always seems a bit of an exaggeration to me – where else in the rest of your life will you get three years to spend on anything? Three years flies by, but looked at in a cold-hearted manner, it is a huge amount of time. Of course projects will go awry and things will be a blur at the end, but managed well, a thesis should still be viable in this time period.

Having said all that, I’d have much less issue with an extended study period if we paid students a bit more – the standard stipend of around A$27k here in Australia is something that I struggle to see how students can survive on – Sydney is not a cheap place to live. My plan at UTS is to offer enhanced stipends where we can, but there is not the budget to offer one to all.

The final point around PhD length and what is done within a PhD that I feel is important the starting point. In countries like Australia, the UK and the US, certainly in STEM subjects, doing a Masters degree, either coursework or by research, is not the usual route to a PhD. The best students jump straight to a PhD. Elsewhere in the world a masters is the norm, and in many countries, China in particular, a three year research masters is the usual route to doctoral studies. At UTS our international applicants with such a background look far better on paper than domestic candidates, as they have more or less completed an Australian PhD already. There is, therefore, a big discrepancy between applicant pools and we need to account for this in our hiring practices. One could also argue that a PhD candidate with two full years of research behind them, typically multiple publications, along with a year of graduate level coursework should certainly not need any more than three years to do a PhD, and is more akin to an American PhD graduate at the end of three years, but maybe we do our domestic students a disservice by asking them to compete on a level playing field with such international students.

Whatever the answer is (more funding…) I think we need to have more acceptance of what a PhD is, and more focus on the fact that the PhD is for the student’s benefit, not for the supervisor’s or institution’s. Once there is some common acceptance of this, maybe we can build a better system around those values, rather than just making do with a system that harks back to more contemplative times and an era where a PhD was much more strongly correlated with a future academic career.


Categories: Uncategorized

Leaving the comfort zone

March 26, 2018 1 comment

A little update after a long radio silence. I’m not 100% sure why, but in late 2016 I began to feel that the time had arrived to move on from Dundee. While I enjoyed the position I had, very much enjoyed working with my colleagues, and had a pretty comfortable life, the fact that I had worked in Dundee for 10 years began to make me feel that I wasn’t really developing much anymore. I was in a bit of rut, with the admin side of things starting to squeeze a little too much on the research side of things, with the research being a little too scatter-gunned to bring real satisfaction and in the background a sadness over Brexit, and the thought that it’d be good to let my family see a little more of the world than the East coast of Scotland as they all grow older.

Fast forward 12 months or so from those initial thoughts and I was upping sticks and moving us all halfway around the World to take up a new role at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). I’ve been here two months and it has not at any time felt like the wrong thing to do. I was absolutely in my comfort zone in Dundee – I had developed a strong institutional experience, which meant I knew what needed done, but also that it had become wearying to a large extent.

At UTS, things are a little more dynamic – not necessarily wholly different from the UK, it is still a University after all – and my new role allows me to focus a bit more tightly on one aspect of admin – developing the PhD program and looking after the PhD and research masters students (all 800 of them!) I get to reboot my research lab, which will allow me to bring a bit more focus to that side of my job, and even without a lab here, the broader range of interactions that Sydney offers (with four large research intensive Universities in close proximity) has meant that I’ve had a chance to get involved with a few experiments and planned experiments. Being back in the lab has been refreshing – something I’d drifted too far away from in Dundee.

While I miss my old colleagues, and my office with a view over the quad, I think I did the right thing by moving. I’m sure I could have spent another couple of decades in Dundee doing good stuff, but there was clearly an itch that needed to be scratched, and I think the experience I gain in this new role, and who knows which ones on the future, will offer me a much richer career than staying put. Hopefully UTS is good to me, and I hope I can offer much in return.

Hopefully I can pick up the blog a bit more in the coming year, and offer some thoughts on optical manipulation, on Australian academia, PhD programs and live in Sydney. Dundee Physics will remain the blog name for a while yet, but may shift to copy my new twitter handle, @SyndeyPhysics in due course.


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Words, words, words…

February 8, 2017 Leave a comment

I have the good fortune of having three PhD theses on my desk at present, two where I am the external examiner and one where I am the internal. They are all on interesting topics, one very related to my own work and the other two a little more obliquely related. While reading theses for examination is a chore – you need to make lots of notes and make sure you have sensible questions to probe the student on, it is also a really good way to concentrate on a specific subject and hopefully learn something along the way.

Having picked up the first one to read my heart sank a little as it became clear that there were going to be lots of rather strangled grammar. If you are an aspiring or current PhD student, you need to know that the quality of your science is what will take you through in the end, but your viva is likely to be a hell of a lot easier if the examiner does not need to stop every paragraph to note how you have deviated from the norms of good English.

My strong advice: throughout your PhD, write as much as you can and get feedback on your work. This can be from your supervisor, lab mates or friends or through courses that I imagine all Universities (certainly in the UK) offer on academic writing. Or maybe by writing a blog. Also try, and this can be hard, to thoroughly proofread your final thesis, and get others to do so too. This will make your examiner’s job so much easier, and so much more enjoyable, allowing them to focus on what you have done. Words your means of delivering your message. Make sure they are your friends.

Buildings and Bodies

Sir Andre Geim, discoverer of graphene is quoted in the Times today (£), speaking at the Hay Festival, about the new £60M Graphene Centre based at The University of Manchester. It says, “…of the £60 million of public funds invested in the centre, just £9 million had been spent on equipment and nothing on staff.” He also comments on the fact that the building has taken 5 years to build and in this time other countries have streaked ahead of the UK in graphene research.

I can’t comment on the later point, not being a graphene expert, but on the former, there is clearly a delicate balancing act to be made between supporting infrastructure and funding people to actually do the work. What else might £60M have gotten us? Well, conservatively you could have funded (perhaps not at one institution), £10m of equipment, and then invested the other £50M in 5 year research professorships, say 50, with six figure investments into support packages for each. In the short term this would give a much bigger bang for your buck in research terms than a new building. Longer term, I’d assess the same would be true – but the costs would have to be found at institutions to support these new staff, and they would have to be winning competitive external awards to support their research. I’m sure the new centre will ultimately do well, but I can’t help feeling that to jump on new and innovative research directions it is not buildings that are needed.

There is clearly a need for new buildings at times, but I am not convinced we are well served by these types of investments (this is essentially, if I understand correctly, a directly funded Government initiative (£38M from Government, £23M through ERDF). We have an ample University estate, and graphene research in the UK would probably have been much better served by distributed funding, with the focus on bodies and basic research and not buildings.

“Smashing Physics” Review

Having read a large number of personal statements from physics applicants to Dundee this year, it is clear that, much as it was for me, particle physics and the quest for the fundamental understanding of how the Universe works is something that really gets physics students fired up. For me this was undoubtedly true, and I suspect that my knowledge of the particle zoo was probably rather better as a teenager than it is now. The quest for the Higgs Boson has undoubtedly captured the public imagination over the past few years, and I very much hope it is helping to inspire the next generation of physics students.

Smashing Physics by Jon Butterworth

Smashing Physics by Jon Butterworth

But I have small confession – these days it all leaves me a bit cold (although oddly, I think neutrino oscillations are pretty cool). I am clearly a bad physicist, as isn’t this stuff supposed to inspire me too? As it happens I seek that inspiration, still, in the form of popular science books (and blogs), as the technical detail of the search for the Higgs and other particle physics is a long way from my comfort zone, but even though Ian Sample’s and Sean Carroll’s books about the search for the Higgs sit upon my bookshelf, every time I pull them down I find an excuse to read something else. But when I was given Jon Butterworth’s ‘Smashing Physics‘ for Father’s Day I figured that it was time to bite the bullet and get stuck in.

I think one of the key things that Smashing Physics has going for it is that is a personalised tale – full of asides –  and the fact that author has a direct connection with the Higgs search (through the ATLAS experiment) makes everything very much more immediate. It also has mini-treatise on the need and justification for basic scientific research, and reads a little like a manifesto for particle physics at times. In this sense it is very much a reflection of the very positive message than the particle physics community has been able to present in recent years, and the effects of this are being felt, for example, in the new Scottish school Physics curriculum. I’m not completely sold by this argument [particle physics must be funded at all costs] – one counterpoint is that it’s really expensive to do these experiments and one could do lots of other interesting physics with the money. While politicians might prefer to see work funded that is more applied, that has, in the language of our times, more impact, my own view is that there is an high intrinsic value in doing basic research, but of course there is plenty of other fundamental research that one could do, other than look for Higgs Bosons, in areas such as condensed matter physics, photonics, quantum optics etc. I get the sense the particle physics community forgets this from time to time. I enjoyed these asides however as they give a really good overview of how science works, why it is important and the benefits it can bring both intellectually and at tangents to what you are actually doing.

The book itself is a compelling read, covers the ground in a straightforward way and has useful glossary sections to cover the background info you need to understand the more technical parts. It does, in my mind, make a reasonable assumption that you have some technical knowledge of the subject. As an example, as far as I can see, despite significant discussion of things like the electroweak symmetry breaking, there is no definition of what the weak force actually is – certainly not from the index entries. There are various other bits of technical jargon that seem to pop up from time to time with no real explanation, so I suspect an interested person having no physics knowledge at all might struggle at times, but perhaps an interested teenager who has read some other popular books in this area could get something from it. I have no huge issue with this technical level as I find it hard to trudge through books which start at the basics, and read like every other popular science book on ‘modern’ physics areas. Diving in at the deep(ish) end can be rewarding.

So I’d certainly recommend the book, and it might even make me get down some of these other Higgs search texts I’ve been shying away from. Smashing.

IoP Schools Outreach Meeting

May 23, 2014 2 comments

Yesterday I took an early flight down to London to attend an Institute of Physics (IoP) School Outreach Support Network meeting. I’m reasonably active in schools outreach work, and a little support never hurts. Overall the day was very positive, and I took home lots of little hints and tips that I might try and apply here, while it was also a chance to speak to range of academics that I might not normally come across. The slightly disappointing thing was that the flagship IoP activities in this area are funded in and for English schools exclusively. This ticks me off a little – a co-ordinated approach across the UK would seem appropriate, but I often find that people from ‘down South’ have difficultly dealing with a wholly different education system: there is a little of ‘I did A-levels, I understand them, the majority in the UK do them, so I need not concern myself further with anything else.’ This is disappointing, but it is a fact of life considering how eduction in the Uk is funded through devolved means – but I pay my membership fees to the IoP in London, and it’d be good to see maximum efficiency through shared schemes.

The main instrument the IoP is pushing is the ‘Stimulating Physics Network‘ which is designed to offer practical support and mentoring for physics teachers; pilot schemes are being set up with a range of partner schools who traditionally do not have much physics uptake at A level, with 35 support ‘coaches’ being available within the 420 partner schools to facilitate this. There is a great push to try and look and gender balance in physics (and through some of the schemes on offer, the wider school community) through direct work with girls, running workshops, offering peer mentoring support and senior pupil mentoring of junior pupils, increased STEM Ambassador support, highlighting gender aware pedagogy and the like. In general all positive and fairly sensible stuff, much of it on the back of previous IoP reports in this area: “It’s Different for Girls” and “Closing Doors“. The funding is there for 2-3 years and we’ll see how it all pans out. Additionally there is a scheme aimed at just London and surrounds funded by the Drayson Foundation. Physics does appear to have quite a big gender imbalance problem, and it’s good to see it being tackled head on on a number of fronts.

Other schemes currently include the ‘Your Life‘ initiative, which is led through private funding and is designed to promote better female participation in STEM subjects, aimed especially at 14-16 year olds. [Having just looked at their website, I am not quite sure what it’s all about, but hopefully the industry input will be a positive step]. There is also the Researchers in Schools project which will pay a premium of £40k a year for trainee teachers in physics and maths (for two years I believe), although I think the target number for the scheme is very low. This is aimed at PhD students and postdocs. It sounds attractive, but I can’t help feel that it would be somewhat divisive in a staff room.

We also heard from Gareth Edwards from the Open University about a RCUK funded scheme , the Schools-University Partnership which at the OU is designed to look at a number of different activities to promote engagement – open lectures, open inquiry, open dialogues and open creativity. The study will then look at the evidence base for the success of such projects. Gareth’s talk and little activity session was designed to highlight how one might measure success in these areas. The example used was in the ‘Open creativity’ section where students received media training, just like staff at the OU would and then were going to make a video making use of an element of current OU research. I think we’ll need to wait a wee while to see the project outcomes (it runs to 2015).

We also heard from a few physics academics on their outreach projects, one from Phil Furneaux from Lancaster about making better use of PhD students for outreach and the types of things they need if you are training them for such events; another from Heather MacRae from Venture Thinking and Helen Mason from University of Cambridge who produced an excellent project engaging pupils from an East London school to produce an iBook about the sun, “A big ball of fire“. The students got to visit Cambridge, took in a special lecture and worked on the multimedia aspects of putting their book together. The researchers were surprised at the range of media they got back. The idea can be readily ported to almost any subject area, although a lecture in your University might not be quite as swanky as one at Cambridge.

In the final talk we learned about the University of Bradford’s Robotic Telescope Project. This allows schools access to the telescope, which is in Tenerife, and to take real data and interact with astronomers. The idea being to provide a cross curricula opportunity which will hopefully also inspire pupils to stay with STEM.

So all in all a pretty good day, aside from the delayed flight home which mean to bed after 1am, and I have a few new ideas to try and push here, should I get a spare few minutes.






Summer Studentship Dilemma

We have been lucky enough to have been awarded two summer studentships through the Institute of Physics Top50 placement scheme this year. This has meant that we have had a large number of applications for summer studentships from outside the University, whereas normally, most of our summer students tend to be pretty local. We have had twenty eight applications for our posts and having read through them all it looks like it is going to be a tough decision.

This got me to thinking: what is the purpose of a summer studentship? If this were a PhD position, or postdoc, or permanent staff member I’d be looking for the very best applicant, who shows the most potential, but reading through the CVs made me wonder, if an 8-week studentship, which is clearly not a job in any sense, should be judged in the same way? It is clear from the CVs there there a bunch of talented, motivated and above all experienced undergraduate students out there – they have undertaken previous research projects and tick the boxes in terms of writing a decent CV; they have things to talk about. But equally there a bunch of students who I started to worry about – they are clearly bright, with good grades and I am sure would do a good job over the summer, but they have little experience. Some have little experience of anything with patchy evidence of summer jobs or part time jobs, others can show that they have worked in a shop, but little else. I worry that many of these students, when it comes to getting real jobs after graduation, will struggle, based on their CVs. I know some of this is self-imposed, but equally I know many students simply can’t either find, or can’t afford to do, shiny research placements. There are many restrictions on finding such roles. I also know that when I was in a similar position my CV was somewhat thin – I’ve always been fairly reserved and wasn’t so good at putting myself ‘out there’. Unfortunately, now more than ever, it’s what you do in your holidays that marks you out for employers, especially when there are so many graduates with 1sts and 2.1s.

And so I wonder – is the purpose of my summer studentships to offer the opportunity to students who have never had it, or to propel on even further their more experienced peers – do I want to help improve some of the those CVs, offer some training and mentoring and the chance for something different to those who might not have had it before, or just go for the best qualified? Bear in mind that the students are unlikely to do anything earth shattering in 8 weeks, so I can genuinely offer these placements without worrying if the student is going to be absolutely brilliant – I’m mainly looking for application and a genuine interest in the topic area of biophotonics. I could also look at getting the best students in with a view to PhD places next year – but the less experienced could be just as good as the experienced if given a chance. I am still mulling over how best to approach this task.

[Also, 29% of applicants are female, 71% male, so still a bit of a hill to climb to get to any sense of equality in the physical sciences. In fact this is a decent ratio compared to other application processes for more senior posts that I have seen].