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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.

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].

A different way

Like many physicists, I suspect, I grew up gripped by the developments in quantum mechanics that happened at the start of the 20th century. This is often portrayed as the work of lone geniuses: Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and the rest. That this work was carried out in isolation is to some extent true, but there was a surprising amount of collaboration and certainly discussion between the big hitters of the time. This work, and related studies in areas such as radioactivity, ultimately led to one of the biggest scientific collaborations that had ever existed – the Manhattan Project. This was an altogether different beast: one goal, build a bomb. Many of the brightest minds, engineers, physicists and chemists came together to work out how to achieve what they viewed as something that could help to win the war.

In modern times we have our own parallels of such large scale collaborations, CERN being the most obvious example. These mainly occur because of the huge scale and expense of the projects under consideration. I do often wonder though if we wouldn’t be much better placed to carried out nearly all scientific research through such large ‘crowdsourced’ efforts.

I have a small research group, too small to easily carry out the various ideas that I might have, too small to have the resources to fund all the experiments I’d like to try. It may be that I can persuade a funding council to give me money for these ideas, but the odds are against me. I can then wait and see if we can do them on the fly somehow, or find, depressingly, that someone beaten us to it, a few years after my original thought. I suspect nearly every scientist has similar thoughts about work that just never gets done.

But there are lots of groups out there, lots of talented people, lots of equipment going spare – lots of slack at certain times within any research group, big or small – why don’t I just publicly lists all my ideas and hope someone else runs with it and sees if it’ll work or not? It doesn’t work like that of course. We are precious with our ideas as they define our careers, the funding that we do get, which in turn allows us to build our groups and justify the continued need to employ us. Even collaborations, which are a way to help realise ideas that often we can’t do ourselves can be difficult, time consuming and often not quite what you need if you team up with the wrong group.

This does, I suspect, also have the problem of massively slowing down progress. We all want to win the prize, get the plaudits, get the pay rise, and this stems from doing the work and having your name in the right place on the author list. In this day and age of open access publishing, open data and near instantaneous access to all knowledge it does seem that if the end goal, the experiments, the finding things out is what we want to achieve , that our current way of ‘doing’ science seems increasingly outdated.

Could we do things differently? Would it be possible simply to fund research teams that can then respond to new ideas – take the very best ideas and see them through – have secure funding for staffing and equipment at certain Universities and then let academics the world over provide them with the ideas? This would provide much greater focus and possibly much greater efficiency in how we spend research money. An example would be, say, a centre for optical microscopy in the life sciences, based, for arguments sake at Dundee. We fill it with 100 staff and then throw open to the world the idea to present us with the most pressing problems in the area. It may be that these ideas receive some peer review to set priorities and then we task the centre with solving the problems. The originator of the idea gets appropriate credit, and the centre works collaboratively with the research community to help it make progress. We set up these little ‘Manhattan Projects’ with stability for staff, enhanced training for students, and better opportunities to exploit the research through critical mass. In a sense it centralises the experimental skills and distributes the ideas. It is a model that appears to work for very large scale experimental work, but would it be more efficient than our current massive distribution of experimental skills?

As it happens I am reading J. Craig Venter’s most recent book ‘Life at the speed of light‘ which in a way promotes this idea – a highly skilled, well funded lab pushing for a clear and ambitious research goal. Admittedly he was (and is) in competition with other groups, but if that funding was more concentrated and the initial thinking open and free for wider input and discussion to happen, could things have gone even more quickly? Do we want to see the results and the progress and quickly as we can or keep all the glory for ourselves?

The answer is that I am not sure – the model would seem to work in some cases, but clearly has problems, and would more than likely have to be globally accepted to work in the way I think it could. But with new paradigms appearing in the field of ‘open’ academia very rapidly, maybe there is a different way that we could do science, and actually see more of the collective ideas of the research community come to light and bear fruit.

Going on a summer holiday, quantum style

The Academic Summer is an oft discussed thing. There are usually two camps, the outraged non-academic, moaning about taxpayers money going to fund four months of time off for lazy academics to swan about and not teach anybody anything, and the aghast academic bemoaning the fact that they work bloody hard thank you very much during the summer, and barely have time for a real holiday anyway.

I don’t think I fall in the latter camp – I have a 12 month job, some of which involves contact teaching while the undergraduates are about, but which also involves a myriad of other things, like for example, today I was attending graduation and a garden party. It’s a hard life. I also hope to get at least one grant submitted in the next couple of weeks and the list of things to do on my whiteboard seems to grow each day – writing a whole new lecture course for September being very high on the list. So, like most people, I work hard, and this is in large part due to the fact that I enjoy my job. But the reality is that it can be hard to find time to take off on holiday. This is compounded by the odd way in which academics often end up to all intents and purposes as their own boss – so if you are mainly having to justify time off to yourself, it can be hard to tell yourself you really deserve it, or can really afford to take it off.

This is interesting as I have just finished reading “Quantum” by Manjit Kumar (which is well worth reading – it gives an excellent overview of the development of quantum mechanics in that golden area before the second world war, but rather rushes later developments that came later). In the book it tells the story of scientists who once upon a time led very different lives to us – no internet, no email, telephony in its infancy – you could wait years to see papers in print. This meant that scientists worked in greater isolation, but nonetheless the cohort of scientists who worked developing quantum mechanics managed to do something perhaps that has never really been done since. And, what kept cropping up was that they took lots of holidays. Bohr, Heisenberg etc were always popping off on walking trips, skiing outings, sailing and even going on academic ‘tours’ which probably involved a fair bit of travelling. Perhaps if you are a bunch of geniuses you can get away with lots of holiday – but I do think it perhaps suggests that sometimes academia takes its self rather seriously. Breaks are needed by everyone, working all the time is simply not good for the majority of us. Holidays perhaps allow a bit of that much needed thinking time. Me? Well, I had planned to take a week away with the family during the school holidays. After reading ‘Quantum’ I’d really love to take three, but have convinced myself that I definitively have to take two full weeks to recharge. Then I can come back and get stuck into the new challenges that will be coming my way in the next year or so. If you are an overworked academic – just ask yourself, ‘what would Bohr do?’. He’d go walking.

Dundee Fellows: Where are the applications?

January 24, 2013 12 comments

My department is part of the College of Arts, Science and Engineering at the University of Dundee and the College has recently been running a new type (for Dundee) of recruitment scheme, called the “Dundee Fellows“. This is a cohort recruitment program, offering all sorts of mentoring, media training and cross college networking opportunities, as well as being a permanent academic post. It’s an excellent opportunity for good postdocs to take the next step on an academic career path and establish their own group. The application deadline passed yesterday and we have hundreds of applications in total. I’m not sure of the number in physics, but we have a healthy proportion of that, and it looks like we have a large number of excellent candidates. So I don’t have anything to grumble about – this scheme will help us add more talented researchers to our growing department. But…while the number of applications applications sounds like a lot, this covers physics, biomedical engineering, maths, civil engineering, computing and the myriad of things that artists and designers do.

There are, I believe, around 46 physics departments in the UK, and I would suspect the average number of 30 staff in each would not be unreasonable. I would also suspect that the staff:postdoc ratio must be as a bare minimum something like 1:1? So that would give us around 1500 postdocs in UK physics. Now as we are not really recruiting in a range of areas (nuclear, particle, astro etc) we can whittle this number down somewhat, say by 1/2, which would lead 750 still in the general areas of photonics, materials and biological physics and other stuff we would be interested in. Assuming a postdoc is 3 years on average, 1/3 of these will be in their final year, with at least two years experience, so 250. Let’s then assume half of these actively wish to leave academia, and that half of those who wish to stay couldn’t come to Dundee for personal reasons. This leaves around 60. We do not have 60 applications from postdocs based in the UK. My assumptions may be way off, but that number doesn’t sound too bad.

As you hear all the time about the poor state of career progression in academia (which is true), why is it that I do not have a much bigger pool of people applying for positions here? I am genuinely curious. Possibilities are (i) that we did not advertise well/clearly enough, (ii) we are not an attractive destination for aspiring academics in physics, (iii) postdocs aren’t really sure how to apply for such positions, or where to find out about them, (iv) postdocs overestimate the number of permanent jobs that come onto the market, (v) postdocs quite like being postdocs. I’m sure there are others. There are a fixed number of jobs, and a fixed number of locations, with usually one University per location – so the options and choices are not great. If you are not mobile in this market you will be very limited in what you can do. My advice is not to apply for every job that comes out, but if in doubt take a bit of a punt, you might end up in somewhere like Dundee and be very surprised at what you find (in a good way).

I’d be particularly interested to hear from people who are looking for a permanent post in physics, saw the advert and decided not to apply. Any other thoughts welcome too, of course.