Posts Tagged ‘Higher Education’

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.



PhD Visa rules

May 21, 2012 7 comments

Last year I had an enquiry from a prospective PhD canidate, from Libya. He seems like a decent enough bet: he had a MSc from Cardiff, and his references from there were fine – so there were no major concerns with his English or his general background knowledge. His MSc project was in an area relevant to my own work. So, it looked like his could make a go of a PhD. The basic paperwork was in place for him to come, he just needed to acquire a visa. Then the revolution started. Communications went down, and there was no way to know what was really happening. Thankfully, sometime after things had settled down I got an email to say my applicant was OK, and was the offer for the PhD still open? So we sorted the paperwork out again and an application was made for a visa. Note that the Libyan Government would pay the overseas fees (>£12k per year) and that his stipend would be around £1900 per month (much more than the EPSRc stipend of around £1150 per month). The visa request was turned down – the reason given was the monthly income was less than £2400! If one includes the fees and stipend, the Libyan Government was prepared to pay more than £3000 per month to fund this student.

In the Sunday Times this weekend there is an article [paywalled] about Indian students ‘shunning’ the UK as visa regulations get tougher and courses increasingly expensive. Damian Green, the immigration minister is quoted as saying:

There is no limit on the number of genuine students who can come to the UK and our reforms are not stopping them.

Well Mr Green, in this case they clearly are, unless of course you are coming from a country that is prepared to pay, not only 3-4 times the fees of a UK/EU student, but also more than twice what the UK Government is prepared to pay it’s own physics and engineering PhD students. It seems we are quite happy to support regime change in Libyan, but not quite so forthcoming in helping to educate their students.

I don’t really understand the decision making process here, but if this is the general rule for overseas PhD applicants relating to visas, then I think UK Higher Education may have a very serious problem, which is not just brewing, but well underway. ‘Cos clearly we can afford to turn away decent students with the money to finance their studies behind them.

I’m reading Mark Henderson‘s ‘Geek Manifesto‘ at the moment, and clearly it has had some effect, as I now need to take this up with my MP.

Your degree is a membership card

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment

There is an interesting article in the Times Higher Education magazine this week, “We’ll always be there for you,” which discusses how US Universities are trying to support students after they graduate in an effort to reap the reward of increased donations. I’m sure anyone who has ever graduated from University gets the regular letters asking them for money, but the article got me wondering, seeing as I have recently been considering making such a donation, what do you really get back from your alma mater in return?

There are lots of points raised by the article, which is focussed on the American experience, but as the UK Higher Education sector goes through some turbulent times, it seems that alumni donations will be increasingly important as a means of top-up, or even core, funding. I am increasingly of the thinking that Universities need to play a bigger role in their respective communities – one way in which we could facilitate such a role is to try and give our graduates something back in return – the idea that your degree certificate is a “membership card, not a receipt”.

I have experience of two Universities, which have slightly different outlooks when it comes to undegraduates, despite being only about 15 miles apart, St. Andrews and Dundee. St. Andrews has a very broad UK and international student mix, with lots of non-Scottish domiciled UK students. These are students who scatter from St. Andrews quickly after graduation. I’m sure most go back at some point, and potter around the Himalayas,  have a drink in a bar that has changed it’s name three times since graduation and have a meal in a nice restaurant. I’m sure many go on to successful careers and give generously to the University. I don’t think graduates (I’m a double St. Andrews graduate) gets much else in return. (I should say there are alumni clubs for St. Andrews graduates throughout the world, but these don’t really offer much other than renunion opportunities. A genuine perk of graduating from St. Andrews is that you can get married in St. Salvator’s Chapel – it’s said they turned Madonna and Guy Ritchie down).

Dundee, I suspect offers as little for its graduates. The thing is that Dundee has a much more local intake. A large number of the students are local, from Dundee, Angus and the surrounding areas. We don’t have huge numbers of non-Scots UK students. We work in a different market place, for the most part, from St. Andrews. I have no firm data for this, but I suspect (based on the students I have taught) that many don’t go so far from Dundee after graduation. I also suspect that after picking up their degree they have little temptation to set foot back on campus. In both the St. Andrews and Dundee cases this seems a shame.

What could we offer? The most obvious thing would seem to be CPD. Most Universities a range of courses in continuing education for those that are interested, usually evening courses or the like, and most also run a range of language classes, and some music classes. You have to pay for all these, but maybe it would bolster numbers, and offer graduates some incentive to improve their skills if they got these free. More radical would be to offer graduates the opportunity to take any undergraduate or postgraduate taught course for free, with possibly a nominal fee for accreditation of any qualification they received – we could offer cut price Master’s courses, and increase part time courses to fit in better with our working graduates.

These might seems like loss leaders, but if graduates can take such courses and then recommend them to colleagues/bosses, it might be superb marketing. Moreover, for many types of courses CPD is becoming increasingly available, for free, online – just look at the MIT and Stanford examples, to give just a couple. Here the very rich US Universities are giving away content, and in some cases validation for free – this has the potential to hugely alter the outlook of HE in the future. This may be the way to go for Universities like St. Andrews – offer increased closed account online learning materials.

My overall feeling for UK HE is that we need to be more creative – if we want to develop a strong economy we need better skills, but are our graduates developing these to the best of their abilities? Are we giving them the skills that allow them to ‘create’ something – ideas, objects, code, or processes that can start new businesses? Maybe (maybe not) we can teach them to think, but can we teach them to ‘do’? Could we offer them more as members of our graduate club? If you get a degree in History, let us offer you a very cheap MSc conversion course in Computing; if you graduate in physics, let us convert you into a product design specialist with an MSc; if you are a brilliant economist, let us offer you intensive MA language skills for a year, so you can develop better international links.

Of course we could integrate some of this in normal degree courses, but the reality is, in Scotland at least, is that these will shrink from 4 to 3 years over time, and students have enough to be getting on with just to graduate in the first place. I say open up the Universities to graduates as ‘learning clubs’ Sure we should offer cheap use of facilities (gyms, libraries etc), but we are supposed to be about ideas and skills. Let’s try and continue to offer something for our graduates other than just a bit of paper, a bit of an education and a few years of memories and an endless stream of begging letters. Let us offer a lifelong service, a lifelong commitment to them, for choosing us. In the long term, we might get a few more donations, but it might also help to boost our economies, our skilled workforce and our social standing in our communities.