Assessing applicants

I was recently part of a panel to rank PhD applicants and I’ve got to say that I found it really difficult. It was made more so by the extremely short time we had and by the fact that for a while I was unable to access the applications. The joys of modern technology.

What I found difficult was actually assessing the applications themselves. We had very little time, so it was done (in my case at least – don’t want to accuse other assessors of not doing their jobs properly) in a rather superficial way. Reject those whose grades seem too low. Then rank those remaining by trying to find something in their application that makes them stand out. Scan reference letters and research statements to find something that differentiates one applicant from another. What struck me was that if I was applying for something like this at the end of my PhD, I’m sure I would be rejected pretty quickly. This might suggest that I don’t deserve to be where I am today, but I think it just means that we could be missing someone who could be good but who – on paper – doesn’t stand out. I’m sure most of the applicants are academically capable, motivated people who believe that they could do well. We’re rejecting many after a relatively superficial look at their application.

Now it would be nice if we had plenty of time to assess the applications. To sit in a room and go through them in detail and to make sure that we’re not missing anything that might make an applicant look stronger or – in some cases – weaker. We just really don’t have the time. Do I think we get it horribly wrong? Not really. The strong candidates stand out and are fairly obvious. If we spent more time it may differ a little in that we may judge some who were below the boundary to actually be above (and conversely some above the boundary to be below). Does this mean that we’ve selected some who don’t deserve it? No, they’re probably all quite similar and it’s just a different judgement. What would worry me more would be if there was any sense of some kind of prejudice, but the outcome looked nice and diverse. It didn’t appear as though anyone was being disadvantage because of their gender or their race.

I guess, all I was trying to get across in this post was partly how difficult assessing these types of things can be. Partly because we’re often given very little time and partly because it’s just difficult to rank a group who are clearly all very good. It makes me realise how much “luck” plays a role. Somebody noticing something on your application that appears to make you stand out can be what makes the different between your application being successful or not. Having said that, it’s quite likely that many who we didn’t rank highly will go off and become successful somewhere else. Maybe they’ll be lucky that we didn’t select them. Luck can work both ways and I guess the main things is to keep trying and learning from all your experiences. I suspect that – more than natural ability – is what got me to where I am today.

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PhD student numbers

I had an interesting discussion with a colleague from Chemistry at a party last night. The discussion related to how many PhD students we would each typically have. In my case, I’ve never had more than 2 at any one time. This person typically took on 2 every year, while other Chemists in her Department could have 15 – 20 (or maybe even more) at any one time.

The issue I have is how one can properly supervise so many PhD students. Certainly, I think I would find it very difficult to effectively supervise more than 2 at any time. If you run a lab with lots of equipment, it may well be easier to supervise more than 2 at a time. Presumably if you have 20 or so PhD students, you must also have a reasonable number of postdoctoral researchers and research technicians and a reasonably large lab. You could then have a hierarchy where your postdocs essentially look after your PhD students, so you don’t need to meet will all of them every week.

This would certainly work in terms of ensuring that they are kept busy and that someone is available to help with any problems. My concern is that this suggests – to me at least – that these students are essentially being used as lab rats, rather than doing something that would be regarded as original and semi-independent research. I have heard some express the view that this doesn’t really matter as a large fraction of these PhD students will not follow an academic career anyway, and so they will still be learning useful skills that they can take out into industry. I just don’t feel that that is acceptable. A PhD is meant to give people the skills, knowledge and ability to follow an academic career even if they choose not to do so.

I must admit that I don’t really know much about how PhDs are supervised in other areas of science. It may well be that those who have 20 or more PhD students are perfectly capable of managing and supporting these students properly. These students may also graduate with a degree that is valued throughout the world in academia and in industry. I would also be happy to have comments from those who are more familiar with these kind of environments.

Science career structure

The issue of scientific careers and the general scientific career structure has received a lot of interest recently. This is largely due to the Science is Vital campaign who released a report that has been sent to David Willetts. Jenny Rhon, who is the chair of Science is Vital, and Athene Donald, a Professor of Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, have both written about the issues with scientific careers. There was also an interesting astro journal club on twitter (@astrojc) last week, the review of which can be found here.

One of the primary problems with the academic career structure – as highlighted by the telescoper – is the overproduction of PhD students. We’ve convinced ourselves (and government) that PhD graduates take valuable skills into industry and that therefore we should have a large number of PhD places. Although it is probably true that PhD graduates do take useful skills into industry, it’s not clear that a PhD is the optimal place in which to gain these skills. A Bologna-like system with 3 years Honours degrees followed by 2 year research Masters degrees would probably provide the skills in a shorter time and at a lower cost. Furthermore, most who start a PhD do so because they have a genuine interest in a career in research (which today is typically in academia). It can therefore be very discouraging to then discover just how difficult this is. Less than 1 in 10 have a chance of a long term career in academia. Reducing the number of PhD places and introducing research Masters degrees may therefore not only provide a better mechanism for teaching research skills, but will also be the first step towards improving the academic career structure.

There are, however, still – in my opionion – other issues with the Academic career structure. The structure is fairly monochromatic. You do a PhD then get a postdoc position. You then try to get a Fellowship followed by a permanent academic position. One of the issues I have is the significant role that getting a Fellowship has in determining whether or not someone is likely to get a permanent academic position. I accept that those who get Fellowships will be amongst the strongest in their fields and hence are quite likely to be the strongest candidates for academic positions. However, in many cases Fellowship holders are simply moved into a permanent position without any open competition being held. Many will acknowledge that getting a Fellowship is a bit of a Lottery. The Fellowship panels also primarily consider the candidate’s research record. Therefore, in my area certainly, a significant fraction of academic positions are filled by those who’ve benefited from a system that is a bit of a lottery and which doesn’t, at any stage, consider their ability to teach. To be fair, I don’t have a problem with Fellowship holders using their Fellowship to negotiate better job prospects. I have a problem with Academic departments allowing this to happen. If the Fellowship holders are indeed the strongest in their area, they are quite likely to win academic jobs through open competition. This also allows others, who may have just missed out on a Fellowship, to at least make a case for being hired into an Academic job.

There are also other games that are played. I’m aware of situations in which someone has been offered a permanent academic job only to then be offered a Fellowship that is only open to those who don’t have permanent jobs. The University then retracts the job offer so that the person can accept the Fellowship, then promises them a permanent job at the end of the Fellowship. I’m also aware of situations in which a University has interviewed for a permanent job. The successful candidate is, however, then given a university fellowship so that they can still compete for other fellowship. They are, however, promised a permanent job after 5 years. I accept that the above are probably not explicitly wrong but seem, in my view at least, to be playing fast and loose with the rules. These are also likely to be the people who would get academic jobs anyway, so this does maintain some kind of balance. However, it illustrates a lack of transparency in the system. It also illustrates something odd about academic jobs. In most industries you hire someone when you need a job to be done. In academia you can advertise for a permanent position which would typically carry a certain amount of teaching and admin and then hire someone on a Fellowship who doesn’t do much of either for a number of years. Either you need someone to do these tasks or you don’t.

How does one fix the system. I’m not exactly sure but there have been a number of suggestions (in particular during the astronomy journal club on twitter) that we should consider permanent research positions and I think this is quite sensible. At the moment, once someone gets beyond a certain age (typically expressed as an experience level, rather than age) they find it harder and harder to get a research job. There is a perception that if they haven’t yet got an academic job, there must be something wrong with them. There’s also a sense that everyone who remains in academia/research has to effectively become a group leader (or Principal Investigator – PI). There’s no real reason why some couldn’t simply have a career as a researcher. Replacing such people every few years with younger researchers is probably not optimal. There must be a way in which we could balance the system such that some people remain as researchers and other become university academics and do both teaching and research. There are numerous aspects to consider and quite how such a system would be implemented is not entirely clear. Would only university academics be allowed to become PIs or could some research only staff progress to PI level? Would we separate academic salaries into a teaching component and a research component (as is done in the US)? How would we balance the system in terms of number of PhD places, number of postdoctoral positions, number of permanent research positions and number of academic positions?

This post has become rather long, so I’m going to stop now. I hope it has contributed positively to the debate about academic career structures. I’ve been slightly concerned that I might be perceived as anti-Fellowship holders. This isn’t the case, I just don’t see why they should be given additional advantages. They are typically excellent researchers and so should be extremely competitive in the job market anyway. I probably shouldn’t worry since, as my current stats suggest, very few people will read this post.

EPSRC studentships

I’m somewhat uncertain about how to react to the news that EPSRC is cutting the number of studentships by about 30%. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts you’ll know that I feel that we may be producing too many PhD graduates. This isn’t because I don’t believe that PhDs are useful, it’s because I’m not sure it’s necessary to have as many PhD graduates as we currently have. It’s also because there are, in my opinion, real problems with the academic career structure that is exacerbated by the large number of PhD graduates.

Many who start a PhD do so because they would like to end up doing independent research. The main way to do this is to become an academic in a university. The fraction of PhD students who can, realistically, achieve this is now very small. Some argue that this doesn’t matter because those who don’t become academics go into industry and do very well. This is absolutely fine and I have no problem with someone doing a PhD and then choosing to go into industry. A concern I have, however, is that it can still be very disheartening for those who had hoped for an academic career and didn’t realise how difficult it was to do so. We also have to be careful that we don’t discourage, because of the difficulty of having an academic career, potentially excellent researchers from starting a PhD in the first place.

The other concern I have is that some feel that PhDs should become degrees in which people are taught research skills. I sat through a meeting recently where a concern was expressed that our PhD graduates typically were not competitive internationally. Someone then responded by saying that this didn’t matter as their PhD students were snapped up by industry. That’s great, except that in my opinion a PhD from a top UK university should typically allow that person to compete for research jobs anywhere in the world. They don’t have to do so, but it should allow them to do so if they so choose. If this is no longer then case, then our PhDs are no longer degrees in which students learn to undertake independent, world-class research. I think this is a crucial aspect of a PhD, otherwise we’re wasting everyone’s time.

The solution, in my view, is to expand the number of degrees. If we introduce a research Masters degree, students could learn, in a year or two, very useful research skills that will translate very well into industry. The tops students could then go on to do PhDs and the rest could go out into industry where they could contribute greatly. This would be more cost effective and those going into industry would do so a year or two earlier than they would do if they’d done a PhD and probably with most of the research skills they would need. If the cuts to EPSRC studentships was an attempt to rebalance the system, I might be quite pleased. However, it does seem to be purely a cut because of a reduction in their budget and does not appear to be based on any sense of attempting to produce a sensible system that will address issues relating to the academic career structure without reducing the number of research trained people going into industry. Admittedly EPSRC is a research council and doesn’t have any say in the structure of degrees at UK universities. It’s unfortunate, however, that there doesn’t appear to be any attempt to try and use this as an opportunity to address issues with the degree structure and career structure in UK universities.

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is apparently Ada Lovelace day, a day when bloggers are meant to draw attention to the achievements of women in science and technology. Although I am aware of many women who have done and still do contribute greatly to science and technology, I had – embarrassingly – never heard of Ada Lovelace.  It turns out she lived from 1815 to 1852 and was one of the world’s first computer programmers, working with Charles Babbage on his mechanical computer.

The idea behind Ada Lovelace day is for bloggers to “tell the world about these unsung heroines”, but I wasn’t really sure how to do this. I probably don’t know enough about any scientist (man or woman) to really do them justice in this blog. What I thought I would do instead was to write something that would at least support what I think is the goal of Ada Lovelace day : to highlight – even today – how underrepresented women are in some areas of science and technology. Certainly in most physics departments – or at least in the ones of which I’m aware – the fraction of permanent posts taken up by women is small. In mine, it’s something like 10% and none of the women in my department are yet professors, although this is largely because most of the women in my department are early to mid-career and aren’t yet in a position to really expect a promotion to professor. I would, however, expect this to change some time in the not too distant future.

A simple interpretation of why women are so underrepresented in physics departments today is that in the past they were clearly disadvantaged in some way, either directly or indirectly, and it will take some time to redress the balance. It takes something like 30 years to change completely the personnel in a department and so assuming that 50% of all future hires are women, it will take about 30 years before physics departments have an equal representation of men and women.

It is, however, somewhat more complicated than this. Even in PhD programmes, there is still not an equal number of men and women. In most physics departments something like 30% of the PhD students are women. This is clearly not ideal, but is probably an improvement on the recent past and means that we should expect at least 30% of academic hires in the near future to be women. However, when one looks at the make-up of research staff (i.e., non-permanent) in Physics departments today, the fraction of women in these post is often less than 20%. This is slightly concerning because most research staff have been hired recently and so why the fraction of women in these research posts is significantly less than the fraction of women in PhD positions suggests something is wrong. If a smaller fraction of women, compared to men, choose to continue with their academic careers, this implies that we won’t improve the current 1 in 10 ratio anytime soon.

The fact that the ratio of women to men in research positions decreases as you move through the different career stages is well documented and is often referred to as the “leaky pipe” syndrome. There are probably a number of reasons for this but, I believe, that we are now in a position where the ratio of women to men on a research job shortlist is similar to the ration of women to men who apply for the job. I also believe that the number of women hired into academic jobs is consistent with these ratios. This suggests that there is no obvious bias in the hiring and selection processes today. Presumably something is discouraging many women from continuing their academic/research careers. I don’t know what this is (or even that my interpretation is necessarily correct) but I do think we should do all we can to reverse this.

There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be striving to have diverse and balanced physics departments. If there is something about academic careers that particularly discourages women compared to men then we should try to work out what this is and do something about it. Maybe it is seen as too competitive and aggressive. Maybe the methods we use to determine quality disadvantage women compared to men, although I think all would benefit from a more balanced – and less simplistic – view of what it takes to be a good academic and researcher. An organisation that is trying to help is Athena SWAN. They do this by encouraging universities and university departments to have responsible working practices that don’t disadvantage women or, in fact, anyone who has, for example, family responsibilities.

I don’t really know how to increase the ratio of women to men in physics departments, but I do think we should strive to do so. It is in no one’s interest to have a system that disadvantages one group of people compared to another. We should be aiming to give everyone (men or women) an equal chance to contribute to science and technology, now and in the future. We can continue to have an Ada Lovelace day that highlights the contribution of women to science and technology prior to the 21st century, but I would like to think that at some point in the near future men and women will be contributing equally and we won’t need to have a day that particularly highlights one group’s contribution.

Degrees from 2 different universities

Not many people are reading this blog, which may actually be quite a good thing since it is turning into a bit of a personal core dump. Someone did, however, end up here after doing a search about whether or not they should get degrees from 2 different universities. I don’t know the answer to this, but it did remind me of some discussions I’ve had in my own department about attracting and keeping good PhD students.

A few years ago – prior to my arrival back in the UK – it was apparently fairly common to encourage students not to apply for a PhD place at the same university from which they got their undergraduate degree. The idea, which is probably quite reasonable, is that it would be advantageous to study at more than one university and if everyone does this, good students will ultimately be shared around evenly. This, however, seems to have changed a little. More and more departments are starting to offer PhD places to their own good students. This is probably because we have many more places to fill than was the case a decade or so ago. Trying to fill these places with potentially good students can be hard, and so if you can attract a few good students from different universities, and offer places to some of your own good undergraduates, you will do better than if you encourage your own students to go elsewhere.

Of course, the above policy will only work for a short while, since eventually all departments will be trying to keep as many of their own good students as possible. This may not seem to make much difference but I think it has the potential to make future generations very narrow. Not only do different departments focus in slightly different areas, they also have different research philosophies and practices. Exposing students to a wide range of different topics and different research practices and styles will help our future research leaders to have both a broad understanding of their general area, as well as a detailed understanding of their particular topic. It’s not that those remaining at a single university will not have a broad understanding, but it may be harder to gain that if they’ve never been anywhere else.

I should at least acknowledge that I actually did all my degrees at a single university, but did hold postdoctoral and faculty positions at a number of different universities and in a number of different countries. This too can help – I think – develop breadth and an understanding of different possible research styles. I do think that studying and working in different universities and countries can be very advantageous. It does, however, have some side effects and can disadvantage those who are not able to easily move around – although that is probably a topic for a future post.

Dumbing down?

Quite an interesting article in the Guardian this morning suggesting that university degrees have been dumbed down in the last decade or so. This is based on a parliamentary enquiry that shows that the number of students getting first-class degrees has doubled in the last 10 years.

The report seems to suggest that different universities require different levels of effort to get similar degrees. It also suggests that the value of a good degree from a Russell Group university could be very different to the value of a good degree from a non-Russell group university (or at least one that is low on the league tables). Although there may be some merit to this, I can’t really make an informed comment since I don’t have any real experience of the standards at different universities. I would, however, be surprised if there wasn’t some truth in this.

What about the University where I work. Although I haven’t actually been there for 10 years, it doesn’t seem like the level of the material that is taught has really changed (we aren’t making the material easier). We are however replacing some content in the later years with courses that teach skills (research methods, literature surveys). I found this slightly worrying, but suspect that it is probably necessary and since it is at the 10% level, probably doesn’t really substantially change the degree.

What does seem to be happening, though, is an implicit pressure to maintain high pass rates, especially in the earlier years (this pressure does apparently become more explicit if reasonable pass rates are not achieved). Although we haven’t really changed the level of the material that is taught, we do seem to set our exams with some thought to what kind of pass rates we may want to achieve. This isn’t necessarily the overriding consideration, but does seem to play at least some kind of role. In later years this is not as crucial on an exam by exam basis because students can fail some courses and still progress or graduate. Even this, however, worries me slightly. I don’t have a problem with students not being required to pass all courses in the final year of an Honours degree (or 2 years in the case of students doing taught Masters degrees), but I think we introduce this a year too soon, when the students probably do need to have a reasonable understanding of all the material.

Do I think we are giving many more first-class degrees and as a result have dumbed down our degrees. I’m not entirely sure: it still seems pretty hard to get a first-class degree, especially a good one. The high pass rates in early years, however, probably does put students through to later years who maybe won’t cope as well as they should. We also seem reluctant to fail students in these later years since they’ve already committed so much of their time to the degree. My impression is that it may well be easier to pass an advanced science degree than it was 10 years ago, but is probably not significantly easier to get a first-class degree. This is essentially why, in an earlier post, I was arguing for more granulating in the degree structure. This way students could graduate at appropriate times and there wouldn’t be as many students in later years who were struggling to cope, but who may pass anyway because of the reluctance to fail students at this stage of their degree.