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.


This is a little like a double reblog. This post links to another that argues that brilliants students should seriously consider not doing a PhD. Personally, my experiences are not as extreme as illustrated in this post, but I think there is quite a lot of merit in what this post is saying. It does seem that we do need to think long and hard about our PhD programmes and how we treat PhD students. I would go further and suggest that we need to consider the full academic career structure. It seems, to me at least, that the pressure at all stages is increasing and that the aspects of an academic career that made it attractive are being eroded to the point where I’m not sure that I would recommend an academic careers to others.

Disturbing the Universe

Excellent post by a friend on why not to do a PhD:

Dear Brilliant Students: Please Consider not Doing a PhD

Liv says a lot of good things here so that even if you do still want to do a PhD after reading this, you will be going into the process with eyes more open than I did.

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Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU)

I thought I should write something about the recently launched Council for the Defence of British Universities. This is a group who’s goal is to protect academic values and to resist the “short term, pragmatic, and narrowly commercial” views that currently appear to persist in UK Higher Education.

I find the name a little militant and could imagine, in a Monty Python type of way, another group called the British Universities Defence Council who have the same aims, but instead of joining forces with the CDBU, end up fighting each other.

There is an article in the Times Higher Education suggesting that the CDBU is too narrow. Essentially suggesting that it is mainly “middle-aged, pale, male Oxbridge professors or Lords of the realm”, or at least almost. That was one of my first impressions too, but I do agree whole-heartedly with the aims of the CBDU, which you can find here. I have, in the past, complained that senior members of the community are unwilling to fight against the changes that are taking place in Higher Education, and here they are. Even if it is dominated by “middle-aged, pale, male Oxbridge professors or Lords of the realm”, at least they are attempting to make a stand against changes that could do immense damage to UK Higher Education. The Steering Committee does also seem more balanced, so maybe there is hope that it will be an organisation that is inclusive.

I don’t really know what else to say. I’ve been complaining for quite a while now about various aspects of UK Higher Education (introduction of tuition fees, emphasis on research over teaching driven mainly by REF2014, university management that thinks HE is a business and that generating income is a priority) and so it is very good to see a group like this starting and aiming to fight to protect more traditional academic values. Makes me think that maybe I don’t talk complete nonsense all the time. Then again, maybe we’re all wrong.

There is a report on the BBC website suggesting that the government has underestimated the cost of it’s Higher Education policy. I thought I would reblog a post that I wrote in October 2010 (just after the Browne report was released, but before the government policy was finalised). I suggested not only that it was a questionable policy since it is effectively a regressive tax, but also suggested that the government would only recover about 2/3 of the money anyway. I underestimated how much would be lent to each student, so that would suggest that even less will be recovered. The new report seems to suggest that this is indeed the case. I don’t really like saying “I told you so” but it is confusing that this seemed fairly obvious to me, but for some reason wasn’t to those deciding HE policy.

To the left of centre

Although not surprised, I am quite disappointed with the Browne report. I haven’t read it in detail, but at first glance it reads as something in which the outcome was essentially known from the beginning. There appears to be very little discussion of the fundamental reasons for the existence of a higher education (HE) sector, and it appears to assume that the current funding model has to change. The basic idea from the report is that tuition fees would be uncapped and that students would be lent the money to cover the tuition fees, and to help cover the cost of living. It seems unlikely that fees will actually be uncapped, but will probably rise to about £6250 per year with an additional £3750 per year for living expenses. Students will therefore accrue debts of about £10000 per year. If this does end up being the case, Universities will supposedly…

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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.

London Metropolitan University part 2

So London Metropolitan University has lost its Highly Trusted Status. This means that it can no longer recruit or teach students from outside the EU. What I find amazing is that it appears to mean that the ~ 3000 students from outside the EU who are current students will either have to leave the country or find another university. I find this incredible. They are probably paying £15000 per year in tuition and another £10000 per year in living expenses. They could be 2 years into a degree, having paid a total of £50000, and now have to leave the country without a degree. There’s no indication that these students have done anything wrong. There’s no indication that the university is incapable of teaching and assessing these students. It’s simply that this university can no longer be trusted to recruit these students in a manner that is acceptable to the UK Border Agency. I can see no reason why these students shouldn’t be at least allowed to complete their degrees. To have paid £50000 and, through no fault of their own, have to leave without a degree, when they could easily do so, seems like a really unfortunate way to implement this policy.

London Metropolitan University

I noticed today that the University that was recently praised for its plan to outsource its service, is today at risk of losing its Home Office trusted status. This is essentially the status that gives the university the right to recruit and teach students from outside the EU. Personally, I think the UK Border Agency rules have gone too far and maybe it’s not quite fair to criticise London Metropolitan too much for this, but it doesn’t really instill confidence in its management.