Thursday, July 31, 2014

Academics Anonymous: 'Why are You Doing a PhD at Your Age?'

In the lecture room: UK universities offer students a high quality of education
Photograph: Garry Weaser for the Guardian
by Anonymous Academic, Guardian Professional,

At virtually every conference I've attended as a doctoral candidate, I've noticed a similar reaction whenever I strike up a conversation with my fellow students.

They exude a faint, but perceptible air of deference.

Sadly, this is not in recognition of my academic brilliance, but my greying hair and crow's feet, which tacitly suggest that I am more qualified and experienced than I actually am.

You may be as young as you feel, but sadly, initial impressions tend to be based on how old you look.

When I reveal that, though I am 42, I am in fact a student, the response is invariably, "Oh, I thought you were an academic." I can't help feeling that this reaction masks an unspoken enquiry: "So why are you doing a PhD at your age?"

This is certainly a question I've asked myself over the past three years of my part-time doctorate, and there still doesn't seem to be any rational answer.

I'm spending money I can ill-afford in the pursuit of a qualification, which may or may not offer the slenderest of chances of becoming an academic. I was warned, of course, that the arduous journey of a humanities PhD doesn't offer the guarantee of a job at the end of the process. 

Entering an already saturated job market

A former supervisor whom I contacted for a reference prior to resuming study after a 20-year hiatus told me that I was more or less wasting my time in seeking to enter a saturated job market populated by those younger, fresher, hungrier and less shop-worn than I.

A newly qualified doctorate-holder in their 20s has, it's safe to say, enjoyed a fairly seamless career progression: BA, MA, PhD. They are straight arrows - I am an unguided missile by comparison, with a career history built upon under-performance in a range of fields.

A nagging voice that whispered "this isn't what you should be doing with your life" sabotaged any commitment to establishing a presence in the corporate world.

Of course, there are benefits to beginning a PhD in later life. Being older doesn't necessarily make you wiser, but in my case, it has made me more disciplined about the process of writing.

After graduating from university in 1994, I meandered from job to job and eventually trained as a journalist. I hated the job, but it taught me to write to strict deadlines, an attribute which has proved invaluable when juggling the demands of a full-time job and two young children. 

Sleepless nights

I don't have the option of planning a day of study - I fit my studies in around my life. I typically squeeze in my doctoral work during evenings and weekends, but in fact, trying to segregate family, work and PhD time is virtually impossible - my doctoral work is always on, running as a background programme throughout the day.

I have not experienced an unbroken night's sleep for the past five years - I am invariably up in the small hours banishing ghosts, dispensing milk or searching for misplaced comforters. As I have discovered, chronic sleep deprivation makes sustained concentration a daunting task.

If you begin a PhD in your early 20s, there's a strong presumption that this represents a career choice. If you begin a doctorate in later life, this is often interpreted as a desire for intellectual stimulation, rather than an ambition to secure employment as a teacher and researcher.

Older doctoral candidates seem under-represented in the teaching and lecturing undertaken by postgraduate students.

Thanks to the demands of work and family life, I don't enjoy many networking or social encounters with my peers - but I do enjoy the benefits of a stable home environment and a steady source of income. Instead, I've been able to build up a roster of contacts on Twitter and other social networking sites. 

Why I want to work in academia

Why do I keep going? Because after living in the banality of the corporate world, I have a renewed respect for academia, for open-mindedness and intellectual honesty.

It's true that higher education is becoming increasingly corporate - academics are hostage to the jargon of marketers, and are being forced to demonstrate that their research has an impact beyond the scholarly community, and that their teaching embodies "employability", irrespective of its intellectual merits.

I recognise that there is a correspondent ruthlessness within academia - the demands of maintaining an impressive roster of publications, of success in securing funding, and of competing with other highly intelligent, motivated people for a dwindling pool of jobs.

But there's also the very real joy of research, of reaching the limits of your intellectual boundaries, of being invited to contend with ideas that matter. And that's why I continue along the lonely road of the PhD - I've revived a part of me that I'd lamented, thinking it gone forever. And seeing it revived - and occasionally flourishing despite all life's obstacles - is enough.

This week's anonymous academic is studying for a humanities PhD at a Russell Group university.

If you'd like to contribute an anonymous piece about the trials and tribulations of university life, contact

Study Finds College Still More Worthwhile Than Spending 4 Years Chained To Radiator

by The Onion:,36576

WASHINGTON - A study published on Wednesday by the National Education Association has determined that a four-year college education is still a better investment of one’s time and money than spending the same duration chained to a radiator in a dank, unlit basement.

“Compared to the intellectual stimulation and personal growth achieved in a university setting, there is less to be gained from 48 months in which one is tightly shackled about the ankle and connected by a short length of chain to a leaking, immovable cast-iron radiator,” read the report in part, which played down the high cost of student loans when contrasted with the psychological trauma and physical atrophy that typically accompany four years spent in the same 3-foot radius on a cracked concrete floor with only a pail of food scraps to subsist on.

“College can offer a multidisciplinary education and foster lifelong social connections, and it comes with the added benefit of providing students with a comfortable campus setting that contains actual restroom facilities. These are things one would not get while detained in the uninsulated basement of an abandoned warehouse.”

The study conceded, however, that those chained to radiators consistently outperformed college graduates on certain measures, such as screaming hallucinated demons into submission and inching along the floor on one’s stomach to drink fetid water from a puddle.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Should Self-Citations Be Included or Excluded From Measures of Academic Performance?

Image credit: Dan4th Nicholas (Flickr, CC BY 2.0)by Impact of Social Sciences:

There has been much discussion over how useful citation metrics, like Google Scholar’s H-index, really are and to what extent they can be gamed. 

Specifically there appears to be concern over the practice of self-citation as it varies widely between disciplines. 

So what should academics make of self-citations? 

Referring back to our Handbook on Maximising the Impact of Your Research, the Public Policy Group assess the key issues and advise that self-citations by researchers and teams are a perfectly legitimate and relevant aspect of disciplinary practice. 

But individuals should take care to ensure their own self-citation rate is not above the average for their particular discipline. 

In the social sciences self-citation is often considered problematic - some scholars see it as a case of ‘blowing your own trumpet’, while others may argue ‘If I don’t cite my work, no-one else will.’

For similar reasons, official bodies often ask for citations data to be adjusted so to exclude self-citations, as if these were somehow illegitimate when measuring academic performance.

Some bibliometric scholars also concur that self-citation should be excluded from citation counts, at least in undertaking comparative analyses of the research performance of individuals, research groups, departments and universities.

In this view self-citations are not as important as citations from other academics when determining how much of an authority an academic is within a field (Fowler and Aksnes 2007, 428).

To meet this demand to filter out self-cites some producers of bibliometric indicators have begun to identify and publish the proportion of self-citations in order to compare them with the number of citations to other authors.

However, there are also good grounds for objecting to this approach and for recognizing self-citations by individuals and research teams as a perfectly legitimate and relevant aspect of disciplinary practices in different parts of academia.

Figure 4.1 shows that there are very large and systematic differences between discipline groups in the proportion of all citations that are self-citation, ranging from a high of 42% for engineering sciences, down to a low of 21% for medical and life sciences.

Figure 4.1: Self-citation rates across groups of disciplines
Source: Centre for Science and Technology Studies, 2007.

The social sciences and the humanities generally have low rates with a fifth to a quarter of citations being self-cites, whereas in the scientific STEM disciplines the rate is around a third. It seems deeply unlikely that this pattern reflects solely different disciplinary propensities to blow your own trumpet.

Rather the extent of the variation is likely to be determined most by the proportion of applied work undertaken in the discipline, and the serial development nature of this work.

Many engineering departments specialise in particular sub-fields and develop the knowledge frontier in their chosen areas very intensively, perhaps with relatively few rivals or competitors internationally.

Consequently if they are to reference their research appropriately, so that others can check methodologies and follow up effects in replicable ways, engineering authors must include more self-cites, indeed up to twice as many self-cites as in some other disciplines.

Similarly, quite a lot of scientific work depends on progress made in the same lab or undertaken by the same author. In these areas normatively excluding self-cites would be severely counter-productive for academic development. And doing it in bibliometrics work is liable to give a misleading impression.

In this view the lower levels of self-cites in the humanities and social sciences may simply reflect a low propensity to publish applied work in scholarly journals, or to undertake serial applied work in the first place.

The low proportion of self-cites in medicine (arguably a mostly applied field) needs a different explanation, however. It may reflect the importance of medical findings being validated across research teams and across countries (key for drug approvals, for instance).

It may also be an effect of the extensive accumulation of results produced by very short medical articles (all limited to 3,000 words) and the profession’s insistence on very full referencing of literatures, producing more citations per (short) article than any other discipline.

The ‘serial development of applied knowledge’ perspective on self-citation gains some additional evidence from the tendency of self-cites to grow with authors’ ages.

Older researchers do more self-citing, not because they are vainer but simply because in a perfectly legitimately they draw more on their own previous work than do young researchers who are new in a sub-field.

Older academics also do a great deal more applied work in the social sciences than younger staff, and as a consequence we show in Part B they also have far larger external impacts.

So they may have to cite their own corpus of work more for reasons similar to those dictating higher self-cite rates in engineering - namely that their work draws a lot on reports, working papers on and for external clients, or detailed case studies that may not have great journal publication possibilities.

So are self-citations a good or bad idea for academics? Our advice here is that all researchers should prudentially ensure that their own self-citation rate is not above the average for their particular discipline.

Figure 4.2 shows that there is some detailed variation within the social sciences, with political science and economics at a low 21%, but with psychology and education high in their rates of self-cites at 28% and 26%, respectively.

Figure 4.2 Self-citation rates for social sciences plus law

But it is equally not a good idea to ‘unnaturally’ suppress referencing of your own previous work. Some research has tested whether citing one’s own work tends to encourage other people to cite it as well.

After controlling for different factors, Fowler and Aksnes (2007) found that each additional self-citation increases the number of citations from others by about one citation after one year, and by about three after five years. Other scholars have also found that self-citations can be a useful promotion mechanism to increase citations from others.

These empirical studies reveal that self-citations can increase the visibility of someone’s work.

One possible logic behind this is that ‘Conscientious Scholar A’ doing a literature review may see ‘Author B’ in one of her best-known works including a citation to some of B’s lesser known pieces of research. Hence A becomes more likely to look at and cite B’s less well-known work - whereas if they were directed also to B’s better known works A’s citations would perhaps have more impact in growing B’s h score and g index.

We therefore recommend that academics do not actively avoid or minimise self-citations, as long as their level of use is in line with their discipline’s average rate. Self-citations may be useful to promote relevant original work that may otherwise pass unnoticed by others.

For senior academics, citing their own applied research outputs (such as research reports, client reports, news articles, blog posts, etc) makes sense because such outputs are often missed in standard academic sources.

For young researchers and academics, who are lesser-known in their field and have a smaller corpus of work to draw on, self-citations need to be handled carefully.  They can be legitimately used to get visibility for key or supportive works that may not yet be published (such as working papers, research reports, or developed papers under review etc).

However, self-cites must only ever be used where they are genuinely needed and relevant for the articles in which they are included.

This is an extract from Maximising the Impacts of Your Research: A Handbook for Social Scientists.
Featured and top left image credit: Dan4th Nicholas (Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

The Public Policy Group is a research team at the LSE specialising in academic research practices, government policy and public sector reform providing an interface between academia, the private, public and ‘third’ sector.

They run a group of blogs including the Impact Blog, LSE Review of Books, British Politics and Policy (BPP), European Politics and Policy (EUROPP), American Politics and Policy (USAPP) and Democratic Audit.

BOOK REVIEW: 53 Interesting Ways to Communicate Your Research

Sara Shinton is a freelance research educator who works for a range of universities north of the Scottish border.

I’ve followed Sara on Twitter for ages and kept meeting people who love her work.

After a series of missed attempts to meet during my visits to the UK, I did wonder if we were destined to be academic ships in the night, but Sara made a big effort to come and have breakfast with me when I was in Edinburgh in early June.

It really was a pleasure to finally sit and talk shop with a fellow traveller.

At the end of our breakfast Sara kindly gave me a copy of a book called “53 interesting ways to communicate your research”*, an edited collection of advice which features some of her writing.

The book is the latest in the ‘53’ interesting things series, which includes books on teaching and learning. All the books in the series are full of short, practical snippets of advice that you can dip into for ideas. In fact, they are very blog-like in their tone.

I already own the 53 book on lecturing and it’s one of my ‘go to’ references whenever I am preparing a new workshop. So I had high expectations of 53 interesting ways to communicate your research - and I wasn’t disappointed.

The book covers a range of communications types and challenges within academia and outside of it.

Some of the topics include turning your thesis into a book, turning your research into a lecture, writing op-eds, doing radio interviews, webinars conference posters, abstracts, blogging, tweeting at conferences and many more.

No section is more than 3 pages long, so you can imagine how jam packed this book is with useful and relevant information.

By way of convincing you it’s worth investing your hard earned cash, here is a list of 10 things I learned just from flicking through the book on the train ride from Edinburgh to London:
  1. Include a QR code on your conference posters suggests Steve Hutchinson. One of the challenges of the poster format is how to avoid doing what Hutchinson calls ‘your thesis on a sheet’. The short section on posters includes advice on word count (400-600) and suggests that you use a QR code to lead people to more information. Genius.
  2. Visual Cognitive dissonance (VCD) is an interesting technique suggested by Debbie Braybrook. VCD happens when the audience is confused by how the image on your slide relates to what you are saying. The book points out that this can be used as a kind of ‘visual cliff-hanger’ to keep your audience interested, so long as your verbal presentation eventually helps them make the connection.
  3. The ‘news hook’ is a key ingredient of the op-ed piece says Eleanor Carter. Op Eds tend to be about 800 words long and relate in some way to current events. A common tactic is to make a “simple statement of the argument” the author wants to confront, and then spend the rest of the words making a counter argument. Something all researchers should be good at!
  4. Consider using objects in your presentations says Anthony Haynes. If you are presenting your scientific experiment, why not bring in some of the equipment? If you are doing a history thesis, maybe you could bring in objects from the period (or reproductions). This tactic works, the author argues, because we are all used to slides. The shift into 3D is unexpected and can make the audience curious about what you have to say.
  5. Mix up the ‘texture’ of podcasts says Lucy Blake. The most interesting podcasts are composed of more than one voice or type of sound. Try getting a friend to interview you, make a podcast of a group discussion or record other kinds of sounds and cut them in.
  6. When presenting, think in threes suggests Aiofe Brophy Haney. Good stories have a beginning middle and end. The end should ‘resolve’ the story somehow. suggests a 3×3 matrix. Here’s one I made for a 20 minute presentation on social media I have to do in a couple of weeks time:
Topic: how to grow and use your social networks
The strategies The tools The problems 
Finding and following the right people Twitter / Facebook / Linkedin Dealing with ‘information smog’
Feeding your network Flipboard / Scoop-it / Twitter Remembering where you put stuff
Contributing to the conversation Micro-blogging
Being a good commenter
Finding time within your schedule and space in your job description
  1. Keep a checklist of Tweet types. Sara Shinton points out that some people can fear Twitter because they don’t know what to say. She provides a short, but useful list of possible tweets: signpost to resources (links to other blogs, journal articles); publicise an event, react to something (a news article, a conference presentation) or ask for help.
  2. Think about how to repackage yourself and your skills in a job interview says Caron King, who breaks down the process of describing yourself and your skills into three ‘E’s’:
  • Elicit everything you know and have done by writing it all down.
  • Explain what you have done and delivered, including the impact you have made.
  • Then think of how to provide evidence, using data wherever possible.
  1. There are only five types of questioner says Lucinda Becker: Confused, Oratory (basically intent on giving a mini lecture disguised as a question), aggressive, unexpected and helpful. She goes on to give good advice about how to deal with each type.
  2. When going for a non-academic job, speak the employer’s language says Steve Joy. Planning experiments becomes ‘project management’, Supervision becomes ‘leadership’, presenting at conferences becomes ‘engaging with stakeholders’.
This last one is brilliant advice I wish I’d known sooner, in fact - a lot of the book is like that. Go and buy it if you are the slightest bit more interested in how to talk about your research, and yourself, in ways that others can easily understand.

Have you used any of these techniques, or do you have one good communication tip to share? Love to hear about them in the comments.

*I don’t put every book we review in my Amazon associates store, but I loved this one so much I did. My store is a carefully curated selection of what I consider to be the best books to help you do a PhD. I use the money I raise through the Amazon store to buy books to support my work on the blog, or to buy new books for review if the publishers have not sent a copy already.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Comma, Stop

Cover of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Ze...
Cover via Amazon
by Cally Guerin, Doctoral Writing:

It comes as a great surprise to me that other people don’t always seem to find punctuation as fascinating as I do.

In fact, it turns out that the vast majority of my students find it frankly boring and tedious, despite my enthusiastic offers to devote the next two-hour workshop to exploring the wonderful world of commas.

I admit that I’m definitely not a serious scholar of punctuation, but I do like talking and thinking about it (and I suspect that some of my colleagues deliberately include punctuation errors in documents simply to give me the pleasure of correcting them!).

The continuing evolution of English means that conventions keep changing. While it’s not useful to be too pedantic about punctuation, there are lots of situations where a misplaced or missing comma can confuse the reader.

The critical placement of the comma in the title of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves plays with the image of a panda wielding a shotgun: removing that comma changes ‘shoots’ from a verb to a noun.

While not an academic text, this very readable and entertaining exploration of how punctuation works is much more approachable than some other texts on punctuation that I’ve tried to wade through. There’s also a version for children that is fun.

One of the most unhelpful pieces of advice I’ve received about punctuation is to read the text aloud and pop in a comma wherever I need to pause for breath.

This might work for very simple sentence structures, but is really not useful for doctoral writing, where noun phrases are often very long.

By the time the subject has been announced (the ‘thing’ the sentence is about), I often feel that I need to take a breath and gather my composure before continuing. An example of a long noun phrase would be ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple squiggle known as the comma…’

By contrast, one of the most useful rules about commas that I’ve been lucky enough to learn early is that a subject must never be separated from its verb by a comma.

In the above example, we must leap straight to the verb: ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple squiggle known as the comma is a source of great consternation to many academic writers’.

Sure, I can’t say out loud the whole sentence without taking a breath, but readers will get confused about how the parts fit together if I slot a comma in before ‘is’.

When sentences get more complex, it’s possible to insert extra information in between two commas: ‘The ongoing and contested nature of the simple, although alarmingly complex, squiggle known as the comma is…’

And don’t forget that those dependent clauses also need a comma when introducing the main part of the sentence: ‘Although they are alarmingly complex, commas can be tamed by even the most timid of writers’.

There are lots of much more erudite scholars than me who can help writers work out the correct punctuation for their sentences (and no doubt some readers of this post will not agree with my own comma choices here!).

One book well worth exploring is Punc Rocks (Buxton, Carter & Sturm, 2011). The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University has very straightforward, useful materials available for free. And I really love the pamphlet I found as a first-year PhD student called ‘English Grammar on One Card’ by Vincent F. Hopper - clear, easy, direct.

For doctoral writers, the main focus must always be on ensuring clarity for the reader.

While extremely complex sentence structures might look scholarly to some, most readers will be more interested in following the argument than trying to track the subject of a sentence through a dense array of punctuation marks. Directness and simplicity can go a long way in communicating complex ideas.

Now, don’t get me started on which words need to be hyphenated …


Buxton, J., Carter, S. & Sturm, S. (2011). Punc Rocks: Foundation Stones for Precise Punctuation, 2nd Edn, Auckland, Pearson Education New Zealand.

Lynn Truss (2003) Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, London, Profile Books.

Australia Loses International Students at its Own Peril

English: International Students
International Students (Wikipedia)
by Catherine Gomes, RMIT University

2009 was the best of times and the worst of times for the export education industry.

This was the year that recorded an unprecedented 631,935 international students in Australia - a growth of 16.8% from the previous year.

But this bubble soon burst due to the high Australian dollar, highly publicised attacks on Indian students and increased competition from other countries.

The following years brought doom and gloom reports of institutions needing to tighten their belts and be more creative with their curriculum because of the fall in international student numbers and hence foreign income.

Since the 2009 peak, numbers have been steadily dropping, dipping to a low of 515,813 international students enrolled in Australian institutions in 2012.

Reports of international students being exploited by employers, being taken advantage of by dubious landlords and being victims of racism on public transport have not done the export education industry any favours.

International Student Enrolment Statistics

Why are international students important to Australia?

International students are a huge part of the Australian economy. The majority come from Asia with the top countries being China, India, South Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia. In 2010-11, education services brought in $16.3 billion through full-fee paying international students.

By the end of 2013, 526,932 international students were enrolled in education institutions throughout Australia. While these numbers are not in the same vicinity as the 2009 figures, they are a sign of an industry that might be in slow recovery.

However, these students contribute more to the economy than just as full-fee paying students. They support related secondary industries, particularly in the capital cities. The construction industry has created university precincts with high-rise accommodation in cities such as Melbourne and Sydney to meet the demand for inner-city student apartments.

The estimated cost of living in a two-bedroom shared student apartment in Melbourne city, for instance, is $23,400 to $30,500 per year. The hospitality industry benefits - if the increasing number of diverse eateries popping up wherever there is a significant international student population is anything to go by.

And the tourism industry benefits from international students regularly taking everything from sight-seeing trips within their state to round-Australia vacations to experience all this country has to offer.

International students in higher education further contribute to the economy through casual and seasonal work. As a condition of their visa, international students are not allowed to hold full-time permanent jobs, which would require a separate working visa. The students are, however, allowed to work a total of 40 hours per fortnight.

This means that they usually work part-time in contract or non-contract positions. International students often work in retail, hospitality, tourism, agriculture (e.g. fruit-picking), sales and telemarketing, administration or clerical roles and tutoring. Postgraduate international students, particularly doctoral candidates, take on casual university tutoring jobs.

Why are international students so important to universities?

International students are a valuable source of income for universities. International student fees alone accounts for as much as a quarter of some universities' revenue. Needless to say, a drop in international students would hurt universities financially.

Because international students often pay more than three times as much as locals, increasing the local student intake to make up for any shortfall in international student income would require an upsurge in numbers too ridiculous to contemplate. The impact on the quality of teaching, on student services and on staff would be frightening.

Who are our competitors?

Besides Australia, international education is big business in New Zealand, Canada and the UK. However, Australia has growing competition from the US, Europe and Asia as they open their doors to increasing numbers of international students.

Singapore reported in 2012 that it had around 86,000 international students. While this is a fraction of the number Australia attracts, Singapore should not be discounted as competition.

Singapore has (geographical and cultural) proximity in its favour, is an incredibly safe city to live in, is a cheaper study destination, offers more international student scholarship opportunities, has almost guaranteed job prospects in the country after graduation and is an easier place to gain permanent residency.

What can we do?

If Australia wants to increase its international student numbers, it needs to recognise that these students are more than just cash cows funding a billion-dollar industry. To do this, Australia needs to provide more support for these students by increasing the number of scholarships awarded to international students.

Attracting more students will benefit the various industries touched by international students as consumers and workers.

While organisations such as Australia Education International and International Student Advisers Network of Australia are dedicated to international education, international students need to be included rather than made distinct in wider federal and state conversations on issues such as workplace entitlements, rental rights and anti-racial vilification laws.
The Conversation

Catherine Gomes receives funding from the ARC and IDP Education. She is affiliated with ISANA.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Ten Things I Learnt During My (PhD) Thesis

English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d...
Albert Einstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Sam Relton:

For the past three years I’ve been doing my PhD in applied maths at Manchester.

Now that I’m almost ready to submit my thesis I thought I’d write up some tips for those who are just beginning their PhD journey.

1. Use the best tools for the job

Spend some time at the beginning of your PhD learning how to efficiently use the software necessary to research in your field.

For example learn LaTeX and pick an editor, learn how to use version control, and learn a programming language like MATLAB or Python.

I like to use Emacs for writing up all my research: it has great LaTeX support and numerous extensions for handling version control, code completion, blog writing, etc. A list of my favourite Emacs packages is here.

2. Write up EVERYTHING you do

I cannot overstate how important it is to write up your thoughts as you go along, don’t just wait until the end. Some of the major reasons for this include the following:

- Scribbled notes are easily lost
- Writing a full argument helps you find flaws in it
- Your research is easy to share with colleagues and your supervisor
- "Writing” your thesis becomes a cut and paste job at the end

3. Keep a detailed bibliography

Keep the details of all the articles and books you read during your PhD. You never know when something will become useful and trying to find the same paper in three months time is hard!

I recommend using BibTeX to store all your citations since it has great integration with LaTeX and Emacs. To manage your BibTeX database I recommend using JabRef which is available in the Ubuntu repositories. It has some handy features for searching and outputting bibliographies based on a LaTeX .aux file which I use often.

4. Attend lots of conferences

At first conferences seem quite daunting; you get lost after slide 3 and spend the next twenty minutes thinking about your own research. STICK WITH IT!

After you’ve seen a few talks on a new subject you’ll grasp the main concepts and be able to follow most of the presentations with no problems. Conferences are actually a great place to get new ideas, meet new collaborators, and learn about different areas. As a bonus you get to travel the world and try different cuisines, what could be better?

5. Talk to people

This can be a little difficult (especially for us shy mathematicians) but speaking to people at conferences can be very rewarding. Trading expertise and ideas with one another can really jump-start your own research and even lead to interesting collaborations. For example, two ideas that I’m working on at the moment arose from idle conversations at conferences.

It’s also a great opportunity to network with current researchers and other PhD students (they could be your future colleagues!) who you’re likely to meet again at the next major conference. Getting to know researchers in your area can also help you choose an appropriate external examiner for your thesis.

6. Don’t be afraid to try crazy ideas

Sometimes weird ideas can lead to big insights and take your research in directions that you’d never have thought of originally. For example, I had a little idea that I was working on for a couple of weeks and a small part of it was proving quite difficult. Looking into the problem eventually turned into two journal papers and half of my thesis!

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?“.

On the other hand, if your quirky idea isn’t going anywhere after a couple of weeks don’t waste your time. You’ve only got a few years to get your thesis together and your time would be better spent on something fruitful.

7. Work on your writing

To communicate your research to others you have to write it down. Making your work easy to assimilate means that more people will read your paper, more people will use your ideas, and your thesis will be easier to mark. The average quality of scientific writing is notoriously poor so writing good papers makes you much more likely to get published too.

For any subject reliant on maths I’d recommend the Handbook of Writing for the Mathematical Sciences by Nick Higham as a good place to start.

8. Join a professional society

Another great way to meet people in your area (and get discounts on major conferences) is to join a professional society. For applied mathematicians in the UK this typically means the IMA and SIAM. Both offer student membership packages and you get a free newspaper by joining SIAM.

9. Get involved with student societies

Organizing student activities is a great way to have fun whilst improving your CV. I’m President of the Manchester SIAM Student Chapter, which means that we get money each year to organize conferences for the PhD students in Manchester. If you’re university doesn’t have a SIAM student chapter you can find information about starting one here.

I’ve really enjoyed organizing the conferences and getting some very interesting guest speakers. At our latest event we had Pete Lomas from the Raspberry Pi Foundation talking about the future of the device and education in computing. I wrote a blog post about this here.

10. Perform daily backups

This should be obvious but lots of people forget to do daily backups. Personally I’ve been saved a few times by backups: once because my laptop died and a few times when accidentally deleting something important.

Your backups should not be on the same computer and should be automated, so you don’t forget to do it. For instance, I have the folder “Dropbox” in my Home folder synced with Dropbox (which automatically saves the last few changes to a file). I then run a backup script, written in Bash, on a daily basis to copy all new files across.

You can automate this using cron in a Linux terminal. Windows users can automate this using the Windows Task Scheduler.
Finally: Don’t forget to have fun! Your PhD is your project and there’s something wrong if you’re not enjoying your research.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Spotting a Bad Adviser (or Supervisor) and How to Pick a Good One

Spotting a Bad Adviser--and How to Pick a Good One
André da Loba for The Chronicle
by Leonard Cassuto, The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Universities have a lot of names for the professor who works with a graduate student on a thesis or dissertation and later signs off on it.

The main titles are "adviser," "director," and, more rarely, "sponsor."

Some universities, including my own, call a professor in this position a "mentor."

I like "adviser" because I think that’s the best description of the job when it’s being done well.

The 19th-century term for such an adviser was "master," with all of the connotations that the word carries. The idea of the guiding master originated in Germany.

In the United States, the relationship quickly translated into what the historian William Clark calls an "intensely personal," almost cultish, tie of admiring loyalty. So powerful was that tie that some American academics once floated the idea that an official Ph.D. award should carry the name of your master rather than the name of the university that the student attended.

The relationship between advisee and professor (whatever that person’s title) is the longest and most important one in a graduate student’s formal education, a unique blend of the professional and the personal.

The tie binds like family - and genealogical metaphors for the adviser-student relationship abound. Some long-serving professors even become the trunk nodes of their own family-tree diagrams (a site called PsychTree builds an adviser-student family tree in the field of psychology).

The students of the legendary historian Frederick Jackson Turner used to refer to him - and even address him! - as "my professional father."

When it’s forged and maintained in the right way, this tie turns into a lifelong, productive, ever-evolving relationship of mutually rewarding collegiality. It often levels off into a friendship between peers.

When it goes bad, though, the relationship can breed anger, resentment, bitterness, and an unfulfillment that extends far beyond graduate school itself. All of which ought to remind us that, family relations aside, this is still a connection between a worker and a boss.

So how do you spot a bad adviser? Or to put it another way: how do you pick a good one?

To identify what to look for, let’s go back to names. I said that I prefer the title of "adviser." I like it much better than "director" in particular, because "adviser" is less authoritative.

Graduate students need to write their own dissertations. Professors have a job to help them. Certainly that help will entail some guidance, and some of that guidance may reasonably be described as direction. But the fact that I offer direction doesn’t make me the director. The director of a movie runs the whole set. Dissertation advisers shouldn’t try to do that; it’s not their project.

"You are the CEO of your own graduate education," I tell my advisees. I like the sound of that phrase because it conveys managerial duty and places responsibility with the student, where it belongs. Graduate school is professional school. It’s a graduate student’s job to complete the requirements for the degree.

But it’s not quite as simple as that. I have to approve my student’s thesis for it to receive credit. To return to the direction metaphor, perhaps it’s more precise to say that the graduate student is the director of the project, but everyone involved does well to remember that directors don’t always have the final cut.

Graduate students do have the final cut on their own lives. They choose their goals, and commit their own resources. Within that context, the adviser should make sure that the goals are rational, and the plans to reach them sensible.

And there’s the rub. Based simply on the numbers, chasing a professorship is not exactly practical. Is it a rational career goal? That depends on how sensible the plan to chase it turns out to be.

Graduate students make that plan with the help of their advisers - or at least they should. But they often don’t.

The education scholars Chris M. Golde and Timothy M. Dore reported two major findings in their oft-cited research on doctoral-student experiences.

First, "the training doctoral students receive is not what they want, nor does it prepare them for the jobs they take," and second, "many students do not clearly understand what doctoral study entails, how the process works, and how to navigate it effectively."

It follows from those conclusions that lots of advisers are doing a bad job - and also that lots of graduate students aren’t savvy enough to figure that out.

How can you avoid a picking a bad adviser if you’re not sure what you’re looking for in the first place?

One way is to study what goes into the decision. Be an informed consumer: know what you want, and expect what you’re entitled to.

Graduate-student expectations of their advisers need to change, and they are changing - slowly. The history of masters and mentors that I unspooled at the beginning may seem extravagant and excessive to us, but it’s really not very different from the situation that prevails now.

The advisers of today still attract students through charisma, and their recommendations still exert major control over the fate of those students, especially the ones who want to follow them into academe. Minus the affectations, not much has changed, and that ought to make us nervous.

It should also serve as a call to arms. Studies of graduate education are thin on the ground, but in one of the few investigations of the adviser-graduate student tie, Robert R. Bargar and Jane Mayo-Chamberlain talk about the "developmental" nature of the connection - that is, it should evolve over its duration.

The students themselves develop as they move through a graduate program, and the adviser needs to adjust to their needs at different stages.

Advisers and advisees therefore have to maintain open lines of communication, not only about the work that they are doing together but also about any potential emotional pitfalls that may attend that work. Better to defuse an explosion than have to deal with the fallout afterward.

Advisers, say Bargar and Mayo-Chamberlain, should create a "positive environment" for students by "showing interest" in their "work and welfare." They suggest "open discussions" and "direct programmatic activities." All of which sounds very blurry to me.

The career field for graduate students is likewise blurry. The higher-education-industrial complex is only lately beginning to recognize the fact that graduate school is not solely a training ground for future professors. Good advisers recognize that, and teach their students accordingly. Bad advisers don’t.

So if you’re looking for a good adviser, look for one who’s interested in your career. If you think you’re being collected like a bauble in someone else’s collection, then steer clear. Or if you suspect that you’re being recruited to run on someone else’s hamster wheel, then run the other way.

Good advisers collaborate with their graduate students, but that collaboration has only one appropriate goal: it needs to be about you, and furthering your work and career.

I began this column with a preference for the title of "adviser" over "mentor." Mentorship carries extra weight for me. Not just anyone who sponsors a thesis deserves to be called a mentor.

In Greek myth, Mentor was a wise man who earned the trust of Odysseus, who selected him to educate his son, Telemachus. The word has a legacy: "Mentor" is a title that should be earned. These are challenging times for students to choose an adviser. Look for the ones who try their hardest to act as true mentors.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes the "Graduate Adviser" column for The Chronicle. He welcomes feedback at Now on Twitter: @LCassuto.

Friday, July 25, 2014

7 Tips to Supercharge Your Academic LinkedIn Profile

LinkedIn (Photo credit: Christopher S. Penn)
by , Impact Story:

Like 1.9 million other academics, you’ve got a LinkedIn profile.

Along with the rest of us, you set it up to improve your visibility and to network with other researchers.

Well, we’ve got some bad news for you: your LinkedIn profile probably isn’t doing either of those things right now. Or at least, not very well.

The problem is that LinkedIn is built for businesspeople, not scientists; it’s tough to translate the traditional scholarly CV into the business-friendly format imposed by LinkedIn. 

So most scientists’ profiles are dull and lack focus on their most important accomplishments, and their networking attempts are limited to “friending” co-workers.

We’re going to fix that by giving you seven easy hacks to turn LinkedIn into a powerful tool for scholarly visibility and networking. Today, we’ll help you supercharge your profile; then in our next post, we’ll show you how to leverage that profile to built a powerful professional network.

1: Bust down barriers to finding your profile


What good is a killer LinkedIn profile if no one can find it, or if your profile is so locked down they can only see your name?

Your first job is to check your “public profile” settings (go to Privacy & Settings > Edit your public profile) to make sure people can see what you want them to.

What might others want to see? Your past experience, summary, and education, for starters; also include your best awards, patents, and publications. But don’t worry if you haven’t got the right content in place yet; we’ll fix that soon.

Next, double-check your settings by signing out of LinkedIn completely and searching for yourself on both LinkedIn and Google.

Are you findable now? Great, let’s move on.

2: Make your Headline into an ‘elevator pitch’

LinkedIn includes a short text blurb next to each person’s name in search results. They call this your “Headline,” and just like a newspaper headline, it’s meant to stimulate enough interest to make the reader want more.

Here are some keys to writing a great LinkedIn headline:
  1. Describe yourself with the right words: Brainstorm a few keywords that are relevant to the field you’re targeting. Spend a few minutes searching for others in your field, and borrowing from keywords found in their profiles and Headlines. For instance, check out Arianna C’s Headline: “Conceptual Modelling, Facilitation, Research Management, Research Networking and Matching”. Right away, the viewer knows what Arianna is an expert at. Your headline should do the same.
  2. Be succinct: Never use two words when one will do (hard for academics, I know :)). Barbara K. who works in biotech, has a great Headline that follows this rule: “Microbiologist with R & D experience.”
  3. Show your expert status: What makes you the chemical engineer/ genomics researcher/ neuroscientist? Do you put in the most hours, score the biggest grants, or get the best instructor evaluations from students? This is your value proposition - what makes you great? Those with less experience like recent graduates can supplement this section by showing their passion for a topic (i.e., “Computer scientist with a passion for undergraduate education”).
  4. Use a tried and true formula to writing your headline: 3 keywords + 1 value proposition = Headline success, according to career coach Diana YK Chan. So what does that look like? Taking the keywords from (1) and value proposition from (3) above, we can create a Headline that reads, “Computer scientist with a passion for undergraduate education and experience in conceptual modelling and research management.” Cool, huh?
Well-written headlines are also key to making you more findable online - important for those of us who need to disambiguation from similarly-named researchers beyond ORCID.

3: Make yourself approachable with a photo

The next step to making yourself memorable to get a good photo on your profile. Here are three tips to remember:

4: Hook ‘em with your Summary section

Now it’s time to encourage viewers of your profile to learn about you in more detail. That’s where the Summary section comes in. Your Summary is an opportunity to provide a 50,000 foot view into your career and studies to date. 

Don’t just use this section to repeat information found elsewhere on your profile. Instead, write a short narrative of your professional life and career aspirations, using some of the keywords left over from writing your Headline. Here are three tips to help:

Be specific

Don’t use technical jargon, but do provide concrete details about your research and why it matters. Make yourself a person, not just another name in a discipline. Anthropologist Jason Baird Jackson does a great job of this:

“I have collaborated with Native American communities in Oklahoma since 1993, when I began a lifelong personal and research relationship with the Euchee/Yuchi people.”

Be up-front about what you want

Don’t beat around the bush when it comes to your professional goals. If you’ve done your job right, future employers, reviewers, students, and collaborators are probably reading your profile. Great. Now, what do you want to do with them? Let them know what you’re after, like scientist CW Hooker does in his Summary:

“I am always interested in discussing collaborations and future opportunities.”

Prove your value

Finally, use your Summary section to describe what you’ve done and why it matters. Elizabeth Iorns, breast cancer researcher and entrepreneur, explains to profile viewers that,

“Based on her own experiences as a young investigator seeking expert collaborations, Dr. Iorns co-founded Science Exchange. In 2012, after recognizing the need to create a positive incentive system that rewards independent validation of results, Dr. Iorns created the Reproducibility Initiative.”

Right there is proof that she gets stuff done: she’s created solutions in response to service gaps for scientists. Impressive!

5: Give the scoop on your best work

If you’re a recent graduate or junior academic, it can be tempting to put all of your work experience on your LinkedIn profile. Don’t do it! Putting all of your positions on your profile can trivialize the more important work that you’ve done and make you look scattered.

Remember, your LinkedIn profile fills different role than your CV - it’s more of a trailer than a feature film. So include only the jobs that are relevant to your career goals. 

Mention a few specifics about your most important responsibilities and what you learned at those jobs, and save the gory details about your day-to-day work for your full CV.

A good rule for more senior researchers to talk mostly about your last 10-15 years of experience. Listing all of your past institutions will make for a monster profile that will turn readers off with too much detail.

After all, why would someone care if you were a lab assistant for Dr. Obscure at Wichita State University in 1985, when the more compelling story is that you’ve had your own lab since 2006?

6: Brag about your best awards and publications

Keeping it short and sweet also extends to discussing awards and publications on your LinkedIn profile. Highlight your best publications (especially those where you’re a lead author) and most prestigious awards (i.e., skip the $500 undergraduate scholarship from your local Elks club).

If you’re seeking an industry job, keep in mind that publications and awards don’t mean nearly as much outside of academia. In fact, you might want to leave those sections off of your LinkedIn profile altogether, replacing them with patents you’ve filed or projects you’ve led.

7. Add some eye-catching content


If LinkedIn was designed for scientists, it’d be much easier to import information from our CVs. Too bad it’s not. Nonetheless, with a little ingenuity you can make the site great for showcasing what scientists have a lot of: posters, slide decks, and figures for manuscripts.

If you’ve ever given a talk at a conference, or submitted a figure with a manuscript for publication, you can upload it here, giving viewers a better taste of your work. 

Add links, photos, slideshows, and videos directly to your profile using the Upload icon on your profile’s Summary and Experience sections. Consider also adding a link to your Impactstory profile, so you can show readers your larger body of work and its popular and scholarly impact.

Want some inspiration? Neuroscientist Bradley Voytek has added a Wow Factor to his profile with a link to a TEDx talk he gave on his research. Pharmacology professor Ramy Aziz showcases his best conference talks using links to Slideshare slide decks. And Github repositories make an appearance alongside slide decks on PhD student Cristhian Parra’s profile (pictured above).

You too can upload links to your best–and most visually stimulating - work for a slick-looking profile that sets you apart from others.

If you’ve followed our steps to hacking LinkedIn’s limitations for scientists, that drab old profile is spiffed up and ready to share. Now you’re poised to make lasting connections with your colleagues via LinkedIn, and hook potential collaborators.

But! You haven’t even scratched the surface of LinkedIn’s value until you use it to network. We’ll show you how to do that in the second part of our series. Stay tuned!

Do you have tips for crafting great LinkedIn profiles, or what you - as an employer - look for in a LinkedIn profile? Leave them in the comments below!

Creating a Classroom Culture for Student Success

Math (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by , Carnegie Commons:

When students walk into developmental math classes they are most likely carrying something weightier than their backpacks, something much more insidious.

They bring with them negative mindsets that they can’t do math or that they aren’t a math person, reinforced by the history of past math classes where they experienced failures.

And many bring with them the threat of stereotypes, some math-based and others defined by gender or ethnicity.

In designing two alternative mathematics pathways for students who place into college developmental math classes, Carnegie has acknowledged this student baggage as one of the key drivers that must be addressed in order to fully support student success.

And they have embedded interventions into the instructional design of the two Pathways - Statway in statistics and Quantway in quantitative reasoning - to address these drivers.

At the annual Community College Pathways National Forum, Claude Steele, the leading expert on stereotype threat, and David Yeager, whose work on transforming student mindsets has been incorporated into the Pathways instructional system since the initial design, suggested approaches that in other settings had been shown to reverse the roles these threats play in negatively affecting the motivation and engagement of students, and thereby their educational outcomes and performance.

As Steele explained, these influences are “powerful but not determinative.”

Steele provided an example of stereotype threat especially relevant to Carnegie’s work. Female and male students who excelled at math at the University of Michigan were administered the half hour section of the graduate math exam.

The premise was that the gender stereotype that females weren’t as good at math as males would suppress the performance of the female students, not allowing them to do the necessary cognitive work on the exam that they were clearly capable of doing. In this case, it held true.

The female students significantly underperformed compared to the male students on the same test. Although both men and women were stressed merely by having to take a test, women experienced the additional pressure of the stereotype.

To mitigate the stereotype - “the preoccupying presence” as Steele puts it - students equally as gifted as the first tested cohort were told beforehand that this particular test was one on which women always did well.

Under these conditions, the female students’ performance increased to match that of men. Similar impacts have been observed for various racial/ethnic groups as well.

Steele suggests remedies for stereotype threat. These include changing the cues that educators send to students. Changing the language in a classroom can create relationships between students, advisors, and teachers that tell a student that there is no presumption that he/she lacks something needed to succeed. Instead, there is a presumption that the student can succeed.

And the idea that ability is malleable is a tremendous relief to kids, and a liberating idea, Steele said. “It significantly reduces stereotype judgment.”

Carnegie is introducing the idea of malleability in the Pathways. One of the exercises in the Pathways Starting Strong package is an exercise where students read an article explaining that neuroscience shows that the brain is like a muscle and that with enough effort they can grow their brain.

Through the Starting Strong package, students who come to the Pathways thinking that they aren’t “math people,” or they don’t belong because they aren’t smart enough to succeed are supported in developing a “growth mindset.”

In addition to learning from the article that intelligence is not fixed, students are given strategies to support persistence through the course, and the encouragement from the start and throughout the course that gives them the courage to use the strategies to succeed.

Yeager said that in a randomized control trial the introduction of this one article on the concept of brain growth has been shown to have a significant effect on student persistence and success. There is evidence from selected Pathways classrooms that indicate that the effect has been replicated through the Starting Strong activities as well.

The Pathways - which subsume rigorous materials, new and more engaging pedagogies, the productive persistence interventions like the use of this exercise, and the behavior and speech that support it - have produced amazing results.

Students have tripled their success rates in half the time and Carnegie has been able to maintain this level of student accomplishment, even as the initiative has grown to include new colleges, new faculty, and many more students over the past three years.

Yeager offered some specific recommendations to those attending this year’s Forum and just beginning to teach the Pathways. He said to create a class culture that supports success, not one that implies expectations of failure.

He said to provide praise after accomplishment (not disassociated from effort and accomplishment), encouragement often, and continuous feedback - in class, during office hours, through emails.

He said to continue to remind students that the brain is analogous to a muscle, that “the more you use it, the better it works.” Or, “the more you practice, the smarter you become.”

When students seem to get discouraged, give them a boost - indeed, there are “booster” activities included in the pedagogy that Pathway faculty use. Use phrases like: “other students say that when you come to the difficult part where you have to struggle, it is a particularly helpful and productive part of the learning process” or “when you struggle, then you’re growing.”

Yeager said that the really wonderful thing about what he had discovered in his research is that the lowest achievers change the most and become some of our highest achievers.

Yeager concluded with a challenge: “Students have theories about their success,” Yeager said. “It is up to us to shift those theories” to more positive and productive ones.

Gay Clyburn is associate vice president, public affairs and is responsible for external relations, marketing and communications, publishing, electronic communications and special events for the Carnegie Foundation.

The Value of MOOCs Lies With Employers

Are MOOCs about freedom?
Are MOOCs about freedom? (Photo credit: Eleni Zazani)
by Dan Jerker B. Svantesson

One often sees news stories about how changes in information technology are killing off different industries.

Newspapers are read online rather than in print, and who bought a book in a physical shop lately?

The bricks-and-mortar shops are fewer and fewer and the offerings online steadily increasing.

One of the latest sectors said to be under threat from technological change is the higher education sector.

If one is to believe what one reads, (almost all) universities might as well start packing up and closing down. However, what we’re witnessing is exaggerated hype.

Fear makes good news stories. And technology fears are particularly “saleable” as people seem to have a great interest in technology and a long-standing fear of technology taking over the world - remember the Y2K hype?

In light of this, it is not surprising that technology fears spark all sorts of doomsday prophecies. But is there any substance to the claims of technology killing off the traditional university?

The claims

A recent article in The Economist contained a rather typical report on the likely effect technology will have on the university. Essentially the article, titled “Creative Destruction”, presented a number of standard claims.

For example, it pointed to the following factors as fundamentally undermining the model universities have relied upon since Aristotle:

Flickr/catspyjamasnz, CC BY

  • rising costs;
  • stagnant productivity;
  • changing demand;
  • changes in the employment market for graduates (in no small part due to technology advances);
  • declining public funding; and
  • disruptive technologies.
More specifically, on the point of technology, the article concluded:
The internet, which has turned businesses from newspapers through music to book retailing upside down, will upend higher education. Now the MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, is offering students the chance to listen to star lecturers and get a degree for a fraction of the cost of attending a university.

The reality

The offering of distance education is nothing new. For quite some time, distance education has been a competitor of the traditional university model.

I suspect that, just as the forms of distance education we have grown accustomed to suit some people better than the traditional university model does, so will MOOCs be a better fit for some students.

For example, the flexibility offered may suit students on a Masters level, who often combine studies with work and who, in any case, often work quite independently. Another obvious market is students in developing countries whom it’s difficult to reach using older forms of distance education, and for whom university campuses in developed countries are inaccessible.

No doubt much good can be achieved through MOOCs, but when it comes to the typical undergraduate student coming to the university as a school leaver, I suspect MOOCs represent very much a second-best option. The reality is that they need guidance, preferably in small classes where they can get personal attention.

Universities that can offer this will always have a market. And after all, the university experience should include more than just classes and studies.

I doubt many hormonal 19-year-olds would prefer studying MOOCs from their parents' basement to being on a campus full of other 19-year-olds, about half of whom are of the opposite gender.

The ignored, but crucially important, end-user

Those who, out of fear or for other reasons, promote MOOCs often neglect the end-user, and I am not here referring to the students. Too little attention has been directed at how employers will view future graduates.

Would employers rather take a Harvard MOOCs graduate or a graduate trained in person on campus at a local university lacking a world-renowned brand?

Perhaps we will see a trend similar to the current preference for carefully produced local food over imported mass-produced foods from the mega-brands? And if employers prefer graduates trained at traditional universities, will not then the students also prefer traditional universities? After all, getting a job would seem to be the main motivation for most undergraduate students.

This brings attention to a crucially important point - in the end, whether MOOCs will succeed over the traditional university model in the training of undergraduates will be determined by the choices employers make. So a great deal of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the employers. Maybe it is time they had their say.
The Conversation

Dan Jerker B. Svantesson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rewards Not Enough to Encourage Excellence in Research: Schmidt

English: The John Curtin School of Medical Res...
John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU (Wikipedia)
by Michael Lund, The Conversation

New funding expected to encourage world class excellence in research is not enough for the work involved in measuring the research, says Australian Nobel prizewinner Professor Brian Schmidt.

In a perspective piece in today’s Nature, Schmidt says when the Excellence in Research For Australia (ERA) initiative was launched in 2008 there was an understanding it would impact on funding decisions.

Under ERA, all research done by Australian universities is assessed against national and international standards. It is then graded on a five point scale with a score of three meaning the research is at world standard.

Schmidt says the scale was then to be used to allocate extra funding as an incentive to reward the highest quality work.

“On a scale of one to five the two lowest ratings attract nothing, whereas the top rating (five or ‘well-above world-standard’) earns seven times that of the middle rating (three, or simply ‘world-standard’),” he says.

But after two rounds of ERA grading - in 2010 and 2012 - he says the amount of money available for such incentives has “all but vanished”. He says the A$116 million available through ERA is “trivial” compared to the overall budget available for higher education research and development.

“Given that the government has spent A$43.5 million on the ERA, and universities themselves have outlaid substantial sums to undertake the ERA evaluations since 2008, one might question the value of this exercise that awards so little money,” he says.

The benefits of ERA

But Schmidt, who is Professor of Astronomy at the Australian National University, says ERA had done much to influence where Australia’s A$9 billion was spent on higher education R&D.

“By focusing its assessment on research quality, rather than quantity, the ERA has helped elevate the research at many of Australia’s universities,” he says.

It also allows universities to measure themselves against others and this will help them to invest more strategically on any future research.

But Schmidt questions whether or not the current ERA ranking scheme will continue to influence the sector given so little money is at stake.

He suggests it would be better to use such an assessment scheme to provide the full costs towards research similar to what is done in the UK, USA and Canada, with ERA topping the research funds up.

“Unfortunately, Australian grants provide nowhere near the full cost of research; significant cross-subsidisation is required from student fees,” Schmidt says in the Nature article.

“This undesirable method of research funding is unfair to students who believe they are paying for their education but are in fact paying for the country’s research.”

Broad agreement

The professor’s comments, published as part of a Nature special looking at research in Australia and New Zealand, were welcomed by others who have been critical of the current ERA and Australia’s research funding system.

Paul Jensen, Professor of Innovation, Science and Technology Policy at Melbourne University, this week raised the question of whether Australia was spending its A$9 billion wisely on research.

He too is concerned over the costs outlaid by both government and universities on data collection, although he said the full potential value from the ERA rankings has still to be unlocked.

“Given that the ERA system exists for the foreseeable future, tying more money to the ERA outcomes would be beneficial in promoting the goal of research excellence in Australian universities,” Jensen said.

Schmidt has also questioned the frequency of the ERA rankings with the next round due next year. He says very little will probably have changed within universities so questions what would be gained from them undergoing “this formidable exercise again”.

Jensen said the ERA was only one of many mechanisms that were likely to shape the future contours of the Australian higher education system.

“In isolation, it is hard to see how the ERA could result in changes which might necessitate conducting it every three years,” he said.

Dr Tseen Khoo, from La Trobe University’s Research Education and Development Unit, said Schmidt was right to question whether ERA was worthwhile for universities.

“Particularly when the costs involved for universities are much higher than purely administering the data collection and submission,” she said.

Khoo said some universities tried to better their chances in the ERA rankings with inter-institutional poaching of researchers before each ERA census date, and heavy internal investment in ERA-worthy areas of research.

“While I’m in strong agreement with Brian about the need for consistent and higher investment in the higher education R&D sector, whether ERA metrics do indeed capture or encourage research excellence is open to question,” she said.

Professor Matthew Bailes, the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Swinburne University of Technology, said any move from measuring “quantity” to “quality” should be applauded.

But Schmidt has also questioned how ERA rankings may be used following this year’s government budget to move toward deregulating university fees, a point that has Bailes concerned.

“The recently proposed changes to the higher education sector have the danger of making students the source of research funding, not the taxpayer at large,” Bailes said.

“It would be preferable for governments to dictate the level of research spending, not vice chancellors.”
The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.