The life of a neutron

Artists impression of the life of a neutron, fission process etc; from colleagues in Sweden

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Advice on Figures in Theses

Imperial is now publishing Phd theses online; as part of this, the library are now worried about copyright on figures and images reproduced from the literature. So there is now a requirement on PhD students at the time of submission to certify that they have copyright clearance for images used in PhD theses.  This is because there is no doctrine of fair use in the UK, and our government has been captured by rights holders.  So: redraw everything you can. Actually this will be good for you, as it will mean that you synthesise more and summarise less.  Also, NB that we can and should recycle original figures made within this group – I have a library of past theses.

But, for micrographs there is no getting around the requirement to ask permission. Actually this isn’t so bad; mostly there are webforms for this, mostly using an online service called rightslink, via the article webpage “rights and permissions” link;





Met.Trans. (Springer)

Maney (IOM3)  are also the same.

The exception is PhysRev (APS), who basically say yes, but you should ask the author too:

Nevertheless, source should still be acknowledged by reference, e.g. redrawn from [X], After [X] or from [X].

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3 Types of Collaborator

Interesting link from a friend who is a conductor / musician

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Interesting for overseas students, postdocs, …

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Wow! Engineering pays off, at least in the US

See here.

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Doing Teaching Right

Academic staff at research universities often have an ambiguous relationship with teaching.  And, there are a lot of myths floating around than animate the background assumptions made by journalists and government panels alike about how seriously teaching is taken.  So, lets get one thing straight: its worth doing teaching well.

But, most academics at places like Imperial are primarily researchers running small research enterprises, who collaborate to deliver a teaching programme and a research environment that nurtures the values of the academy.  In many ways, the partnership model of a professional service firm is quite apt, and the drivers are similar.  So, there are three legs to the stool that is an academic’s professional contribution – research, teaching and administration. Probably the admin term is excessively negative, rather we should think of it as all those internal activities that promote the cooperative enterprise of an academic department.

Now, the balance between research and teaching will vary between persons, subjects, universities and countries. In my own field, Materials Science, we are very research intensive, so much so that it’s not particularly unusual to have more research students than undergraduates. That means that in the UK, maybe 20% of staff are bought out, formally, for research. Put another way, most Departments would be only 40-60% of the size if they were only doing teaching.  Now, go to a teaching university, and the research output will be nearly nil.

We take it as axiomatic that teaching at the undergraduate level is best done by active researchers. This is probably an increasingly contested point, so let me illustrate it with an anecdote.  I have been acquainted with people who became research inactive over a period of years and gradually lost confidence in their ability to teach even simple first year material that is over 50 years old.  Now, its not because they didn’t at one stage have total command of that material, or because they fell off the research frontier.  Indeed, its quite possible for someone at a teaching university to teach this material without doing any research at all.  But the research gives one a feel for the subject, it means one is thinking about it constantly, living and breathing it; and this makes the able researcher at the top of their game potentially a great communicator of it.

But, why is it different from school? Well, to some extent, its different by degree more than anything else.  But its striking that Feynman told his students that we don’t know how we go about solving problems, and this is the thing that characterises university level education – answering unseen questions, as a preparation for formulating unknown questions in future life, be it in research or in the workplace. Because we don’t know how we solve problems, we teach it the same way the ancient Egyptians did, by example.  So you want to be taught be the best puzzle-solvers, the best question posers, and not by someone who simply wants to work in an education factory.

I also saw a comment by a guy called Steve Fuller the other day talking about knowledge generation, which is the primary function of a university. He was saying that when we do research and disseminate it by writing journal articles, then this isn’t when it gets turned into the public good of knowledge. Rather, he suggested, when we turn it into lectures and textbooks – when we codify, assemble, synthesize, summarise and review it – only then, when we teach, do we turn research into the public good of knowledge. Which is interesting, because nowhere in the research assessment exercises or student evaluation surveys or league tables do we value that activity. But also, its one of the most compelling arguments I’ve yet heard for why research and teaching should be done by the same people.

But this gets to the heart of what teaching is about. We have to be ambitious for our students: ambitious in terms of what we think they can understand, ambitious in what we hope for them in future after graduation. Ambitious that they should be able to do more after graduation than we could or our forefathers could.  And if we are ambitious, we want to present the concepts as clearly as we can, to eliminate the extraneous facts, to inspire, to think up a ton of interesting and fun problems to tease out the implications of the concepts and the results that flow from them.  If we don’t do these things, we won’t maximise our students chances of finding the limits of their potential.  We will betray and undermine our hopes and ideals, we will be like second hand car salesmen trying to sell an acceptable but compromised car. And what would be the point of that?

This means we can’t treat education as second best, as a chore that we have to do, or simply something to be done by recycling the last person’s lectures. Rather we should always be seeking to do better, to really get to the nub of a subject and find the most useful ideas we can discuss, and then communicate them clearly.

Often students want to learn to solve problems, to rote-learn ‘the material’, to figure out how to parrot it back in an exam to get the best credential possible. But its about the ideas, not about the formulae or the material. Which is why thinking of interesting problems that require some original thinking is important.

Which is why re-imagining the lecture is important.

With that, I’m off write one…

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Living on a PhD stipend in London

When hiring PhD students, I often get asked about money by fresh graduates who are trying to work out “how much is enough?”

But first, some background for the uninitiated. People studying for PhDs in the UK are treated as students, not employees. Furthermore, most science and engineering PhD students are paid a stipend large enough to approximately cover their living expenses. Being a bursary, this is not taxable, and PhD students also get a range of other benefits reserved for the unemployed and/or deserving, such as a waiver of the local property tax, the council tax. The exact amount of the bursary has varied over time – in 1997 when I started my PhD the national minimum set by the physical sciences funding council EPSRC was about £7,100 (in 2011 GBP), whereas today its £13,590.  However, this is a minimum and students in London are usually given about an additional £1200, and students in shortage engineering subjects and/or collaborating with companies are often given a top-up of up to maybe another £4000 (this is the most I have heard of).

So, the bursary paid probably varies between about £13,500 and about £18,000. Now, if you were paying 6% of your salary into a pension, this would be the equivalent of a pre-tax salary of about £16,000 – £23,000. UK average incomes are about £25,000 and average graduate initial salaries are about that sort of number. So, doing a PhD isn’t going to make you rich, but its not a million miles away from a normal graduate salary. For the sort of PhD students I hire they are probably taking a 20% pay cut from what they would get in industry, plus they have to deal with living in London rather than a provincial city like, say, Derby or Nottingham.

Now, the key thing about money is to remember that being a single person living on something similar to UK average earnings shouldn’t be that hard. In fact, whatever our income, we can probably spend it, and more. So the key point about money is this: spend less than you make.

If you spend less than you make, lots of wonderful things happen. For a start, you stop paying your bank interest just to buy food on the day before pay day, because you have a cash balance. You stop having to worry about unexpected bills like the car breaking down, because you have a cash balance. Your friend needs a loan? No problem. Have it as a gift. You want to buy that shiny wonderful thing that promises a better life? Whip out the debit card, because you’ve got the money. If you live within your means, money doesn’t have any power over your life any more.

The way to do this isn’t to be a complete skinflint, its just to be intentional about the choices you make. In the end, you can’t spend more than you make forever. So, given that our desires are probably much greater than our means, spending now means not spending later – spending on credit just means we can avoid acknowledging that fact until the bank forces us to at some point down the road.

How do we be intentional? Its called budgeting. Now, making a budget is easy. The difficult part is making it work. Notice, I didn’t say “sticking to it” – this isn’t an exercise in hair-shirt self-flagellation. You’re not going to stick to it; reality never works out like our plans. The point is to review how things actually turned out – what cost more, what cost less, the things you forgot to include – and revise the budget. Then, you can start to cull the things you don’t need, the things we all spend money on that, it turns out, we wouldn’t spend money on if we went back and did everything over. So the point of the spending review is to learn, reflect and revise.

Now, sorry to say this, but that’s going involve some dull stuff, like downloading bank statements and categorising where the money went. But, do it every 2 weeks or so for 20 minutes and within a couple of months a picture will start to emerge that gives you the information to improve your plan. My big tip here would be – don’t sweat the small stuff. If its less than 5% of your weekly spending, its a drop in the ocean. If you’re spending £15,000 a year, thats 1.5 million pennies. Excel doesn’t even have that many rows in a sheet. So the expression about looking after the pennies might be true, but the thousands of pounds won’t look after themselves – inflation has robbed this pithy little bit of wisdom of some of its power.

Right, so thats the preliminaries. Now the main event? Is £15,000 enough to live on in London? Well, lets call it £300 per week (pw) in round numbers.

If you share a 3-bed flat with two others in zone two, you most likely pay about £120-130 per week. Bills are probably about £3000 a year, or £20 pw. So you have about £150 pw to live on.

Food: Food probably costs anywhere from £30 pw to £60 pw, depending on where you shop, how much you drink and how many restaurants you go to.

Transport: You won’t be driving to work in London! A travelcard from zone 2 costs £24 pw. But you could cycle, or pay more rent to live somewhere walkable, or pay less rent and more in travel. Then, do you want to car in order to get out of town? Could be £2,000 a year in tax, insurance, MOT, maintenance and gas. So thats another £40 pw, before considering capital costs. So transport could be anywhere from about £20 pw to £65 pw, depending on what you do. Me? I cycle, I use streetcar to get out of town ( and I take a lot of trains, so in total I spend about £25 pw.  But to get to work, I bike.

After that, everything is optional: clothes, holidays, computers, sky tv, gig tickets, nights in the bar. So of our £150 pw we had after rent and bills, we’re down to probably £35 – £95 pw. I would say you’ll have about £70 pw unless you have a strange attachment to having a car.

How would I spend that? I’d spend £2000 a year on holiday, £1000 on clothes and leisure and I’d give away £500. Giving away money is good. It reminds it that it doesn’t own us.

Now, your sums my vary from mine. If you can’t make it work, remember that you can extend your income a bit by demonstrating and invigilating, maybe by £1000 a year.  You can try and negotiate more pay with your advisor, if he’s got the money. Maybe he does some consulting and could use your help. In essence: you can pay with the income side of the ledger too.

But, academic research doesn’t, as a rule, pay that well. Financially, the main upside is that you can keep going until you get to retirement age – there aren’t a lot of bankers in their 50s. So, if you want to be really well paid, this isn’t the vocation for you.

On the other hand, if you’re curious to find stuff out for yourself, to find new stuff, to ask and answer questions nobody knows the answers to yet, forget about the money, its only a prison anyway. Come and be a researcher! Have fun in your 20s while you still can and do a PhD. Its only for a couple of years, if the money turns out to be important then the PhD meas you’ll catch up in salary terms pretty quick once you go into industry, finance or professional services.

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What is a PhD? Defining Success

There are lots of reasons to do PhDs, the bread-and-butter of the research world. But, leaving aside motivation for a moment, what is a PhD? Well, the most traditional, simplest and yet most challenging definition is “a substantial contribution to knowledge.”

Lets break that down, word by word.

“Knowledge” in the useful arts like materials science and engineering means our understanding of the world. So in mechanical metallurgy, this means our understanding of the mechanisms by which materials deform or fail; the effect of alloying elements on microstructure and strengthening or on defects such as dislocations and so on. But the focus is on understanding, which isn’t the same as measurement – a bunch of testing quantifying the life of a material doesn’t count (ha ha). But, generally we would aim for this to be quantitative, as in any physical science.

“Contribution” is the idea of originality, so this should be the PhD candidate’s original research work. Often, this will be a funded project conceived by the supervisor(s), possibly in collaboration, but the candidate (with their colleagues and advisors) will have elaborated this concept over the course of the PhD. Often, the project will have changed direction as we work our way into the project and find out where the most fruitful avenues are. So, what is the bottom line on originality? Well, for most of the results presented, the candidate will have collected, analysed and interpreted the data, and will have written the first draft of the results and discussion.

What about novelty? Well, the is also contained within the term “contribution,” which implies that this particular knowledge did not exist before. Clearly, in mature fields like metallurgy then this might be quite incremental, but it should still be novel in the sense that these are new results, not previously available in the literature. They should also be sufficiently novel and original that they are suitable for publication – they are of interest to other scientists working in the field.  Often a PhD specification in university regulations will specify that the contribution to knowledge be “suitable for publication in whole or in part”, of which more later in this post.

“Substantial” is perhaps the vaguest term in this entire collection of vague terms. But, given that a UK PhD is nominally a 3-year research training, I would take this to mean enough work to be turned into several full-length articles in leading journals. But where this term really bites is that a PhD is “A substantial contribution,” that is one integrated piece of work. So whilst in later life you might work on lots of different projects, a PhD is different in that its a chance to really push forward one area in an integrated fashion.  So in the UK we (mostly) still believe that PhDs should be presented in one integrated thesis that stands or falls on its merits, rather than the Scandinavian approach of obtaining a PhD by publication.

OK, so that’s the definition. Another way to look at this is now to look at what a PhD programme likely consists of, in the ideal case.

During the first year one gets to grips with the techniques and the literature in the specific subfield of study, say nickel-base superalloys, with the aim of persuading the progress examiners that one is capable of doing a PhD in this area after nine months. So most of the techniques used should be demonstrated and a review of the literature presented, together with a plan for the actual research work. So as to get some experience of writing, a report will be written and ideally, the new student would contribute to a journal article being written by another group member so as to see how the writing process works.

In the second year the main technique developments will happen, adding capability to the research group and the student will become a stalwart member of the research group. Towards the end of the second year the first journal article will be written, probably based on data stretching back to the first year. This might not be the most amazing article in the world, but it will be a chapter of the thesis and will mean that the student is now an author capable of writing on their own.  It could either be a full-length article or a letter paper, depending on how the work sits.

Then in the third year the two main articles will be written, aimed at the best journals, which form the main core of the PhD thesis. The thesis is then composed of three results chapters (journal articles), a literature review, an introduction to motivate the work and a final chapter of conclusions and suggestions for further work.  Hopefully, this will be completed within the three year timescale.

Therefore the PhD student applying for jobs will, three months prior to submission, probably have 1 co-authored article published, 1 first-author article published, 1 submitted and a final one in preparation.  Probably in final year there will be a conference presentation as well, which might have an accompanying conference paper.

So for me, that is success. 3-4 journal papers, 2 are which are proper full-length first author journal articles published in good journals; a thesis submitted on time or nearly on time; and a PhD student who goes onto a good job, be it a postdoc, in industry or in professional servies.

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