Jess Wade: Scientist on a Mission

I got an e-mail with a link to an article in today’s Guardian about the irrepressible and inspiring Jess Wade just before I went to get my afternoon cup of tea. I’ve rushed back, tea in hand, to quickly blog and say how delighted I was to see Jess’ efforts recognised not only by my favourite newspaper — I know, I know, typical sandal-wearing, muesli-munching, beardy, lefty, Cultural Marxist, Guardian-reading academic [1] — but also by the recent award of the Institute of Physics’ Daphne Jackson prize.

As the Guardian article describes, Jess is a postdoc working in the field of organic electronics at Imperial College. I have been aware of Jess’ work and her efforts in public engagement and the promotion of physics to girls for quite some time but most recently met her at a SciFoo ‘unconference’ at the Googleplex, Mountain View, CA (which was …checks diary…almost a year ago. Wow. Time flies.) Jess led a session on gender balance and diversity in science and it was easily the most energetic and engaging session of the entire conference (and that’s saying something, given the competition).

I had brought a copy of Angela Saini’s Inferior with me to read on the plane to SciFoo. Inferior, a t-shirt of whose cover Jess is proudly wearing in the photo accompanying the Guardian article, was deservedly Physics World’s Book Of The Year 2017. (Here’s Jess’ review). Jess had brought about ten copies of Inferior with her to the SciFoo event which she distributed for free at the session! (I should stress that Jess is neither on commission nor did she have a grant from which to buy the books — she bought them with money out of her own pocket.)

I am pleased to say that Jess will be coming to Nottingham Physics & Astronomy later this year to give a talk on her research and that Angela Saini will be speaking to the Science Faculty here for International Women’s Day 2019.

Now, usually the last place you want to spend any time online is below the line, even when it comes to The Guardian’s comments section (as Philip Ball has pointed out). But it’s worth scanning down through the comments under Jess’ article for comedy value alone. The same tedious, uninformed, unscientific, zombie ‘arguments’ about gender balance that are rebutted so well in Inferior (and in Cordelia Fine’s work) are trotted out by rather disgruntled individuals who have a particularly buzzy bee in their bonnet about the natural order of things. I particularly liked this exchange:


I’d really like to hope that JohnJNorris’ comment up there is a pitifully weak attempt at a joke. But given the below-the-line commentary that accompanies virtually any article on gender in science, it’s not against the odds at all that JohnJ is being deathly serious.

“Outrunner’s” riposte is priceless in any case…

[1] OK, most of that’s true. But not the sandals. Definitely not the sandals. I’ve never worn sandals in my life. *shudder* And, to be honest, I’m really not quite certain what a Cultural Marxist is. Or does. But, apparently, academia is absolutely infested with them.

In the interests of transparency…

A couple of weeks back there was a damning piece in The Guardian on the ever-expanding culture of casual contracts in academia. The University of Nottingham unfortunately featured heavily. Here’s a key quote from the article. (Greg is not the real name of the academic in question).

Over time, [Greg] took on more work: one day of teaching at Nottingham and another at a rival university. These were casual contracts: short-term, and paying him only by the hour. As such, they offered more experience than income. So he also did some gardening and, where possible, wrote for a local newspaper.

He was pulling five jobs, working up to 70 hours a week. And he was still only making £22,000 to £23,000 a year before tax – below the national average. 

According to The Guardian article (which cites, and I quote, “official figures”), 45% of all staff at the University of Nottingham involved in teaching, or teaching and research, count as casual labour. This is, The Guardian claims, comparable to the national situation where somewhat over half of all academics are on casual contracts. The University of Nottingham has challenged the statistics in The Guardian article. And the UoN branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has in turn challenged the response from UoN management.

I’ve written previously about the intense competition that exists for lecturing positions. (As I tell the PhD and postdoctoral researchers in the group here, I know that what I had in terms of academic “outputs” to secure a lectureship at Nottingham back in 1997 wouldn’t even get me within sniffing distance of a short-list today). This competitive pressure underpins the growing casualisation of staff in the ways described by The Guardian. As a colleague here at Nottingham put it (in one of many letters responding to that article),

How ironic that you should publish Nicholas Maxwell’s plea (Letters, 17 November) for universities to engage in intelligent public education on the same day that you reveal sector-wide exploitation of academic employees. Our generously remunerated vice-chancellors have already high-tailed it in the opposite direction, content to undermine intellectual standards while easing many young adults towards unrecoverable debt.

Peter Shaw
Professor of biochemistry, University of Nottingham

I meant to write a post about that Guardian exposé long before now but I’ve been up to my ears with teaching, admin, reviewing (and, very occasionally, research) commitments so the blog has had to to take a back seat. In any case, many others, particularly in that lengthy series of letters, have said just about everything I wanted to say. What I instead want to focus on here is the flip-side of the casualisation coin: the extent to which the working patterns of permanent academic staff, and, equally importantly, their non-academic colleagues, are under-estimated, under-reported, and too often under-valued.

Last week was the first “session” for what’s known as the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC), an annual survey of just how academics spend their time. Various schools are selected each year and their staff asked to complete a record of the number of hours spent on different activities: teaching, research, “other income generating activities”, “support general”, and “sickness”.  This involves filling out a timesheet of activities split into those categories.

So what’s wrong with that, you might ask? Feeding back an accurate record of academic work patterns to the funding bodies must surely be a useful exercise to help inform and assess spending commitments. Isn’t that a laudably transparent approach? The problem is that it’s not the raw data on the hours spent on these activities that are returned. Instead, the percentage of time on research vs teaching vs admin is returned by the university to HEFCE. The TRAC methodology, along with the research councils’ grant application processes, assumes a 37.5 hour working week (and a 44 week working year). That strikes me as an approach that’s not entirely lacking in opacity.

In the interests of full transparency, therefore, I thought I’d keep a diary of just how I spent my time during Week 1 of the TRAC 2016-2017 survey. Here we go…

Monday November 21 2016

05:30 – 06:15 Finish off reviewing paper that has been on my “To Do” list for three weeks. Second reminder from the editor to submit the review arrived yesterday.

06:30 – 07:15 Having logged in to e-mail to find link to submit review of paper, check e-mails. Check over proofs of recent paper to be published in Nanotechnology. Read proofs of new undergraduate prospectus and note suggestions for changes.

08:00 Office. Check e-mail. Send quick response to colleague re. seminar (see below) and answer questions from students re. coursework for Year 4 module.

08:30 Meet up with invited speaker for the F34PPP module at the campus hotel.

09:00 Seminar by invited speaker for F34PPP module.

10:15 Coffee with invited speaker. Discuss organisation of workshop planned for next year.

11:00 More e-mails. Check UCAS statistics for undergraduate applications. Meet (very) briefly with PhD student to discuss research progress.

12:00 Lunch with visiting seminar speaker.

13:00 Undergraduate admissions meeting. (I’m UG admissions tutor).

14:00 Walk visiting seminar speaker back to hotel. Respond to e-mails when I get back to office.

15:00 School Operations Group meeting.

16:00 Meeting with PhD student and postdoctoral researcher. Visit lab. to see what’s happening.

16:30 Meeting with PhD student.

17:00 Notice that speaker’s camera tripod has been left in my office. Bring tripod back to hotel. (Not quite certain as to which TRAC category is most appropriate here…).

19:00 Another hour of e-mails before getting my son ready for bed.

Tuesday November 22 2016

05:00 – 06:00 Write 500 words of popular science book I’ve been working on over the last year. Deadline: January 2017 (gulp). Again, not quite certain as to which TRAC category this falls under (if any). Is it impact or not?

06:00 – 07:00 E-mails. Again. Handle questions related to our 1st year undergraduate scholarships and other admissions-related enquiries. Send e-mail to 1st year lab organiser to apologise that my report marking is most likely going to be late.

08:30 — 11:30 Travel to Bury (beside Manchester) for a visit to Holy Cross School to talk about career opportunities in physics, and how to apply for physics degrees. Spent majority of time on trains marking 1st year lab reports and answering e-mails. (Also take time to check comments on a YouTube video I uploaded recently. Never a good idea…)

11:30 – 14:30 Visit to Holy Cross School. Lunch with Head of Physics.

14:30 – 18:00 Trains back to Nottingham. More 1st year lab report marking. Write “Comma splice. You need a full stop here” more times than I’ll ever care to remember. More e-mails. Lots of correspondence re. tomorrow’s UCAS visit day. E-mail informing me that new sample holder has fallen in the bottom of the ultrahigh vacuum chamber. Sigh.

Wednesday November 23 2016

05:00 – 06:00 A few hundred more words for the pop. sci. book. Best part of the working day. (Still don’t know whether this is TRAC-able, however).

06:00 – 07:00 Draft letter related to admissions.

09:15 – 10:45 Flurry of e-mails and informal meetings related to first UCAS visit day of the season. Mark one more lab report in “gaps”.

11:15 – 12:00 Visit lab to chat with PhD and postdoc researchers. More e-mails.

12:00 – 15:45 UCAS visit day (includes lunch with parents of applicants)

16:00 Brief meeting with PhD student.

16:15 E-mails: budget management on an EU grant and a reference for an alumnus of the group.

17:00 – 17:40 Skype conversation with mature student thinking of applying for physics degree course.

21:00 – 22:00 Spend a little time working on a manuscript that has been in “gestation” for far too long.

Thursday November 24 2016

06:00 – 07:30 Too far behind on lab marking (deadline today). Forgo spending time writing book to mark lab reports.

09:00 – 12:00 Normally this should be my 1st year lab demonstrating session. Due to admissions activity this week (and previous weeks), this session is being covered by a colleague. Spent time marking 1st year lab reports instead (and, of course, the mandatory e-mailing activity in “parallel”).

12:00 – 13:30  Lunch with colleagues (and an alumnus of the group who is visiting UoN today).

13:30 – 14:00 E-mails.

14:00 Meeting with 3rd year project students.

14:30 Meeting with tutee interested in possibility of summer internship in nanoscience group. Brief tour of labs.

15:00 – 18:00 Lab report marking.

21:00 Not feeling too well…

Friday November 25 2016

05:00 E-mail colleagues and tutees to say that I am not going to be in today due to illness — not been a good night. Tutorial scheduled for 15:00 today cancelled.

14:00 Still feeling queasy but rather better than twelve hours earlier. Start marking again.

19:00 Five hours’ marking completed (with periodic tea breaks).  

Saturday November 26 2016

06:30 – 10:00 Lab report marking.

15:00 -17:30 Lab report marking.

19:00 – 20:30 Lab report marking. (Almost infinitely preferable to Strictly…, which rest of family is watching).

Sunday November 27 2016

06:00 – 7:30 Lab report marking.

08:45 – 09:45 Lab report marking during my daughter’s ice skating lesson.

18:00 – 19:0021:30 – 23:30 Lab report marking


That’s 57 hrs, give or take the odd tea break. Note the lack of any type of hands-on research save for one hour spent on a paper. I am not griping in any way that the total number of hours is rather larger than the nominal HEFCE/RCUK 37.5 hr working week. Moreover, my hours are entirely in line with those of many of my colleagues (and, indeed, are a distinct improvement on the 80 hr weeks many early career academics work. When they start their lectureship they need to set up their research group, deal with a new world of administration, and often teach in parallel. (Many departments, however, set a minimal or reduced amount of teaching for the first few years of a lectureship.)

I enjoy my job. (Well, OK, let’s be honest, I can’t put hand on heart and say I always enjoy marking lab reports. But even marking has its upsides. I think…). And at least some aspects of the job remain effectively a hobby. The hours totted up above aren’t a problem; there are many people who work much longer hours in much more stressful jobs. (I’m not a junior medical doctor, for example). The thing that grinds my gears, however, is that a process which goes by the name of the Transparent Approach to Costing is anything but transparent.

Universities rely a great deal on the good will of staff (at all levels), lecturers’ love of their subject, and the willingness to do the best we can for our students. Yet as higher education becomes ever more corporate, university management reduces academics and teachers, the lifeblood of the university, to simplistic metrics and numbers on spreadsheets. They no longer connect with those working at the chalk-face and are too often cosseted away from the rank-and-file of academia. This not only demoralises staff but does a disservice to the students who pay a great deal of money to be taught by academics who would like to feel rather more valued by their institution.

ECR blues: Am I part of the problem?

A very quick lunchtime post to highlight that this week’s Nature is a special issue on the theme of young scientists’ careers, and, as it says loud and clear on the front cover, their struggle to survive in academia. There are a number of important and timely articles on just how tough it is for early career researchers (the ECRs of the title of this post), including a worrying piece by Kendall Powell: “Young, Talented and Fed-Up“.

One of the things that struck me in the various statistics and stories presented by Nature is the following graph:


Note how older scientists (and I’m soundly in the 41-55 bracket) now hold the large majority of NIH grants, and how different it was back in 1980. I’d like to know the equivalent distribution for grants in physics. If anyone can point me (in the comments section) towards appropriate statistics, I’d appreciate it.

In any case, I recommend taking a read of those articles in this week’s Nature, regardless of where you happen to be on the academic career ladder. As Powell’s article points out, Nature got a short, sharp response to its tweeted question about the challenges facing ECRs…

In Praise of ‘Small Astronomy’

My colleague and friend, Mike Merrifield, wrote the following thought-provoking post, recently featured at the University of Nottingham blog. I’m reposting it here at “Symptoms…” because although I’m not an astronomer, Mike’s points regarding big vs small science are also pertinent to my field of research: condensed matter physics/ nanoscience. Small research teams have made huge contributions in these areas over the years; many of the pioneering, ground-breaking advances in single atom/molecule imaging and manipulation have come from teams of no more than three or four researchers. Yet there’s a frustrating and troublesome mindset — especially among those who hold the purse strings at universities and funding bodies — that “small science” is outmoded and so last century. Much better to spend funding on huge multi-investigator teams with associated shiny new research institutes, apparently.

That’s enough from me. Over to Mike…

A number of years back, I had the great privilege of interviewing the Dutch astronomer Adriaan Blaauw for a TV programme.  He must have been well into his eighties at the time, but was still cycling into work every day at the University of Leiden, and had fascinating stories to tell about the very literal perils of trying to undertake astronomical research under Nazi occupation; the early days of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) of which he was one of the founding figures; and his involvement with the Hipparcos satellite, which had just finished gathering data on the exact positions of a million stars to map out the structure of the Milky Way.

When the camera stopped rolling and we were exchanging wind-down pleasantries, I was taken aback when Professor Blaauw suddenly launched into a passionate critique of big science projects like the very one we had been discussing.  He was very concerned that astronomy had lost its way, and rather than thinking in any depth about what new experiments we should be doing, we kept simply pursuing more and more data.  His view was that all we would do with data sets like that produced by Hipparcos would be to skim off the cream and then turn our attention to the next bigger and better mission rather than investing the time and effort needed to exploit these data properly.  With technology advancing at such a rapid pace, this pressure will always be there – why work hard for many months to optimise the exploitation of this year’s high-performance computers, when next year’s will be able to do the same task as a trivial computation?  Indeed, the Hipparcos catalogue of a million stars is even now in the process of being superseded by the Gaia mission making even higher quality measurements of a billion stars.

Of course there are two sides to this argument.  Some science simply requires the biggest and the best.  Particle physicists, for example, need ever-larger machines to explore higher energy regimes to probe new areas of fundamental physics.  And some results can only be obtained through the collection of huge amounts of data to find the rare phenomena that are buried in such an avalanche, and to build up statistics to a point where conclusions become definitive.  This approach has worked very well in astronomy, where collaborations such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) have brought together thousands of researchers to work on projects on a scale that none could undertake individually.  Such projects have also democratized research in that although the data from surveys such as SDSS are initially reserved for the participants who have helped pay for the projects, the proprietary period is usually quite short so the data are available to anyone in the World with internet access to explore and publish their own findings.

Unfortunately, there is a huge price to pay for these data riches. First, there is definitely some truth in Blaauw’s critique, with astronomers behaving increasingly like magpies, drawn to the shiniest bauble in the newest, biggest data set.  This tendency is amplified by the funding of research, where the short proprietary period on such data means that those who are “on the team” have a cast iron case as to why their grant should be funded this round, because by next round anyone in the World could have done the analysis.  And of course by the time the next funding round comes along there is a new array of time-limited projects that will continue to squeeze out any smaller programmes or exploitation of older data.

But there are other problems that are potentially even more damaging to this whole scientific enterprise.  There is a real danger that we simply stop thinking.  If you ask astronomers what they would do with a large allocation of telescope time, most would probably say they would do a survey larger than any other.  It is, after all, a safe option: all those results that were right at the edge of statistical significance will be confirmed (or refuted) by ten times as much data, so we know we will get interesting results.  But is it really the best use of the telescope?  Could we learn more by targeting observations to many much more specific questions, each of which requires a relatively modest investment of time?  This concern also touches on the wider philosophical question of the “right” way to do science.  With a big survey, the temptation is always to correlate umpteen properties of the data with umpteen others until something interesting pops out, then try to explain it.  This a posteriori approach is fraught with difficulty, as making enough plots will always turn up a correlation, and it is then always possible to reverse engineer an explanation for what you have found.  Science progresses in a much more robust (and satisfying) way when the idea comes first, followed by thinking of an experiment that is explicitly targeted to test the hypothesis, and then the thrill of discovering that the Universe behaves as you had predicted (or not!) when you analyse the results of the test.

Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, we are turning out an entire generation of new astronomers who have only ever worked on mining such big data sets.  As PhD students, they will have been small cogs in the massive machines that drive these big surveys forward, so the chances of them having their names associated with any exciting results are rather small – not unreasonably, those who may have invested most of a career in getting the survey off the ground will feel they have first call on any such headlines.  The students will also have never seen a project all the way through from first idea on the back of a beer mat through telescope proposals, observations, analysis, write-up and publication.  Without that overview of the scientific process on the modest scale of a PhD project, they will surely be ill prepared for taking on leadership roles on bigger projects further down the line.

I suppose it all comes down to a question of balance: there are some scientific results that would simply be forever inaccessible without large-scale surveys, but we have to somehow protect the smaller-scale operations that can produce some of the most innovative results, while also helping to keep the whole endeavour on track.  At the moment, we seem to be very far from that balance point, and are instead playing out Adriaan Blaauw’s nightmare.

For who’s a jolly good fellow?

It’s that time of the year again. The deadline for submission of applications for Royal Society University Research Fellowships (URFs) is today. I know four postdoctoral researchers who have submitted their proposal and now will wait anxiously for the next few months until they find out if they’ve been called for an interview. And then they’ll sweat a little more before discovering if they’re one of the lucky ~ 8% of those who’ve applied that have landed a fellowship.

A fellowship is increasingly seen as a rite of passage to an academic career (at least in many areas of physics). The bar for securing a lectureship has been raised dramatically since I was fortunate enough to be employed by the School of Physics and Astronomy back in 1997 (although it was still just the Department of Physics back in those dim, distant days). As I’ve said before — once or twice — I know for a fact that what I had in terms of “output” back in 1997 wouldn’t even get me on a shortlist these days; competition has increased dramatically.

I’ve not been a URF (or sat on a URF panel) but I’ve been an EPSRC fellow and have also been a member of EPSRC fellowship panels, so I’ve been on either side of the ‘divide’. I’ve been planning for a while to put together a list of tips/suggestions for fellowship applicants (based on my experience as a panel member), and given the day that’s in it, there’s no time like the present…

Have a mock interview.  I cannot overstate the importance of this. I’ve been rather surprised at the number of fellowship candidates I’ve met who had not sat down with colleagues prior to the day of the formal interview and had a dress-rehearsal. There is no better way to prepare than to have your colleagues, preferably those who have sat on fellowship panels previously (though this isn’t essential), give you a thorough grilling in advance. Quite a few universities now organise mock interviews as a matter of course but if yours doesn’t, don’t feel at all shy about approaching peers/colleagues/URFs/EPSRC fellows in your department and asking whether they’d be willing to do a mock interview with you.   (The same advice holds true for any PhD students who might be reading this and have a viva coming up soon…)

Assert your independence. Fellowship schemes targeted at early career researchers almost invariably are designed to select candidates who demonstrate original ideas, creativity, and the potential to develop an independent programme of research. There’s no better way to demonstrate your potential for independent research than being able to point to examples in your application (and in the interview) of where you — yes, you guessed it — acted as an independent researcher.

Although this may sound somewhat ‘disloyal’ , anything that can set you apart from your research supervisor’s/principal investigator’s ideas and goals is useful. Make yourself known in your research community by organising workshops or conferences; accept any (and all) opportunities for invited talks that come your way (regardless of how daunted you may feel); apply for grants where you can. Although I appreciate that opportunities for independent postdoc funding are thin on the ground (and this needs to change), keep your ear close to that ground and be alert to the possibilities of securing even small amounts of funding. The goal here is not to establish a £30M Centre-For-Universe-Leading-Cross-Disciplinary-Inter-Sectoral-Super-Duper-Science but to demonstrate that you can write a successful bid for funding).

Avoid boilerplate. There’s little point stating that your research has the potential to have a major impact on industry and that you’re going to work closely with your university’s Business Development and Innovation department — or whatever it’s called this month — to make this a reality unless you provide specific examples of just how you’re going to do it. Anyone can write non-specific boilerplate; it just irritates referees.

I’ve had my differences of opinion over the years with Athene Donald on the subject of impact but I fully agree with the points she made in an important blog post back in 2011 — Kidding Yourself (The Impact Saga Continues). Be specific. As someone who criticised the research councils’ impact agenda for many years, I’m obliged to say that, to their credit, public engagement alone is enough for a Pathways To Impact statement. This is particularly important if your research is on the fundamental end of the spectrum and far from application/exploitation/market. But, again, warm words and purple prose are not enough. Be specific about what you’ll do in terms of public engagement. (I should note that the Royal Society Fellowship scheme (like those of the European Research Council) is rather less focused on non-academic impact than are the UK research councils).

Papers in “those” journals matter. I very much wish that I didn’t have to include this point but, unfortunately, it’d be naive and rather disingenuous of me to avoid it. It’s not infrequently the case that members of panels tasked with reviewing fellowship applications outsource the judgement of research quality to the brand-names of the journals in which the applicants have published. I wrote about this problem at length previously for the LSE blog so I’m not going to revisit it here. I’ll just say this: In a perfect world candidates would be judged directly on their research achievements, rather than where they’re published. But let’s be realistic — this isn’t going to happen in academia any time soon. And yes, I’m indeed a hypocrite for pointing this out.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. The referees are looking for vision, originality, and novelty. They want to be excited by the scope of your project, not swamped by minutiae that mean little to anyone who isn’t one of the world-experts in your (sub-)(sub-)(sub-) field. You’re writing a proposal, not a comprehensive scientific paper. Aim to put across the bigger picture. This is particularly the case when your proposal is likely to be judged by a non-expert panel.

And, finally, keep an eye on the world outside those stereotypically gleaming ivory towers and dreaming spires. Don’t put your eggs all in one basket. Success rates for fellowships are exceptionally low, and the chances of securing a permanent lectureship (in physics at least) are anything but encouraging. If an academic career is your life-long ambition then go for it. But go for it with your eyes wide open and take the time to occasionally look outside the lab.

…and if you’re applying for a fellowship today, or any other day, I wish you the very best of luck.

(Guest post) Doing a PhD: To move or not to move?

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good old spat with my Head of School, Mike Merrifield. Our debates run the gamut of the academic’s traditional soap-box topics, but a theme to which we return regularly is the question of the importance – or not – of moving institution for early career researchers. I put forward my views on this in a blog post for physicsfocus last year. In this guest post (a first for “Symptoms…”), Mike explains why he and I disagree on the question of whether PhD students and postdocs should be assessed on the basis of their mobility.

Once again I find myself somewhat in disagreement with my friend and colleague Professor Moriarty.  This is never an entirely comfortable place to be, because he argues tenaciously, and, irritatingly, is right more often than not, but on this occasion I thought it was worth trying to spell out my reasoning with a little more nuance than is allowed by the 140 character sound bites of Twitter.

The catalyst for this disagreement was Philip’s response to an article in the THE entitled 10 steps to PhD failure.  His objection was to one of the pieces of advice given that

“Going somewhere else for your PhD shows that you have expanded your intellectual horizons. In contrast, others will view the fact that you did all your degrees at the same place as an indication that you lack scholarly breadth and independence, and that you were not wise or committed enough to follow this standard advice about studying elsewhere.”

which led to a lengthy Twitter discussion of whether mobility is an appropriate factor to consider as an indicator of drive and independence, where Philip’s position is “no,” and mine is “sometimes.”

First let me make it clear that I agree with Philip that the article is wrong if it implies that any such consideration is absolute.  Anyone contemplating where to do a PhD should weigh up a whole range of elements, which should include lifestyle as well as professional factors to establish where on the spectrum of work–life balance they want or need to position themselves.  While some people may relish the opportunities afforded by moving to a new locale and maybe even experiencing the culture of another country, others could be happily settled where they did their undergraduate degree, or have responsibilities that limit their ability to relocate, which may well then over-ride any other considerations.

But, pretty much by definition, work–life balance implies a compromise that does not optimise either side of the equation individually, and anyone considering where to do a PhD should at least think about the potential downsides to staying in the same institution:

  • You have already interacted with the academic staff at that institution quite closely, and heard at least some of what they have to teach you. Educationally, there are benefits to encountering other points of view and learning about topics where your current institution may have very little expertise.  You can certainly pick some of that up by going to summer schools, conferences, etc, but there is no substitute for being embedded in a different, challenging working environment to really get a new perspective on things.
  • What are the chances that you happen to have done your first degree at the best place in the World for whatever discipline has caught your interest? Surely, very few students apply to university on the basis of a specific sub-discipline; indeed, they may not have even reached the level to study and appreciate many of the more exciting possibilities until they are quite a long way into their undergraduate programmes.  It would therefore be an amazing coincidence if they happen to be at the institution where the most exciting and innovative work in that field is currently being undertaken.  If you are in the happy position of being willing and able to relocate, why wouldn’t you have the ambition to try to go to the best place in the World to pursue your interest?
  • If you decide to go beyond your PhD in an academic setting, you will have to convince someone to employ you in an appropriate postdoctoral post. Typically, you may be up against fifty-or-so other applicants, and the people responsible for selection will be considering a variety of factors to decide to whom to offer the job.  One of the things they are likely to be looking for is evidence of drive and independence.  It is unfortunately true that some students do drift into doing a PhD just by following the “path of least resistance” when they finished as undergraduates, as carrying on in the same place doing more-or-less the same thing is easier than making a more radical departure.  From a potential employer’s perspective, it can be difficult to separate such drifters from more dynamic motivated individuals who have consciously opted to stay at their original institution, whereas someone who has moved to a different strong institution is clearly not suffering from inertia and has more apparently made a pro-active career decision.  Thus, while absence of mobility does not constitute evidence of a lack of drive, it is an absence of evidence for such drive.
  • The same issue also arises a little later in an academic career, when a postdoctoral researcher will likely be applying for individual fellowships or faculty positions against even longer odds. At this point, the assessor is looking for evidence of the applicant’s originality.  I know from experience serving on fellowship and appointment panels that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the applicant’s intellectual contribution to the work from that of their collaborators.  One indicator is the level of variety in authorship of papers published – if an individual has never published a paper that doesn’t have their old PhD supervisor as an author, it can be very difficult for the assessor to determine whether all the ideas presented originated with that supervisor, too.  A wider variety of collaborations, on the other hand, suggests a much more outgoing approach to developing research ideas, not to mention the sought-after intellectual curiosity that draws one to new and different problems.  Such a breadth of authorship and interests is more readily established if one has worked in more than one research group.

Bear in mind that for all these considerations there will always be exceptions.  All that I really want to put across is that it is more straightforward to demonstrate the intellectual curiosity that drives the best researchers if you are able and willing to be mobile, and that if you are not then it is important to take extra steps to establish these traits in other visible ways.

Finally, I should reiterate that this piece was really only intended to lay out the implications of mobility (or immobility) for one side of work–life balance, and that the appropriate location for the fulcrum of that balance is a matter for all individuals to decide for themselves.