Concrete Reasons for the Abstract

I’ve just finished my last set of undergraduate lab report marking for this year and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Overall, however, the quality of the students’ reports has improved considerably over the year, with some producing work of a very high standard. (I get a little frustrated at times with the frustrating Daily Mail-esque whining about “students these days” that infects certain academics of a certain vintage.) Nonetheless, there remain some perennial issues with report writing…

My colleague James O’Shea sent the following missive/ cri de coeur to all of our 1st year undergrad lab class yesterday. I’m posting it here — with James’ permission, of course — because I thought it was a wonderful rationale for the importance of the abstract. (And I feel James’ pain.) Over to you, James.


 

You have written your last formal report for the first year but you will write many more in the coming years and possibly throughout your career. It seems that the purpose of abstracts and figure captions has not quite sunk in yet. This will come as you read more scientific papers (please read more scientific papers). What you want is to give a complete picture of why the experiment was needed, what the hypothesis was, how it was explored, what the result was, and what the significance of that result is. You should read your abstract back as if it is the only thing people will read. In most cases, it really is the only thing they will read. If the abstract does not provide all these things, the likely outcome is that they won’t bother reading the rest – your boss included – and all the work you put in doing the research will be for nothing.

If a researcher (or your boss) does decide – based on the abstract – that they are interested in your report or paper, they might if they are short of time first just look at the figures. The figure caption is therefore vital. Again, look at the figure and read the caption back to yourself as if this (in conjunction with the abstract) is the only thing they will read. It has to be understandable in isolation from the main body of the text. The figure represents the work that was done. The caption needs to explain that work.

If your boss did read the abstract and decided to look at the figures, they will then most likely skip to the conclusions. From this they will want to get an overview of what new knowledge now exists and what impact it will have on their company or research program. They might then recommend that others in the organisation read your report in detail to find out how robust the research is, or they might give you the go ahead to do more research, or let you lead your own team. But if your abstract did not tell the interesting story in the first place, or your figure captions did not convey what work was done, your report might not even get read in the real world.

Best regards

James O’Shea

 

 

Pressure vessels: the epidemic of poor mental health among academics

This post takes its title from a talk that will be given by Liz Morrish here at UoN next week. (5:00 pm on May 21 in The Hemsley.) Here’s the outline:

Liz Morrish will present findings that show how staff employed at Higher Education Institutions/ Universities are accessing counselling and occupational health services at an increasing rate. Between 2009 and 2015, counselling referrals have risen by 77 per cent, while staff referrals to Occupational Health services during the same period have risen by 64 per cent. This attests to an escalating epidemic of poor mental health among the sector’s employees. I will consider some of the factors which weigh on the mental health of academic staff: escalating and excessive workloads; the imposition of metric surveillance; outcomes-based performance management; increasing precarity and insecure contracts. Universities have been characterised as ‘anxiety machines’ which purposefully flout legal requirements to prevent stress in the workplace. Given the urgency of the situation, I will propose some recommendations which if institutions were to follow, might alleviate some of the pressures.

…and here’s Liz’s bio:

Liz Morrish is an independent scholar and activist for resistance to managerial appropriation of the university. She is a visiting fellow at York St John University. She was principal lecturer and subject leader of linguistics at Nottingham Trent University until speaking out and writing about the mental health of academics brought about her resignation in 2016. She is completing a co-authored book on managerial discourse in the neoliberal academy, entitled Academic Irregularities (Routledge forthcoming) and she also writes a blog with the same name: https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/. Having exited the academy, Liz now has more time for other activities, and she now spends time as a marathon swim observer.

I met Liz a number of years ago, when she was principal lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Not so long after we met, NTU disgracefully brought disciplinary proceedings against Liz when she spoke out about the mental health of academics, ultimately causing her to resign. For the full story on NTU’s shocking behaviour — driven, of course, by its metrics-and-league-table-infected management ‘strategy’ — an exceptionally important article written for the Times Higher Education shortly after Liz’s resignation is a must-read. Here’s a taster, but you should read the entire article for deep insights into just how low a university will go in its attempts to protect its reputation and pressure its staff:

In March last year [2016], Times Higher Education republished a blog piece that I wrote on the causes of stress and threats to mental health in academic life. The piece recounted how, on University Mental Health Day, I opened up to students about some of the pressures their lecturers were under. Many readers were kind enough to retweet the link, respond under the line or email me personally to let me know that my article resonated for colleagues around the world. But after it had received 10,000 hits on my own blog and spent four days trending on THE’s website, my previous employer objected to it and I was obliged to ask for it to be taken down. This inaugurated a disciplinary process that I felt curbed my ability to write further on the topic, or to have a frank dialogue with students on mental health in universities.

I feel very fortunate indeed that I am employed by the “other” university in Nottingham. Although I have had, and continue to have, my spats with senior management here, they have not once asked me to constrain or curtail my criticism of university (and University) culture; there’s been not so much as a quiet word in my ear following even rather scathing public critiques. Thank you, UoN, for your commitment to academic freedom.

I’d very much appreciate it if those of you who are Twitter-enabled UoN academics could spread the word about Liz’s talk. (I’ve forgone that particular form of communication.)  I hope to see you there on May 21.

 

The wit and wisdom of Associate Deans

There are very, very, very few things I miss about Twitter but the brilliantly incisive @ass_deans is certainly one…

 

The New IOP Physics Technician Award

I received an e-mail from the Institute of Physics a couple of days ago on the new IOP Technician Award and was planning to blog about it. Peter Coles beat me to it, however. His post below highlights the essential contributions of support and technical staff to universities; they are the lifeblood of everything we do. And that’s especially true for physicists of the experimental stripe like myself.

I’ve got to say that while I have the occasional moan about some aspects of my own university, Nottingham (where Peter was a colleague some time ago), when it comes to recognising the contributions of technicians, UoN has a pretty good track record. For one, it was a founding signatory of the Technician Commitment.

In the Dark

Picture Credit: Cardiff University School of Physics & Astronomy

I remember a few years ago one of my colleagues when I worked in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, Steven Baker, won an award for being the best STEM Technician in the category of Physical Sciences in the whole country! At the time this was a new award set up by the Higher Education Academy, so Steven was the inaugural winner of it.

Now there’s another new award, this time from the Institute of Physics and dedicated to Physics technicians (not necessarily in universities). I quote:

The IOP Technician Award enables the community to recognise and celebrate the skills and experience of technicians and their contribution to physics.

You can find full details of how to nominate an awardee here. The deadline is 14th June 2019. The prize is worth £1000, but more…

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Lightning Strikes Again: Spring Into Science 2019

I was delighted when a link to this video popped into my Outlook inbox a few days ago…

A big thank you to the video-maker, Tony Martin, who did such a wonderful job of capturing the enthusiasm, energy, and exuberance of the three hundred or so Year 8 students crowded into our largest lecture theatre for this year’s Spring Into Science. It’s the third year in a row that we’ve run this event, after it was inspired by my friend and colleague Ed Copeland during a Brian Cox lecture here in Nottingham in late 2016. As described in a University of Nottingham blog post covering the inaugural Spring Into Science,

Professor Copeland joined him on stage and spoke about the need for more young people to get involved in science: “Getting more young people enthusiastic about science is vital both to ensure progression and growth in the subject but also because science plays such an important role in society. We designed the content to be interactive and engaging, with the aim of showing how exciting science can be and to hopefully inspire the audience to consider it as a subject to pursue.”

I look forward eagerly to Spring Into Science every year. It’s a huge amount of fun to give the lecture because of the students’ reactions to the demonstrations and their willingness to engage with the science. But I’ve got the easy job — I just turn up and talk. There’s a heck of a lot more hard work involved for those who put in the effort (both behind the scenes and “up front” during the lecture) to organise everything and to ensure that the many demos not only work but grab the students’ attention year in, year out. There’s nothing quite like that “ohhhh” that echoes across the theatre each year as the Tesla coil is fired up…

As ever, it’s the unsung heroes of universities — the technical and support staff — who make events like Spring Into Science such a success. So a very big thank-you indeed to Ian Taylor, Denise Watt, Matt Young, and Paul Munday for their dedication and commitment in developing, testing, and supporting all of the demos we use (for not only Spring Into Science but the very many other outreach, public engagement, and schools events with which the School of Physics and Astronomy is involved.) I’ve also got to very gratefully acknowledge the hard work of Ed, Chris Staddon (our outreach coordinator), Aggie Gasiorowska (who liaises with all of the schools and has the unenviable task of ensuring that hundreds of thirteen year olds end up in the right places in the lecture theatre), and our colleagues involved in secondary education across Nottingham: Nadia Hussain, Frances Rowland, John Dexter, and Mick Evans, in particular, who make sure the word gets out to Notts schools. And, of course, I have to highlight the immense hard work, dedication, and enthusiasm of all of the Year 8 teachers who attended. (If I’ve forgotten anyone, it is most definitely not a deliberate slight. My memory ain’t what it once was…(and it’s never been that great.))

Hot on the heels of the Spring Into Science lecture there’s a Q&A session, with a panel comprising students and researchers in physics and astronomy at pretty much all career stages: undergrads, postgrads, postdoctoral researchers, lecturers, and professors. (Another big thank you, of course, to all those who contributed to the panel discussion.) It’s always fascinating (and instructive) to listen to the Year 8 audience quiz my colleagues. This year, in addition to the traditional questions about the origin of the Earth/universe (or is it multiverse…?), we had students keen to know about that incredible black hole image, whether the Earth is the only planet with four seasons (a great question), and what our panel thought about the flat Earth “controversy”. Dr. Meghan Gray’s answer to the latter question was a model of restraint, clarity, and compelling scientific argument: “There is no controversy. Here’s why…”

At about the 1:40 mark in the video above, one of the students explains that “We got to explore our imaginations a little more and figure out what we wanted to do when we’re older.” I was very pleased to hear this, as one message I try to get across during the Spring Into Science lecture is the importance of breaking down that irksome “Two Cultures” divide that continues to exist between STEM and the arts and humanities. Too often (particularly at secondary school level), science is viewed as a staid, static body of facts and techniques that need to be learned so as to “get the right answer”. The more we can highlight just how much creativity, imagination, and, indeed, artistry are involved in science, the better.

Spinning off without IP?

I’ve had the exceptionally good fortune of working with a considerable number of extremely talented, tenacious, and insightful scientists over the years. One of those was Julian Stirling, whose PhD I ostensibly supervised. (In reality, Julian spent quite some time supervising me.) Julian is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bath and is involved in a number of exciting projects there (and elsewhere), including that he describes in the guest post below. Over to you Julian…


Universities love spin-offs — they show that research has had impact! — but does the tax payer or the scientific community get good value for money? More importantly, does spinning off help or hurt the research? I fall strongly on the side of arguing that it hurts. Perhaps I am ideologically driven in my support for openness, but when it comes to building scientific instruments I think I have a strong case.

Imagine a scientist has a great idea for a new instrument. It takes three years to build it, and the results are amazing; it revolutionises the field. The scientist will be encouraged by funding bodies to make the research open. Alongside the flashy science papers will probably be a pretty dry paper on the concept of the instrument; these will be openly published. However, there will be no technical drawings, no control software, no warnings to “Never assemble X before Y or all your data will be wrong and you will only find out 3 months later!“. The university and funding agencies will want all of this key information to be held as intellectual property by a spin-off company. This company will then sell instruments to scientists (many funded by the same source that paid for the development).

The real problem comes when two more scientists both have great new ideas which require a sightly modified version of the instrument. Unfortunately, as the plans are not available, both their groups must spend 2-3 years reinventing the wheel for their own design just so they can add a new feature. Inevitably both new instruments get spun off. Very soon, the tax payer has paid for the instrument to be developed three times; a huge amount of time has been put into duplicating effort. And, very probably, the spin-off companies will get into legal battles over intellectual property. This pushes the price of the instruments up as their lawyers get rich. I have ranted about this so many times there is even a cartoon of my rant…

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We live in a time when governments are requiring scientific publications to be open access. We live in a world where open source software is so stable and powerful it runs most web-servers, most phones, and all 500 of the worlds fastest supercomputers. Why can’t science hardware be open too? There is a growing movement to do just that, but it is somewhat hampered by people conflating open source hardware and low-cost hardware. If science is going to progress, we should share as much knowledge as possible.

In January 2018 I was very lucky to get a post-doctoral position working on open source hardware at the University of Bath. I became part of the OpenFlexure Microscope project, an open-source laboratory-grade motorised 3D-printed microscope. What most people don’t realise about microscopes is that the majority of the design work goes into working out how to precisely position a sample so you can find and focus on the interesting parts. The OpenFlexure microscope is lower cost than most microscopes due to 3D printing, but this has not been done by just 3D printing the same shapes you would normally machine from metal. That would produce an awful microscope. Instead, the main microscope stage is one single complex piece that only a 3D printer could make.  Rather than sliding fine-ground metal components, the flexibility of plastic is used to create a number of flexure hinges. The result is a high performance microscope which is undergoing trials for malaria diagnosis in Tanzania.

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But what about production? A key benefit of the microscope being open is that local companies in regions that desperately need more microscopes can build them for their communities. This creates local industry and lowers initial costs, but, most importantly, it guarantees that local engineers can fix the equipment. Time and time again well-meaning groups send expensive scientific equipment into low resource settings with no consideration of how it performs in those conditions nor any plans for how it can be fixed when problems do arise. For these reasons the research project has a Tanzanian partner, STICLab, who are building (and will soon be selling) microscopes in Tanzania. We hope that other companies in other locations will start to do the same.

The research project had plans to support distributed manufacturing abroad. But what if people in the UK want a microscope? They can always build their own — but this requires time, effort, and a 3D printer. For this reason, Richard Bowman (the creator of OpenFlexure Microscope) and I started our own company, OpenFlexure Industries, to distribute microscopes. Technically, it is not a spin-off as it owns no intellectual property. We hope to show that scientific instruments can be distributed by successful businesses, while the entire project remains open.

People ask me “How do you stop another company undercutting you and selling them for less?” The answer is: we don’t. We want people to have microscopes, if someone undercuts us we achieved this goal. The taxpayer rented Richard’s brain when they gave him the funding to develop the microscope, and now everyone owns the design.

The company is only a month old, but we are happy to have been nominated for a Great West Business Award. If you support the cause of open source hardware and distributed manufacturing we would love your vote.

Vying with the viva

This week’s Times Higher Education‘s cover feature is “Lighting The Way“, on the theme of PhD supervision. Along with five other academics, across a range of disciplines, I was invited by Paul Jump to contribute my thoughts on the role of the PhD supervisor. The editorial (by John Gill) sums up my central point as “the fundamental responsibility [of the PhD supervisor] is still to nurture independence such that the doctoral candidate ceases to be a student and becomes a peer.” That’s a fair summary. I also reiterated my commitment to referring to PhD researchers, rather than PhD students, in line with Jeff Ollerton’s important suggestion.

I’ve had the “Vying with the Viva” title of this post stuck in my head for a little while now and the publication of the Times Higher article seems as timely a moment as any to jot down some tips for PhD students  researchers who are preparing for a viva voce examination. I should first say that just about everything you need to know about doing a PhD is covered in a wonderful book by an alumnus of the Nottingham Nanoscience Group, James Hayton, whose PhD it was my absolute pleasure to supervise. I cannot recommend that book highly enough (and not only because it demonstrates that Dr. Hayton managed to survive my supervision and come out the other side relatively unscathed, if perhaps swearing a little more often than is strictly necessary.) James also has a great blog, website, and series of videos on the many peaks and pitfalls of doing a PhD.

I thought, however, that it might be helpful for those about to undertake a viva to hear from someone who has examined PhD candidates (as both external and internal examiner) at the rate of about three or four per year (on average) over the last couple of decades. At this point in my career, I have also been primary supervisor for a total of twenty-six students. (Twenty-two have completed their thesis to date. The remaining four are in 1st year (Oli), 2nd year (Joe), and the final year (Alex and Filipe) of their PhD project, respectively.)*

I should stress that what I write below is UK- and Ireland-centric and is from the perspective of a condensed matter physicist/nanoscientist (although I could also just about get away with calling myself a chemical physicist/physical chemist, given the research we do.) The examples chosen obviously reflect my research background and examining experience but the advice is, I would say, broadly applicable for all disciplines.

My own viva, back on a snowy January morning in 1994 — with the wonderfully-monickered Iggy McGovern, physicist and poet, as my external examiner** — was very similar in style to those I’ve since attended as examiner rather than candidate. The PhD researcher sits on one side of a table, with the examiners — one from a different university (the external), the other from the same university as the candidate — seated opposite. Sometimes (though very, very rarely in my experience), the PhD supervisor will also attend, and in Ireland it’s more common to have a moderator in place to ensure that the candidate and examiners don’t come to blows. (Joke. Usually.)

OK, on with those tips for a successful viva (in no particular order)…

1. Have a practice viva.

2. Have a practice viva.

3. Have a practice viva. Excuse my hammering home the message quite as bluntly as this but if I were forced at gunpoint to give only one piece of advice it would be the following: ask your PhD supervisor to do a mock viva with you and do not take “no” for an answer. If there’s another academic member of staff or postdoc willing to be involved, all the better — they can take the role of the internal examiner and your PhD supervisor can pretend to be the external. They should aim to grill you mercilessly. And if it takes two or three attempts at the mock viva to fully prepare you for the real thing, so be it. (The mock need only take an hour or less. That’s enough, generally, to identify where there might be issues.)

We do this in our group at Nottingham for every PhD researcher (a couple of weeks before their actual viva) and we do not hold back. They leave the mock viva feeling somewhat shell-shocked but that’s entirely the point: it’s much better to come to terms with key gaps in knowledge or understanding before the actual viva. And in the end, most of our alumni find that the real viva was a piece of cake compared to the mock.

4. Every word in your thesis is examinable.  Do not simply rearrange the words in a textbook or a review article when it comes to writing the background material. Know what those words mean. For example, if you’re an experimentalist, don’t write about particular functionals used in density functional theory (DFT) if you have absolutely no idea what a functional is (and how it differs from a function). Or, if you’re a theorist, don’t wax lyrical about phase errors in a phase-locked loop if you haven’t a clue as to how a PLL does what it does. (These are both examples I’ve encountered when I’ve been external examiner.)  And it goes without saying that you don’t cut and paste from that article or textbook. That’s plagiarism. Even if it’s just one sentence. And, no, “I couldn’t word it better than it was written” isn’t an excuse. But you know that.

5. Don’t ramble. If you don’t know the answer, just say so. Obviously, try not to reply to each question you’re asked with “I haven’t a clue” but you are not expected to know the answer to everything. Indeed, the examiner is often asking because they don’t know.  If you start rambling you can very easily start digging yourself a hole out of which it’s sometimes difficult to crawl. I certainly did this in my own viva because I chatter when I’m nervous.

6. Don’t neglect the fundamentals. This is where most PhD candidates come unstuck. There seems to be a perception that the viva will focus on the minutiae of the most arcane technical detail in your research over which you have probably lost many nights of sleep. The overwhelming odds are that your examiner won’t even have noticed this aspect of your work. They’ll focus on the much bigger picture. (See also #7.)

If your PhD is on simulating intermolecular interactions, for example, be damn sure that you are completely au fait with those pair potentials due to Morse and Lennard-Jones that you covered all the way back in Year 1 or Year 2 of your undergraduate degree. Similarly, if you’ve been determining forces from a potential energy landscape measured by an atomic force microscope, ensure that you have slightly more than a passing familiarity with scalar and vector fields. Dig out those undergrad vector calculus notes and make sure you understand how force and potential are related, for one.

You can’t, of course, prepare for every question. But it’s worth thinking carefully about which key principles of physics/chemistry underpin your research. (We’ll take the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics as given. You can, of course, state the 1st and 2nd laws with confidence, right?) In the case of my viva, Prof. McGovern took me from vibration isolation for a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), to the eddy current damping exploited in most STMs, to Faraday’s law of induction. (Thanks for that, Iggy.)

7. Think big. I tend to start the vivas I do with a simple question along the lines of “Why did you do a PhD?” or “Which aspect of your work is the most important/you’re most proud of?” or “Explain your work in a few sentences and in language that a GCSE student could understand.” My aim is to try to put the candidate at their ease. This backfires sometimes, however, because the candidate clearly is not expecting a general question of this type. Sometimes they are completely flummoxed.

A key part of the viva process is to ascertain the extent to which you understand the broader context of your work. Why is it important? Why should anyone care? What value does it have in terms of pushing your field of study forward? You need to sweat the small stuff, to borrow a phrase from our friends across the pond, but you also need to be able to see the wood for the trees.

8. “My supervisor told me to do it” is never, ever, ever the right answer. You’re being examined to assess your ability to be an independent researcher. If you don’t know why you did a particular experiment or calculation the way you did, find out right now. And ask yourself whether that really was the best way to do things. (I should note that I’ve been given “My supervisor told me to do it” as a reply on significantly more than one occasion.)

9. Forewarned is forearmed. Look up your examiners’ group web pages and publications. Take some time to familiarise yourself with the research they’ve done. Unless something has gone badly astray in the examiner selection process, their research area is not going to be light years from yours. Do your homework and you might even be able to preempt a question or two.

10. We are almost always on your side. Yes, there are one or two complete bastards out there who are deeply insecure and unpleasant individuals; they’ll take pleasure in attempting to humiliate a candidate during a viva. I’ve not encountered one of these (thus far) but I’ve certainly heard from postdocs who have had to suffer arrogant, patronising, and, in the worst cases, bullying PhD examiners.

To put this in context, however I have now done somewhere between sixty and seventy vivas (as external or internal examiner) over the course of my career to date and I’ve not encountered this type of behaviour. I would also very much hope, of course, that I have not made any of the PhD candidates I have examined feel as if they were being patronised (or worse.) We examiners want you to pass!

11. Try to enjoy yourself. Despite receiving quite a grilling from Prof. McGovern, I enjoyed my viva. It’s nerve-wracking, of course, but when you’re talking about the research you love with someone who is genuinely interested in the work, it can also be exhilarating.

No, really. It can.

I’ll leave you with a wonderfully affecting Sixty Symbols video that follows my friend and erstwhile colleague at Nottingham, James Clewett, through his viva experience…

To quote James,

“In the end…it was a very comfortable… very enjoyable experience. It was something that, in hindsight, I’d do it again.”

Oh, and that reminds me…

12Don’t wear shorts.

* Thank you Mike, Mick, Li, Rich, Fiona, Matt, Andy, Manu, James, Adam, Pete, Cong, Rosanna, Haya, Sam, Julian, Cristina, Ioannis, Morten, Jeremy, Simon, Alex, Filipe, Joe, and Oli.

** It was a lot of fun to work with Iggy seventeen years after my viva on this video: