Whenever I discuss anything to do with teaching and research, I have the feeling that I sound like an ancient dinosaur, blinking its eyes in disbelief at the post-apocalyptic world surrounding it. So it is reassuring when sometimes my prejudices are confirmed by young scientists and students.
When I was a graduate student, I was expected to do some research and write it up; when I was a postdoc, and then a young lecturer, I was expected to show up in front of a class and teach them something. I think that, by and large, I did what was expected of me. But now, our postgraduates are sent on all kinds of courses. Our guide for postgraduates includes the following statement:
Research Councils recommend that postgraduate students undertake 10 days worth of transferable skills training per year. This can include computer skills, mathematical typesetting, language skills, communication skills and many other areas. You are expected to keep a record of all the courses and conferences you attend and record it on the School’s Personal Development Plan form at the end of each year. You can find the form on the postgraduate web pages.
For new staff, it is even worse. They are required to take some very time-consuming Education and Staff Development courses; they are told that these courses take precedence over crucial teaching activities such as setting examinations; they are required to write long essays about subjects of little apparent relevance to the teaching of mathematics; and, if they struggle with these courses, they are threatened with failing their probation and being dismissed.
It is clear to me that it is the good researchers and teachers who are most at risk from this skills training; they will see that it is of little use to them and put their effort elsewhere, and as a result will not meet the targets set for them. (With some exceptions: there are pragmatists who see it as an irrelevant ordeal which simply has to be endured.)
So I was delighted to see, in last week’s Nature, a report of a survey by the Royal Society of what young scientists actually want:
These young scientists argued that they had not steeped themselves in the movements of mitochondria, the make-up of molecules or the fundamental foundations of the Universe in the hope of learning how to “expand their skill set”. Most work long hours at low pay so they can be scientists: investigators unveiling the mysteries of the natural world.
So can’t we get these bureaucratic burdens off their backs a bit and let them get on with the science?
Another solution reported was proposed at a meeting ot the EuroScience Open Forum. If a scientist does not have communication or administration skills, (s)he should create a team including people who do have these skills. (No use in mathematics, of course, since we don’t build teams, but sensible in other areas of science.)
Indeed, if those who claim to be able to teach such skills to young people want to substantiate their claims, why not let them do this job and put their own skills to constructive use?
(Actually I don’t mean that. Having some evidence of how they do the training, I dread to let them loose on actually communicating research findings!)