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!)

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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4 Responses to Skills

  1. I would be interested to hear your views on language skills. I know of one British redbrick university that has (at least partially) tried to work around precisely the sort of bureaucracy you describe by allowing postgraduate students to substitute language courses in place of these other time-wasting ‘transferable skills’rubbish.

    On the one hand this brings British system closer to an American-style system where language courses have a compulsory part of PhD programmes for years. But in an age where 90% of papers are in Englsih and the rest are in Franch (at least if what appears on the arxiv is to be believed) is this approach still appropriate? Or do we think we’ll all be speaking mandarin in 50 years time?

    • I think that most of the skills we need as academic mathematicians are best acquired by doing, or by watching people who do them well. PhD students have to be able to write well, either because they have some natural abililty and can practise, or by reading what others write and seeing how they do that. Newly-appointed lecturers should watch their colleagues lecturing, and should have a mentor who can remind them what needs to be done when.

      Language skills are a different matter. At present the international language of science is broken English: I have given lecture courses in Prague, Budapest, Barcelona, Tehran, and other places in English. Even the vastly increasing numbers of Chinese mathematicians are writing in English. On the other hand, speaking a foreign language can widen the range of jobs you can apply for.

      I have had some courses in French and German, but in fact the first offer of a permanent job that I had came with the caveat that to work in that department I really should learn Welsh! (I didn’t take the job; if you have been in Aberystwyth on a rainy February day you may understand why.)

  2. Jonathan Kirby says:

    Peter, two comments:

    1) We should encourage PhD students (and new staff) to learn useful skills outside of their immediate present need (e.g. practise written and oral presentation skills early in a PhD, before they are first needed). However, we should not be putting effort into measuring that they do this – students can take responsibility for themselves rather than wasting everyone’s time with the bureaucracy.

    2) You wrote: “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.)”

    I think this is also a sensible idea in mathematics. There are many people who are good at proving theorems but bad at writing papers and / or giving talks (or for example in some cases prove too many theorems to have time to write the papers). There should be no disgrace and indeed more respect for people who, as PhD students, postdocs, or other colleagues, write the papers and give the talks for these people. Similarly, some people are good at nearly proving theorems and need others to help with the details, and others are good at details but are not so good at having the big ideas. The current culture in mathematics (certainly in the UK, but probably most places) says that one person should do everything. This seems to be reflected in hiring practices. I don’t see this as a good thing. We should be looking more at a research group or department and saying that some existing people would be more productive with a collaborator who could write their papers or whatever, and giving proper weighting to those sorts of criteria, for permanent jobs as well as for postdocs.


    • There is a world of difference between a collaboration in which two or more people bring complementary skills to attack a problem, and a system in which PhD students have the job of presenting their supervisors’ results. I am all for the former, but this kind of collaboration is unofficial; even if it is as well organised as that of Hardy and Littlewood, nobody feels under any compulsion to do anything, as their famous “axioms” show.

      Personally, I can think of nothing worse than not being able to tell others the things I am currently excited about!

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