About - Soapbox

Tertiary Education

My undergraduate course structure was pretty simple – you attended lectures and practicals for three years, you took annual exams and practical tests. No flexibility, no course options, no tutorials, no essays, no lecture handouts. No real interaction with the staff, all of whom were admittedly excellent, but that was the system – no formal contact procedures existed.

And there was far too much lecture material to assimilate – you couldn't hope to cover it all. Fortunately, a seasoned fellow-student had a plan, perfectly ethical and legitimate, a way of second-guessing all the questions in Finals, based on statistics and psychology, and then honing our answers in advance. I suppose we could have got rich by marketing it. We certainly got very good results.

But the point is that it shouldn't have been necessary. I sincerely hope that degree courses (in those Chemistry Departments that still survive these days) are now far more realistically geared to the students' learning curves.

Everything should have been more rational at postgraduate level, but in some ways it was worse, at least for Ph D students (for whom their Thesis would be their only salvation – unlike the M Sc students who gained credits for taking courses and passing the tests). There is almost no situation in life quite so lonely and nerve-racking as Ph D research – unless you have a friendly and approachable supervisor. That is – by common consent – by no means the rule, especially if that (nominal) supervisor happens to be a busy Head of Department.

I believe that there should be a formal contract between the Department and the postgraduate, guaranteeing him/her a certain amount of regular support, encouragement and advice. There should also be realistic agreed targets and the wherewithal to accomplish them – quite possibly involving collaborative development of computer programs, for example, in order to achieve practicable timescales. I was expected to start from scratch, whereas a perfectly good CNDO / CI program was in the process of completion by a third-year postgrad. As far as I know, it was never used again.

And, as every postgrad or postdoc knows, the biggest hurdle of all is actually writing the stuff up, as a Thesis or for publication. Abso-blooming-lutely no advice or support whatsoever from the system. Over-runs were common, and no-shows not unknown. The most brilliant fellow-researcher I ever knew, RSM, from whom I learned a very great deal, eventually disappeared into the welcoming embrace of ICI Ltd, his Thesis unfinished to this day. To paraphrase the sorrowing remark by Newton about the luckless Roger Cotes, "If RSM had written-up, then we should have known something".

Just over five years ago, an official report (please follow links below) revealed that almost a third of full-time and two-thirds of part-time doctoral students had not completed their degree within seven years. And there's plenty of anecdotal evidence since then to be found via Google.

Additionally, there is mounting evidence that post-graduate research actually decreases ones earnings-potential relative to people of the same age who've gone straight into the jobs market after getting their first degree. And I have personal experience of the ambivalence of prospective employers, or even colleagues within the job environment, of 'somebody with a (!) title' – I quickly learned to keep it pretty quiet. Such prospects would be a certain demotivation and disincentive to a doctoral student in the throes of a difficult research or thesis situation with a disengaged supervisor.

I rest my case. And, what is more, the tax-payer deserves better of the higher educational system than that it should fail to make a proper and cost-effective use of its basic raw materials – the students.

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

PS. Just a few days after writing this, I came across the following excellent self-help guide to many diverse aspects of life as a research student, including the issues discussed above. The author is Visiting Professor for the Development of Graduate Education at the University of Manchester. My copy is actually the Second Edition published in 2000, and I understand the Third Edition is even better!

  • Pat Cryer, 'THE RESEARCH STUDENT'S GUIDE TO SUCCESS', 3rd Edn; Open University Press, Sep 2006

PPS. And almost five years down the line [Feb 2016], I have noticed another, even more closely-focussed, guide: the authors are (or at least were at the time of publication), respectively, Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University Business School and Director of Research at that same institution.

  • Dr Estelle M Phillips and Prof Derek S Pugh, 'HOW TO GET A Ph D: A handbook for students and their supervisors', 2nd Edn (revised & updated); Open University Press, Buckingham & Philadelphia, 1994

Their admirable advice illuminates a number of related areas, not least the creative process in general, and I'd just like to add my own tuppence ha'penny worth.

When I first began to program as a raw postgraduate in 1967, I knew scarcely more than the basic rudiments of Fortran, and nothing at all about quantum chemical calculations. But I was just capable of putting together a piece of code comprising a Begin (ie Main) routine – which printed a message "Hello" – a Calculate (sub)routine – which did precisely nothing – and a Terminate (sub)routine – which printed a message "Goodbye". This compiled and executed flawlessly, so I already had a working program. All I had to do was to flesh-out these bare bones, always ensuring that the program continued to perform as imperturbably as an Edwardian butler.

As a half-baked postdoc in 1972, I followed exactly the same procedure. And as an ultimately burned-out IT professional from 1976 until 2009, it saw me through many a crisis in which managerial or client expectations frequently far outstretched my initial capabilities.

The crucial feature is that function follows form. Get the right overall structures into position, and the content will follow suit. Get the layout wrong, and you will tie yourself into knots trying to keep the thing working. My first employers, a software house, practised this philosophy and I recognised it as an old ally rather than as a new friend. My second employers, an engineering company, had never heard of it and their software was an absolute nightmare.

"Wot is this to do with getting a PhD?", I hear the rude boys at the back start noisily to enquire. "Planty, Planty!", as the immortal Hyman Kaplan would have retorted. Start planning your thesis from the day you first sit at that new desk. Put the title (you may not yet know it in detail), the Greek epigram, the wistful dedication to your immigrant parents, the obligatory thanks through gritted teeth to your supervisor (expressing the sincere hope that they will soon be released from rehab), and a provisional table of contents. There! You already have a thesis! It may not yet be oven-ready, but it exists. A mind-block has been forestalled. Trust me, follow through diligently, accumulating chapter headings and section headings and the content will look after itself.

After all, that's precisely how this website took shape.

Online Journals

You might be surprised to find that quaternary education (traditionally scorned as autodidacticism, which does sound vaguely improper, but is of course a long and honourable tradition of self-improvement through private study – think of Faraday, Boole, Ramanujan, or Einstein, for example) has its own unexpected overheads nowadays.

Consider this Letter to the Editor published recently in a well-known newspaper as part of an ongoing correspondence regarding the exorbitant cost of public access to scientific research papers if available only online:

"May I make a plea for the independent scholar? Unless he or she is a member of an academic library (usually not possible if you are not a member of an academic institution) the extortionate pay walls erected by academic publishers prevent all access to original research.

This was never the case with the printed journals formerly held on the shelves of those libraries. Sometimes it seems that we are reverting to the days of chained books and inaccessible languages which served only the purposes of the elite and powerful."

This summarises perfectly the dismay I experience when faced with a (typically) £30 charge to see the content of an online reference, having viewed only the Abstract (which may or may not be hugely helpful in gauging the overall relevance to me of the content itself).

However it is very encouraging that the present UK government is now reviewing this situation, and is "committed to ensuring that publicly-funded research should be accessible free of charge".

For further discussion of these issues, please see the following (free!!!) links – I'm not a Guardian reader, but I deeply admire their campaign on behalf of affordable public access to scientific research:

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

(If the link is broken, see this copy.)

A similar controversy is in full spate regarding the news media themselves, and as always Wikipedia provides a detailed and balanced account:


I'm an ardent admirer and supporter of Wikipedia, and would like to suggest that every regular user should consider making them a financial contribution from time to time!

Bees in the Bonnet

H L Mencken, the so-called Sage of Baltimore, once remarked that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.

But there are some things which after a glass or two of grown-up Ribena, and even in the clear light of the morning after, seem so blindingly obvious that no reasonable person could possibly gainsay them. You may well have your own private list, as did Jonathan Swift of course.

Over the years, I've accumulated my own list of modest proposals, which have probably occurred to many of us, and which in all modesty I feel are at least worthy of debate, though I'd accept that they might be ill-conceived or impracticable (especially as the ethically-challenged sector of society always manages to arbitrage any minor inconsistency, and seize upon the slightest opportunity for malpractice, in any scheme intended for public benefit).

The benefits of these suggestions should be self-evident and I'm not going to justify them in detail, but would happily discuss them with anyone who makes contact with constructive criticism or even support.

• To rationalise the parliamentary voting system and replace the House of Lords

The candidate first past the post becomes the constituency representative in the House of Commons, as at present, but the second past the post will now be its representative in the House of Deputies (as the House of Lords will now be called).

• To eliminate money-laundering

The National Insurance ID system is progressively extended to every citizen from birth, and every newcomer from the moment of arrival, to personalise all their monetary transactions.

The use of cash in everyday life is progressively discouraged by the introduction of personalised reloadable cash-cards and the withdrawal of £20, £50 and (where necessary) £100 notes.

• To rationalise the tax system

Tax assessment by income is progressively replaced with assessment by expenditure. All financial institutions will accumulate their customers' credit, debit and cash-card transactions on an annual basis and transmit these data to the national tax authorities.

• To provide a stepping-stone to adult life

A system of voluntary three-month Civic Service (in the public sector) is introduced for all school-leavers, and a "Civic Certificate" is issued to participants that complete it satisfactorily, providing a useful guide to their potential for future employment or tertiary education.

• To ensure universal Peace, Prosperity and Progress

When funds permitted, as a schoolboy walking back to Victoria Station each afternoon, I used to buy a copy of the Evening Standard to read on the journey home. And without fail, amongst the small ads, there would be a message from the Panacea Society1,  2 (still extant):

Crime and Banditry
Distress and Perplexity
Will continue to increase
Until the Bishops open
Joanna Southcott's Box of Sealed Writings

In those benighted days there was no Wikipedic explanation of what this was all about, and one was left (as a gullible teenager) with the indignant feeling that the Episcopal digits should jolly well be retracted and the box opened forthwith, to right all wrongs and kick-start a new Golden Age.

Even now, as a wearily senescent cynic, I still say Why Not, Let's Give it a Go!

"Respect the aged"

So spoke the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, in a deliciously gruesome tale, one of the finest in even Kipling's wonderful Jungle Books, and I'd just like to sermonise briefly on the scaly protagonist's repetitive grunt.

There are two ways in which the aged are so commonly disrespected in our modern materialistic technophilic secular Western society.

The first is that the aged individuals themselves gradually become surplus to requirements, as it were, slow, creaky and obsolescent – entirely mislaying our competitive edge. Plus our glasses, our car-keys and our credit-cards. Unfortunate individuals who have completely lost the capacity for short-term memory are sometimes said to be Surfing the Infinite Now – even though their long-term memory may still be quite retentive. Almost all of us, as we get older, become aware of this in ourselves – and if we don't, our wives or offspring will quickly notice it on our behalf!

The second way is that the aged individuals' likely inability to touch-type, or slowness on the uptake with modern gadgetry and British railway ticket-purchasing options, etc, becomes emblematic of the era – and accumulated previous eras – from which they sprang. Add to that the collective indifference of their offspring to tales of yesteryear, and how Grandpa met Grandma the year Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, or was it the Rhineland, no wait a minute, let me see now, ..., and there are all the makings of an analogous unawareness by the latest generation of the capabilities and relative triumphs of their grandparents and great-grandparents, accompanied by a puddle-in-the-carpark attitude towards history in general: "Olden-days people were uncivilised and stupid". Oh no they weren't – in many respects they were far cleverer and more resourceful than we are today, for all our iPhones and iPads.

And if we could discard our technological hubris, we might realise that our ancestors often made far better and nobler use of their lives than we do today. And although their religious prejudices and social or racial attitudes were severer or more distorted than today's (for every era has its prejudices, even today), it doesn't necessarily mean that they were nastier than us. The past cannot be judged by the standards of the present – yes there have been terrible aberrations in all nations and cultures over the ages, but the best people in each era have been instrumental in the liberalisation of the next. Even in Nazi Germany or (neo)Stalinist Russia, though Mikhail Gorbachev must be wondering why he ever bothered.

And anybody tempted to repeat the tired old allegation that Kipling was a racialist, should read The Miracle of Purun Das in the same volume as The Undertakers.

[The more attentive visitor to this page might well recollect reading a not entirely dissimilar page elsewhere – a good illustration of my own unreliable short-term memory! But though the phraseology may be identical in places, the tenors of the two pages are rather different and I'm not going to sacrifice either of them!]

Throw off your chains

No, not the Communist Manifesto – the Conscientious Manifesto.

The following article (reproduced from The Times, 4 Feb 2016) brilliantly analyses one of the many injustices of the world of work. It should be read and understood by everybody contemplating adulthood in the thrall of paid employment.

The quiet, clever, capable and conscientious are, paradoxically, overloaded and undervalued. The noisy slipshod braggarts are taken at their own evaluation, and get all the pay-rises and promotions.

As a perceptive colleague of mine once remarked, doing a good job at FW (our employers at the time) is like wetting yourself in dark trousers – it may give you a lovely warm feeling, but nobody else notices.