Training Scientists: What’s the Point?

My colleagues and I spend what is probably an inordinate amount of time complaining about the occasional lapses of the basic skills of our students, their inability to take notes, their obsession with marks and what’s going to be on the exams. Because, like everyone else, we like to complain.

But pretty often I get the chance to see them at their best. In the Physics department at Imperial, we interview students who are on the boundaries between final “degree classifications”, the British system of awarding degrees as First Class, 2.1, 2.2, etc. Last week, I was on the panel for this year’s cohort. And it was a pleasure to sit in front of a few of our students and watch them, in real time, thinking like physicists. Of course this means making the occasional mistake, but it also means that delicious “aha!” moment when they figure something out and (this is the best part) they know that they have, whether it’s finding a sign error in their derivation of the motion of a pendulum, or a thought experiment explaining why Einstein’s relativity makes sense.

For the interviews, I was paired with one of our external examiners, UCL particle physicist and fellow-blogger Jon Butterworth. On the same day as our interview, the Guardian published Simon Jenkins’ latest in a series of risible anti-science screeds, and Jon decided to take him to task neither with reasoned argumentation nor with a counter-polemic, but with parody. As with many great ideas on the internet, this one got picked up and built upon, so that the Guardian, to its credit, eventually gave Jon his own space to reply. Jenkins likely thinks we’re producing too many scientists (Imperial only trains scientists, doctors, and engineers, after all!) but I hope that Jon was pleased with the ones he saw.

So my congratulations to this year’s graduating students, and the best of luck to them whatever they go on to do. Pace Jenkins, the world needs more well-trained scientists like them, not fewer.

3 responses to “Training Scientists: What’s the Point?”

  1. Alex avatar

    I was an Imperial physics student who had an interview between 1st and 2.1, not this year, but many years ago. I remember being in there for a quarter of the alloted time and things went well so I knew as soon as I left that I’d made the grade. I also believe Stephen Hawking had a similar experience at Oxford so I like to tell people I got the same grade at university as Stephen Hawking. 😉
    I actually think Simon Jenkins makes some useful points. Especially within science it amazes me that people don’t really question the need for more scientists, despite the fact that some of the science jobs I apply for have 200+ applicants. The cuts that we’re about to face are quite likely to cost me my job and may even cost me my career, so it is worrying.
    With a science training all the way to PhD level it still puzzles me that it’s harder for me to get a job I’m trained for than one outside of science that I’m not. I worked a while outside of science after my MSc and I don’t really believe that the science training was that useful. Being smart helped, but I didn’t get that just from being trained as a scientist. The guys I worked with who had studied economics and humanities had a better professional network, a better understanding of what was expected of them and were more easily integrated into the business world than me, because they’d basically lived in it their whole lives.
    There’s a tendency in science to say that the money being spent on it is not a lot compared to cruise missiles and aircraft carriers. But there’s often little real questioning beyond that. Take the LISA gravitational wave mission, supposedly will cost 2 billion dollars. If the already operating LIGO collaboration is anything to go by, they might end up with around 1,000 scientists working on it. That’s 2 million dollars per scientist! A lot of money, even if the science case is exciting. What could 1,000 smart, educated people do with 2 million dollars each? Retire, for starters.

  2. Kea avatar

    Do you really care whether or not the honest ones starve to death in the next few years? I bet not.

  3. Yurt avatar

    Do you really care whether or not the honest ones starve to death in the next few years?
    Yes of courseYurt