Curiouser and curiouser 1

October 29, 2009

Tara Brabazon provides an excellent guide to the provision of institutional support for research students ("Doctoring the system", 22 October), but there is an often-neglected issue that requires attention: which students should be taken on as researchers?

My experience consists of 15 years spent researching and managing other researchers, followed by 30 years of teaching, research and supervision at the masters and doctoral levels in a university.

In industry, technically qualified graduate recruits started in a research department where, for a year or so, they learnt about the technology and the business it supported without making costly mistakes. Most could not wait to get out of research and into better-defined functions, such as production, technical service, marketing or sales.

This convinced me that the vast majority of the educated public were simply unsuited to research and lacked the mental outlook required for the job.

Later, I agreed with Sir Charles Carter, Lancaster University's founding vice-chancellor, when, in a valedictory lecture on his retirement, he pointed out the absurdity of the university's contract of employment, which required all holders both to teach and research their subject. All staff can learn to teach at least adequately, but research calls for more: it requires an uncommon combination of intellect, temperament and values.

We need to develop criteria to admit students to researcher status. We need to find out at the start if they have the deep level of curiosity that characterises good researchers. Albert Einstein said that what differentiated him from the crowd was that he was more curious than most. So students who ask for research topics, or who are clearly career-building, should go to the back of the queue. There are already too many run-of-the-mill research theses from the incurious, adding up to too much putative "research".

Peter Checkland, Emeritus professor of systems, Lancaster University.

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