'Ignorant': science chief hits out at UK students

Scottish Supa alliance aims to bring new breadth to postgraduate research. Olga Wojtas reports

October 9, 2008

UK physics postgraduates are "ignorant" compared with their American and European counterparts, according to the president of the European Science Foundation.

Ian Halliday, former chief executive of the UK's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, said UK research students' "single biggest weakness" was that they knew increasingly more about increasingly small areas because of a narrow research focus.

He said: "When they move on to (postdoctoral study) in the States or Europe, they not only appear ignorant, but they are ignorant.

"And the possibilities of them moving on are much more limited than they should be, because they don't have a good (broad) background."

But Professor Halliday, chief executive of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (Supa), hopes Scotland will buck the UK trend with its pan-Scotland graduate school. All physics PhDs are members of the school, which last month held a networking meeting for about 100 new postgraduates. It is currently advertising eight fully funded prize PhD studentships and more than 100 other funded PhD places.

Supa is a research group pooling expertise from the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, St Andrews, Strathclyde and the West of Scotland, creating the largest group of physics researchers in the UK. Graduate school director Avril Manners said the member universities were able to share courses, offering about 60 in total, including six through distance learning and two residential courses.

Supa's major research themes include astronomy and space physics and nuclear and plasma physics, but the school also offers technical and generic skills courses such as advanced data analysis and entrepreneurship. Students must take a minimum of 40 hours of technical courses.

Ms Manners said there were also plans to introduce a career development course for third-year PhD students this year.

"We can pick the best courses and it gives students access to a bigger pool of expertise," she said. "This is now a graduate school on a par with a lot of American universities in attracting students because of its education and training. (The postgraduates) are better placed to compete when they finish."

The school has about 450 postgraduates and aims to boost postdoctoral numbers.

Richard Kenway, head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, said PhD students tended to focus very narrowly on their own research project, but told the new entrants: "I would advise each one of you to pick at least one other area and go to its courses. Many of us believe breakthroughs in the future will come through some sort of discipline-hopping."

The keynote speaker at the networking event was Peter Higgs, emeritus professor at Edinburgh, who predicted the existence of a mysterious new particle, the Higgs boson, which is being searched for by the Large Hadron Collider.

Professor Higgs told Times Higher Education: "Supa makes it possible for postgraduates to have a broader training, and I think that's putting right something that has been lacking except in very big physics departments."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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