PhDs, Repeats, Research Ethics and other stuff

  • I’ve been involved with the examining of a number of PhD and Masters theses recently. I’ve seen some worrying trends. I saw a serious lack of basic knowledge and skills that one would have thought were core to the project. (Data analysis seems to be a particular problem.) I get the feeling that a PhD is being seen as a sort of research ‘job’ and all one has to do is carry out the work that is ‘assigned’ to you and you are essentially guaranteed a PhD. I hope the third level problems haven’t moved on to fourth level.
  • The academic year is getting more and more like the Premiership. It’s hardly over before students are back for pre-season, i.e., the Repeats. The emails, requests for meetings etc. are coming in thick and fast. My theme this year is ‘immersion’. Any student who comes to see me gets an earful about the need to immerse oneself in the subject, especially if it is mathematical. Actually, this can be quite an uplifting time of year because many students who have done badly in the Summer, knuckle down and make a huge improvement in the Autumn. This time also reminds me how important personal contact is and makes me more convinced than ever that talk of remote learning, global Universities and the like is just that – talk.
  • This got me thinking about how deluded are a lot of discussions on education. The reality of third level education is that an awful lot of 19-23 year are severely lacking in motivation, at least when it comes to learning. It is a deep-rooted cultural issue and theoretical discussions about independent and self-directed learning are usually just that – theoretical.
  • Writing a textbook can be quite liberating because you have to cut yourself off from everything in the job that is optional. Now I can quite gleefully ignore the constant stream of emails about setting up research collaborations with India, Brazil, Iraq or whatever country is the current flavour of the month.
  • This story on a new treatment for CF that actually treats the basic biochemical defect got me thinking about the need for biomedical scientists to be careful about ‘hyping’ their discoveries. The CF gene was discovered, to great fanfare, in 1989 – 23 years ago. Scientists who promise cures in 5–10 years, a not uncommon claim, need to be reminded that they are talking to disease sufferers who might actually believe them!
  • I’ve said this before but one of the great things about being an academic is that you’re always learning. In the last month, I’ve learned loads of interesting (and hard!) stuff about reverse osmosis and nanofiltration. (I wish I could remember all that chemical thermodynamics we did in chemical engineering.) Not many jobs provide that level of stimulation.
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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to PhDs, Repeats, Research Ethics and other stuff

  1. Westley says:

    The issue with PhDs’ knowledge is not something new. I can remember ten years ago that the experience of my peers doing PhDs in the sciences, especially Chemistry, seemed primarily to involve doing someone else’s basic research and experiments for them for three years and receiving a PhD for their efforts. None seemed especially interested in ‘their’ work and it appeared almost akin to ‘serving’ your time as a tradesman before you could get the necessary certification (PhD) to do a post-doc or work in quality assurance in a medical devices or pharmaceutical company that had little or nothing to do with research – despite all the rhetoric about the ‘knowledge economy’.

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