liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
I confess, I'm feeling a little depressed about the whole Tim Hunt thing. Partly because Hunt's work is foundational to mine, so he's someone I looked up to, and it's always a blow when you learn that your heroes have feet of clay.

sexism and free speech )

Which is all by way of telling you, I'm finding it hard to find room for a lot of sympathy for Tim Hunt, who frankly should have known better.
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
Please consider not doing a PhD.

You're in your final year of university. You're doing really well, you're getting stunningly good marks and lots of praise from your tutors. You've probably never been so happy in your life, you're using your incredible brain to think about really interesting, really hard problems. And you're starting to be aware of the frontiers of knowledge in your field, the stuff that isn't in textbooks yet, the stuff that people are right now actively trying to find out. Perhaps you did a summer project or a long finals project where you got a taste of actually doing some original research yourself, and it was mindblowingly awesome.

What could possibly be better than spending the rest of your life doing this kind of thing, and hopefully even getting paid for it? Probably everybody around you is encouraging you to go for a PhD, because after all that's what brilliant students do. And universities look good when their best students go on to PhDs after graduating. The academics you most look up to are telling you that you, yes, you, could be like them one day. If you're at an elite university, you're perhaps experiencing the negative side to this, whispers and gossips and subliminal messages that anything other than a PhD is, well, y'know, a bit second-rate really.

Look, I am in fact a career academic. I know exactly what's attractive about it, I've made considerable financial and personal sacrifices to get myself to a position where I can work in a university environment and spend my time doing groundbreaking research. And yet. The gateway into this life is a PhD, and the PhD system is deeply, deeply fucked up when it isn't actively abusive. This is not hyperbole or metaphor, I am talking about literal oppression and abuse )

I know some specific individuals to whom this might apply, but for several reasons I want to make this point in a more general way. First of all I don't want anyone to feel personally targeted by this; this post did in fact start off as a comment to a post about the applications process, but then I decided I didn't have the right to say this kind of thing directly to someone, and if I did it would do more harm than good. And secondly, I want to get this out there, as an account by someone who knows the system from the inside. I want to talk about this stuff in the open, to reduce the extent you have to be a member of the secret club of people with personal connections in academia to know all this.

Brilliant student: I went into my PhD with every advantage you could think of, financial and emotional support from my parents, about as mentally stable as anyone I know, very high self-confidence, healthy and able-bodied, strong support network, the works. And yes, I'm female but I have been socialized in ways that feminists regard as male: I pretty much expect to be taken seriously in all situations and I've always been encouraged in my ambitions and had plenty of role-models and have never had to use up my energy fighting sexist microaggressions, much less overt sexism or sexual harassment. And with all those advantages, my PhD was a soul-killing ordeal; I think only now, 7 years after graduating, I'm starting to get back to functioning as well as I did when I was a brilliant student ready to start a PhD. And honestly, my PhD experience was better than about 95% of my peers; I only had to deal with incompetence and never malice, for example. And my university and ultimate boss were willing to step in and help me fix things when my relationship with my immediate supervisor ran into difficulties.

I really don't want to come across as arguing that only people who are well-off, male-ish, white, English-speaking, straight, able-bodied and either single or with partners who are willing and able to be entirely supportive and never in the least bit dependent, should consider doing PhDs. Part of what's wrong with academia is that it already skews heavily towards people who have these sorts of advantages, so I most certainly don't want to contribute to that unfairness. You're brilliant, you are passionate about your field, goodness knows I want you to come and join me in furthering human knowledge! If you would like any advice from me in terms of playing the system, proofreading your applications or help picking a department where your PhD will be somewhat less miserable than it might be, I will be only too delighted to help. But I also want you to make the decision with open eyes, I want you to know that the costs of doing a PhD are higher than you can probably imagine right now.

I expect you, brilliant student, won't really be deterred by this. Likely you'll believe it will be different for you or it'll be worth it or you just plain can't imagine doing anything else. In fact, if I seriously thought this information would put you off, I probably wouldn't publish it. But when you plumb the depths of despair, when the whole system is conspiring to kill everything that makes you brilliant in the first place, I want you to remember this post and know that it's not just you, this is a very common, almost a universal, experience of what putting yourself through a PhD is like. And then just maybe you will one day be in a position to do something to make the system incrementally less awful.
liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
I've been following the protests over the tuition fees issue, but not really participating. I'm not a protesting on the streets sort of person, and my institution seems to be relatively apolitical. Certainly the medical students can't really think of jeopardizing their careers through unauthorized absences and potentially getting into trouble with the police. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the students' cause, police behaviour has unquestionably been deplorable. I'd have thought that the one thing a Liberal-Conservative coalition could agree on was that people have the right to express their opinions through demonstrations and protests. Apparently, though, we're going to get all the disadvantages of a right-leaning government but none of the benefits.

damned right I'm angry )

On a related matter, I'm a bit peeved at people uncritically repeating and re-tweeting that stupid article about Oxford's admissions policy. Some guy cherry-picked statistics to create some eye-catching headlines suggesting that Oxford is reluctant to accept Black candidates, and made a big fuss about how much effort it was to find out the detailed breakdown of the data via Freedom of Information requests, when in fact most of the ethnicity data is publicly available on university websites, and he just wanted something more fine-grained. Besides which, separating out different ethnic groups who all happen to have black skin is a valid exercise; clearly actual Africans, African-Americans, and people who live in Britain but ancestrally hail from Africa recently, or the Caribbean a generation ago, are different groups of people with different experiences. Conflating specific data about Black British people of Afro-Caribbean origin with data about Black applicants in general is bordering on deceitful.

I'm not at all claiming that Oxford totally doesn't have a problem with racism! There may well be racism. But making a big fuss about statistical noise fluctuations in tiny numbers of applicants isn't at all the way to address this. Part of the problem, of course, is the numbers of students from particular ethnic groups who get the kind of school education that makes applying to Oxbridge feasible. There is very likely racism involved in that situation, but it's not the fault of any university or college. But even if you're trying to deal with actual racism on the part of Oxbridge colleges, this approach is IMO counterproductive. Repeating alarmist articles all over the place simply discourages ethnically disadvantaged students from applying in the first place. It's like stereotype threat, only more extreme, and I think it's highly irresponsible to spread that kind of misinformation.

I'm reminded of a case when I was at college: there was a whole big fuss about some kid who was rejected from Magdalen college even though she had four As at A Level, and her headmaster went to the press claiming that she had been discriminated against because she attended a state school. He ignored the fact that all the candidates for medicine at Magdalen had straight As at A Level, not to mention that the girl hadn't made up her mind whether she wanted to read medicine or biochemistry. All this achieved was a marked dip in applications from state school pupils the following year; so much for all those righteous crusaders up in arms about Oxford's biased admissions policy! Innuendo sticks; people remember the shock horror story of bias, not the careful debunkings that follow. Simply repeating this kind of stuff for the pleasure of outrage does far more harm than good.

I've probably offended everyone by now. Oh well, that's my political rant for the week.


Nov. 17th, 2008 09:32 pm
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
[ profile] j4 has been posting a series about how she ended up at Oxford, and this seems an interesting exercise, so I'm copying her idea.

fairly undramatic )

If you have that political inclination, it's easy enough to read this and conclude that I only got into Oxford because I had a whole bunch of privileges in my life up to that point. Certainly I did have many advantages that made Oxford seem attainable and desirable. But when I got there, I found that the place was not at all filled with people like me. I met people of every different background imaginable, different countries, different social strata, different ethnic background, different ages and life situations, you name it. And you simply couldn't tell someone's background by how they took to Oxford society; the people from conventional middle-class backgrounds and private schools with lots of extra coaching weren't all mediocre but confident beyond their ability, and some of the most appallingly posh tweedy, braying types actually came from poor backgrounds and schools that didn't believe in sending their pupils to university, they just chose to adopt that persona and social set.

It seems plausible that there are some people who are at least as objectively "clever" as I am, who didn't go to Oxford because they came from the wrong backgrounds. But I think it's more likely that they never got to the point of applying in the first place, than that they were unfairly rejected because of not being middle class enough. At the same time, I did see direct evidence of unfairness, in the form of Christ Church telling MK that his inhumanly high Abitur scores were an obscure German qualification that didn't count for anything, and the way that the Merton medics were openly racist towards one candidate.

What it comes down to is that Oxford is going to end up with several uniformly excellent candidates for each place available, and almost any means of choosing between them is going to have the potential for unfairness. That doesn't mean that unfairness is a good thing, of course. But I don't think it's as simple as the system being rigged to favour people from posh schools.


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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