First year report

Let’s write about writing. Here in Cambridge, for the first year of my PhD I am not actually a PhD student — I am on the probationary year. By the end of June I am expected to submit the first year report (FYR). The name speaks for itself: it is a progress report from the past year. It has a word limit of 12000 (varies slightly between the departments).

Writing is an essential part of PhD life: first you write a few research proposals, which can be tricky if you don’t know exactly what you will be doing. For the more fancy scholarships, like Gates, your creative self may have a field day, as they ask simple questions such as “How will you change the world?”. Then you write abstracts for conferences, reports for the grants you are involved in, and if you are smart or lucky enough, there are papers to write as well. I’d estimate a good half-day a week was spent on writing during my first year, and I imagine you write more when you progress. Exciting, isn’t it? Except for maybe when what you write is only going to be read by four people, as is the case with the FYR.

It’s not too bad though. I mean, it is when it comes to the introduction, which takes 1/4-1/3 of the report, and is more or less the same thing that you wrote for your Master’s thesis and a few proposals before. My introduction ended up being a 90% recycled material — how ecological! If you have time and will, you can start with a blank page and try to explain all this from the beginning, just for yourself, so that you see the gaps in your knowledge. I didn’t have either, not for a report reviewed by four people who have seen countless similar intros.

The fun part is the experimental chapter, where you try to convince them you did find some time to enjoy science in between enjoying Cambridge. The secret is your lab book — time invested in noting every step of your measurement or idea is time well spent, because all you need to do then is to transcribe your own notes into something more intelligible to others. It gives you a very good idea about what you have missed and where your project is heading to, how much time it can take (well, if you remember to put dates in your lab book!) and in which areas you are (in)efficient. My weak point is definitely debugging others’ code and I spent way too much time on it — a month and a half or so.

Apart from making measurements, it is usually good to make some sense of the data. In the early stage of your PhD it is usually facilitated by the fact you are working under someone’s supervision and it is in their best interest to help you out. On the other hand, I don’t think we are expected to draw revolutionary conclusions already, so I took it easy: I said what my ideas where (they were really simple) and then I clearly said what I did not understand, putting it in nice words like this effect needs to be further investigated. Yes, science writing is full of euphemisms, possibly because it is written in English.

To make the writing period a) more pleasant b) shorter, I decided to take a few days off and write at home, which is not unusual in my group. The first week of writing was accompanied by a perfect weather, so I ended up cycling in the mornings and reading The Feynman Lectures… in the garden a bit too much than I should have, but at least it was a work-related book, right? It took me 11 days (including a weekend, during which I wrote ~500 words) to write the report. It could have easily been done in a week, but I am not that strict with myself when I work from home. I feel it is full of statements that raise doubts about my understanding of the field, so without wasting more time on meta-writing I will try to come to grips with all the thirty references that I cited…

Here is my progress plot, just because I wanted to try out Google Visualisation API. The first significant increase on Monday was when I added the introduction, and the second when I included bibliography, figure captions etc.

Supervisions

They were my bane and excitement, my time wasters and the biggest stimulators, my challenges, depressants and uplifters. At times I thought they were my biggest first year mistake, but mostly I really hoped I would be able to continue doing them throughout my stay in Cambridge, as this is actually how I improve myself and, hopefully, the world. Let me introduce you to the world of supervisions, also known as tutorials.

In my opinion, the supervision system is one of the most important keys to Oxbridge’s success. If you, like myself, did your undergrad somewhere else, you would probably be familiar with university-level lessons of maths, physics, biology etc., where a group of 10-20 students meets with a lecturer to discuss the material – as opposed to lectures, where the students sit silently and note what their professor has to say. Well, here the supervisor normally meets with two students, for an hour a week. Which means they get 5-10 times more time per person than I did.

I sometimes think I made a mistake by taking up maths supervisions. It would have been more fun to teach physics, as physics problems are not that technical, they are something you can discuss, you can ask why and take different approaches. Since the beginning of my undergrad, I much preferred physics, and maths has been merely a tool for me. But is English language only a tool for me to communicate with? Does it not help if I know its rules, capabilities and limitations? Does it not make me more proficient if I learn about the grammar constructions that I will rarely use? Similarly, does it not make me a better physicists if I understand the language of physics? And I certainly understand a lot more today than a year ago. I’d never done Fourier series or PDEs, not even ODEs! For this I will hold a grudge against my uni forever. And this past year I had to learn it and be able to explain it.

The beginnings were hard, despite the familiarity of the material. The students gave me their worked problem sheets, and each Tuesday I spent hours, trying to follow their reasoning and marking the sheets. Then for one hour we were mostly going through the questions, addressing each mistake, half of them inconsequential. As the terms went by, I learned to do it more quickly, they became more proficient, and we had more time for past exam questions, which were both more useful and interesting. Advice for the future: don’t spend too much time on example sheets, if there is something the students don’t understand, you will spot it anyway or they will tell you. Spend the time on exam questions and the quality of your supervisions. The key to not spending too much time is… not giving yourself too much of it. You can start preparing an hour before the supervisions, but that’s taking it to extreme. Better give yourself a fixed amount of time and try not to exceed it.

For my students, I wish they had someone more experienced, or simply more able mathematically, for the teacher. Sometimes I had to say I didn’t know the answer, but I always promised to find it before the next supervision. Nevertheless, I got a few “that problem was interesting”, “now I get it” and “things are much clearer after this supervision”, which for a supervisor are the most coveted compliments.

I can’t really change what I will supervise next year. Supervising the same subject for the second year makes it much less time consuming, which in turn allows you to work on the form of the supervision rather than on the material that you must be able to explain. Even if it was physics, I would still need to prepare a lot, which I won’t have time for. So, given that the college will still want me to supervise, the plan for the next year is ambitious:

  • During the summer, revise the Michelmas (first term) material. Give them what they pay for, give them expertise.
  • Go through the problem sheets on your own! I (generally) didn’t, but it would help a great deal to understand the common mistakes.
  • Find engaging, application-oriented problems that will be fun to go through with the students. Especially biology, which is so under-represented in the lectures!
  • More interaction = less boredom. Find ways to stimulate discussion between them, let them learn from each other.

More often than not I set the maths vs. physics dilemmas aside and think that it is not so important what I teach. It is the skill of teaching itself that I am really interested in, as I see myself doing it in the future – not full time, but the sciences desperately need good advertising, and if you can become a good science communicator in Cambridge, why not avail yourself of the opportunity?

Alice, David, Mollie and Tim, thanks a lot. You are brilliant students, and you made my first teaching experience a great one. I will keep my fingers crossed for your success for the remaining two or three years that you have left here, and I am sure you will do wonderful things. But now, take your pens and solve a few more past exam problems, will you, for tomorrow’s exam is the most important!

Lectures are too long!

I am sure this has been already investigated in scientific literature and I am probably reinventing the wheel, but it must finally come out of academic discussions – only then will the lecturers understand that we, students, need a change.

Never-ending lecture

At WrUT, a lecture normally lasts 1h30 with a 15min break in the middle. The first problem is that many lecturers consider it as optional. Some would ask the students if they want a break but people do not really want to stand out and so the lecture continues. Some do not even bother to ask.

Remaining focused on one topic for one hour is (for me) impossible, and if I loose attention for a brief moment, I also loose track of whatever the professor is saying, which makes my thoughts wander again as my brain finds it boring to listen to something I do not quite understand, and we have a vicious cycle. I know there are students whose ability to concentrate is much better than mine, but there are many more whose experiences are similar to mine. It does not mean we are bad students – I dare say it indicates that the system fails to meet our needs.

It is very easy for the lecturers to forget the student’s perspective, not only in this matter. If you are lecturing, I imagine you must stay alert all the time because otherwise you would simply forget what you were supposed to say next. I have given a few short talks on conferences and seminars – of course it was much more stressful for me than it would be for a seasoned speaker, but it was a completely different experience than being on the other side! Therefore I forgive you, dear professors on whose lectures I could hardly stay awake, and I believe in your good intentions.

A short comparison: here in Cambridge, the lectures are usually around 50min long. In the US – more or less the same, which you can check here or anywhere else – the Internet is now full of lectures recorded at various universities. I asked my friends from India and the answer was the same. However, even at the best unis they can be unreasonably long.

Now, reducing lectures’ duration by half is a good starting point, but we should not stop here. Last year we witnessed the emergence of a few on-line universities (e.g. Coursera, edX.org, Khan Academy). There, the lecture videos can be heavily edited after recording, and guess what: the sequences you are supposed to watch without pausing are between 10 and 25 minutes long! Why would they choose to cut the lecture in four pieces if they could just upload it as it is? Because it yields better results!

Two postulates

Dear deans, rectors, heads of departments: if students at your university have to sit at lectures for more than an hour then the quality of teaching there is poor. Shorten the lectures. The total time may remain the same, all you need to do is split a long lecture on Wednesday afternoon in two shorter ones on Tuesday and Friday – at the same time giving the more motivated students time to revise. Or, if it has to stay the way it is, introduce Zen training for students and we will be able to focus for as long as you want.

Dear lecturers (wherever you are from), here is a simple advice for you: every 15-25 minutes, when you finish talking about one concept and move to another, give the students a break. Ask them an interesting question about what you have just said (you will spot the best students in the class!), demonstrate an experiment, entertain them with a funny story from your life, share the latest gossip from the university, or simply walk out and let them talk for a short while. I guarantee that they will like your course much more than the others!