Friday, December 31, 2010

Escaping the ivory tower

Interesting article by Nancy Baron in the journal Nature which makes a passionate case for why scientists should engage with journalists.

This is a familiar theme for Baron, who recently published an excellent book on the subject of scientists talking to the media: Escape from the Ivory Tower, a guide to making your science work. I've spoken at a number of her training events in the US. When it comes to turning media-shy scientists into confident speakers, she is really at the top of her tree.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The disposable academic

In this year's special double Christmas issue of The Economist I have a piece on doctoral degrees. Our Christmas issue is always our most popular issue of the year, with lots of fabulous stuff for the holiday period. Go buy a copy.

Happy Christmas everyone.

The disposable academic
Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time

Dec 16th 2010

ON THE evening before All Saints’ Day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. In those days a thesis was simply a position one wanted to argue. Luther, an Augustinian friar, asserted that Christians could not buy their way to heaven. Today a doctoral thesis is both an idea and an account of a period of original research. Writing one is the aim of the hundreds of thousands of students who embark on a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) every year.

In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia. It is an introduction to the world of independent research—a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects. Some students will first have to spend two years working on a master’s degree or diploma. Some will receive a stipend; others will pay their own way. Some PhDs involve only research, some require classes and examinations and some require the student to teach undergraduates. A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”

[Read more...]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Santa school is coming to town

My husband Bruce has just made a short film about an English Santa School which can be found on the BBC News website. Amusing.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


SpaceX has just launched its Dragon capsule into orbit. We have blogged about this on the Economist's Sci/Tech blog Babbage.

Well done to everyone at SpaceX. This truly is a milestone.

Read more about how 2011 is going to be an exciting year in space in the World in 2011--The Economist's annual publication.

Singing the blues

The annual bluefin tuna bust up closes in Paris.