Turning donuts into PhDs

February 26, 2009

Yesterday at KIPAC tea, a graduate student wished everybody “a happy Mardi Gras”. This lost me, but later it made sense; when I got home to Little Britain there were pancakes for tea, for lo, it was Pancake Day, a.k.a. Shrove Tuesday. The pancakes were scrumptious but not enough for my hungry kids. Grad students are possibly even more voracious than teenagers, but luckily at KIPAC tea there is a goodly supply of donuts. This is an essential part of a PhD education of course; supply stodge and the students will turn up to the talks, absorbing some knowledge along with the sugar.

Is this investment worth while ? Over at the PeterBlog, Professor C worries that we are over producing students, because only one in ten can become an academic. Actually, without this overproduction, Peter and I would be out of a job. Why does the Government pay for astronomers ? Because we do have an economic impact. Our product is people.

We all accept this where undergraduates are concerned. Half of our job is teaching; we do our bit for the academic sausage machine, churning out the scientically literate workforce our society needs. That makes it economically feasible to pay us for the other half of our job, scientific research. We tend to think of PhD students as part of this second world; our apprentices, each producing their magnum opus after three years. But that world has long gone. The PhD is an advanced training degree. A decade ago, while I was on PPARC Council, studentships were doubled. Why ? Because we were not getting enough astronomy done ? Nope. Because the captains of industry said “we can use more of these” and yea verily the Treasury purse strings were opened.

So the donuts make sense.

Mostly this is good. The Government is happy to continue paying for pure science, because they can see that every pound spent puts three back into the economy. But they must be thinking “hmmm.. wonder if we can squeeze six out of them ?” They already did this to us on undergraduate numbers. Postgrads could be next.