Category Archives: Higher Ed

Links: Spidey suits, and tips on writing papers

Science Daily: Physicists have found a formula for a Spiderman suit.

Chemical & Engineering News: Tips for writing a journal article.


Intellectual commons

In an interesting piece in Chronicle Review, Mark Oppenheimer urges graduate students (and professors too!) to be interested in (and better yet, contribute to) the broader intellectual discussions and debates (in such magazines as NYRB and NYTimes Book Review, Dissent, etc):

The work of public intellectuals is important to young scholars partly because it helps us speak across disciplines. I, for example, was a student in a religion department, but my particular specialty, American religious history, gave me little common ground with classmates who specialized in Buddhism, New Testament criticism, or Islamic law. I had friends who were getting degrees in American studies, but if they were focusing on, say, material culture in the 19th century, their important professional journals were The Journal of American History and the Journal of American Studies, which I never read. Mine were Religion and American Culture and Church History, which they never read. If, however, we had all read one of the journals mentioned above, or maybe The American Scholar or The Wilson Quarterly — journals that include essays on a wide variety of topics in the humanities and social sciences — we could have had conversations with students who worked outside our immediate areas of interest.

Extracurricular reading would have produced social benefits as well. Graduate students, it’s well known, often feel isolated. On their bad days, they even feel that their lives are pointless, anomic, and worthless. It wears you down to spend years doing research on a topic that few people care about, greater knowledge of which will improve the world in no obvious way. But for graduate students to talk to each other, they need to have something to talk about — an obvious point, but one missed by administrators who try to foster camaraderie by scheduling grad-student movie nights. In unguarded moments, administrators will snicker that the controversial grad-student-union movement is fueled as much by the need for an improved social life as by legitimate gripes about working conditions. They have the ratio wrong — it’s more like 20 percent socializing, 80 percent genuine politics — but that’s a real insight. When I was in grad school, I could talk union politics with chemistry students and entomologists. I couldn’t talk about The New York Review with anybody.

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Link via

Ranking of universities across the world

Let’s face it: global rankings of universities are here to stay, despite their poor methodologies. Among them, the ranking by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University University probably deserves the award for the worst methodology. It gives a huge weight — 30 percent — to Nobel prizes won by the faculty and alumni, and a further 20 % for papers published in the journals Nature and Science.

Last year’s ranking, for example, included the University of Calcutta among those ranked between 401 and 500; IIT-Kharagpur too figured in this list, while IISc was among those with ranks between 301 and 400. The inclusion of UCalcutta was definitely because of the Nobel Prizes won by its faculty (presumably, C.V. Raman) and its alumni (Amartya Sen?). Thus, depite scoring poorly on every indicator of its current research activity — it actually scores zero for (a) publications in Nature and Science, and (b) highly cited papers — it was grouped with IIT-Kharagpur — and 98 others! — in the range 401 to 500. [1]

[Oh, just in case you are wondering, UCalcutta is out of the top 500 in this year’s ranking, while IISc and IIT-Kharagpur retain their last year’s rankings.]

Just because the Shanghai group has been in this business for the longest duration — four years! — its ranking is often quoted without paying any attention to its methodology. For example, Kaushik Basu used it in his recent BBC column:

A recent evaluation of universities and research institutes all over the world, conducted by a Shanghai university, has not a single Indian university in the world’s top 300 – China has six.

The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, comes in somewhere in the top 400 and IIT, Kharagpur, makes an appearance after that.

Now, within the US, there’s a number of rankings that (mis)lead to different conclusions about the excellence level of different institutions [2]. In India, too, all the major newsweeklies (India Today, Outlook, The Week) rank our colleges, B-schools, engineering and medical colleges — with poor (and poorly spelt out) methodologies, each pointing to a different conclusion. When the situation is so complex within a country, the ranking exercise should be hopelessly complex at the international level. After all, the higher ed systems in different countries are different; more importantly, their funding patterns are different. How can one compare, for example, a hub-and-spoke and multi-campus university like the University of Delhi and a tech-centric ‘small’ university like CalTech?

Global ranking exercises, of course, don’t want to — and don’t want you to — look at the enormous complexity that arises from regional variations. By claiming to do the hard work on your behalf, they encourage your laziness!

For example, they want you to ignore a key fact about excellence: it’s always the individual research groups that are the repositories of excellence. Thus, even in supposedly moribund Indian universities, there are such islands of excellence in specific subfields. A good example would be the School of Chemistry in the University of Hyderabad, or the Department of Physics in the University of Pune. The rankings also have an inherent bias against small institutions (and India has quite a few of them). For example, places like the Raman Research Institute, the S.N. Bose Natiaonal Centre for Basic Sciences, or the National Center for Biological Sciences are outside the radar screen of most rankings, in spite of their great research groups, simply because they are small and niche players.

Of course, it is certainly a great feat to put together a large university, with a solid academic and research footprint in many fields. Thus, despite their shortcomings, these rankings do do a good job of identifying the top research universities. By the same token, the top 20 (or even the top 50) universities in these lists are not very different. It’s only when you move away from these top universities that you start seeing the effects of the rankings’ individual quirks.

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[1] In the mid-nineties, there was a ‘ranking’ that took India by storm. Coming from someone (whose name eludes me now) in the University of Maryland, it placed IISc at No. 17 and several IITs in the top 100. It got a lot of play in Indian press for sometime; it was, fortunately, a one-off affair.

[2] For what it’s worth, a recent issue of Newsweek put out its own list of top 100 ‘most global universities‘. Washington Monthly has a sort of anti-U.S. News listing of U.S. universities based on a measure of ‘excellence’ using a different set of critieria.

Just how competitive can scientists get?

Put yourself in the shoes of a young, hot-shot post-doc who has got several offers for a faculty position, including one from a Great University in your field. Naturally, you are keen on joining GU, except for one small glitch. GU also has a leading senior researcher — a Nobel laureate, no less! — with research interests that overlap yours considerably; the glitch is that this senior researcher is not keen on having you as a colleague. He says so in so many words in his e-mails (doc):

… I am afraid that accommodating your lab would be difficult.

… [As] you are very aware, two competing labs in the same building is something we should avoid by all means. Some people who are promoting your arrival here are ignoring this basic principle, but I don’t believe that they are doing a service to you.

I am sorry, but I have to say to you that at present and under the present circumstances, I do not feel comfortable at all to have you here as a junior faculty colleague. … I am most happy to support you if you and I are going to work with some distance between us.

What would you do? How would you react?

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After thinking this over, do read these two reports in Boston Globe about the sordid saga that played itself out in MIT, involving a star neuroscientist (Alla Karpova) and a Nobel laureate (Susumu Tonegawa). Links via Inside Higher Ed (1, 2).

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Update: Do read the commentary by Janet Stemwedel and Pinko Punko.

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You must read the follow-up post by Janet Stemwedel, who ends her post with: “it may be wise for the tribe of science to look at whether these competitive situations are really the best way to build better scientific knowledge.”

Nanotech research in India

[Even] with the NSTI [the Nano Science and Technology Initiative] in place, the level of funding has been sub-critical as compared to China with which India inevitably tends to be compared. In 2002, for example, compared to China’s $200 million, India spent a mere Rs.15 crores. Over the four and a half years of the NSTI, a total of about Rs.120 crores has been spent, much of which has gone towards basic research projects and related infrastructure, the implementation of which is overseen by a National Expert Committee headed by C.N.R. Rao. …

Besides funding about 100 basic science projects to date (worth about Rs.60 crores), part of the money (about Rs.20 crores) has gone towards establishing six centres for nanoscience at institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and the different IITs, six centres for nanotechnology each aimed at producing a product or a device within a reasonable time-frame and two national instrumentation/characterisation facilities. In all, 14 national institutions, including seven IITs, and 10 universities have been supported under the NSTI.

Pay no attention to the howler in that last sentence, and do read this Frontline article [Update: the link is broken; try this link] by R. Ramachandran on the state of nanoscience and nanotechnology research in India. [Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the e-mail alert.]

Dr. Darth: Bastard advisor from hell

Here’s a post-doc who suffered one of those nasty creatures that academic institutions seem to tolerate:

In the course of my weekly meetings with Darth, which often included his research coordinator, I was “diagnosed” as defensive, paranoid, negative, pompous, arrogant, secretive, scheming, learning disordered, and finally, virtually unemployable. He often threatened to fire me, despite the fact that he did not pay my salary and I technically did not work for him. He never once offered me constructive criticism, advice, or encouragement. I could see straight through his tyrannical, narcissistic diatribes. He knew that and it made it worse for me.

The verbal abuse was one thing, but a more destructive trend had started to emerge. He was sitting on my manuscripts. He would tell me I could not attend meetings in my own institution, or give invited talks about my research. He frustrated nearly every attempt I made at original science and wasted my time on side projects for people he wanted to impress. Instead of encouraging collaboration with other scientists, he stated that my duty was to troll his “database” for potential projects, at the rate of one project a week.

It goes on and on, but fortunately, the post-doc saw the lunacy of sticking with Dr. Darth, and took corrective action. And lived to tell the tale.

What did I learn that may be of use to others?

Lesson No. 1: No news is not good news. Investigate your prospective supervisor and if you hear nothing of substance, suspect that perhaps people are clamming up about his lack of people skills. Look elsewhere for a mentor.

Lesson No. 2: Don’t think that being flexible and agreeable will help you deal with bullies. That just stokes them. Working harder does not make things better. Make preparations to leave.

Lesson No. 3: Know that bullies fear exposure. Their entire self-image is based on how their chosen mirrors treat them. That also means that they have deeply ingratiated themselves with anyone with power.

Lesson No. 4: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Don’t let them convince you, either explicitly or implicitly to keep silent. Make sure that you tell as many people as possible what is going on. Seek out the people who don’t like or respect your supervisor, and see if they can help.

Finally, realize that you may not win, no matter how just your cause. Fight the good fight as long as possible, in order to rebuild your social capital, then move on.

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Do read the advice (which I summarized here) given by Sean Carroll and Chad Orzel: choosing an advisor is the most important thing for a graduate student. I would go on to add that it is the most important thing for post-docs too. If you are going to be working closely with someone –, in a subordinate position — for the next year or two (or, five!) you better make sure that he/she is someone you can get along with. Such ‘social’ research is just as important as the research on that person’s expertise, funding, publications, etc.

First anniversary …

… of the infamous Larry Summers episode is just a few days away, and it is time for both his supporters and opponents to get ready for another round of arguments.
It is interesting that though Summers himself has moved on, and instituted some key changes that would make Harvard far more women-friendly, some people would still defend his original thesis.

Steven Pinker seems to be the first one to start this round, with his contribution to the question posed by Edge this year: “What’s your dangerous idea?“. Sean Carroll catches him in the act of willfully misrepresenting the ‘dangerous idea’ in the Summers episode.

I am sure we can expect more views, arguments and analyses during the rest of the month. I don’t know about you, I would actually thank Summers for shining an ultra-luminous spotlight on the topic of women in academia.