Pints and Science in Manchester

I just received word of a pretty unusual science focussed drinking event in the glorious bars of Manchester. Or maybe that is supposed to be a drinking focussed science event…..I’m not sure. 12 fascinating talks by scientists have been organised by a great team of folks and will be taking place in your favourite beer serving establishments.

Check out Pint of Science 2014 for times, topics and venues.

And remember, consume your beer with a critical mind and your science in moderation……….erm………….


MIT Reality TV

I spend a lot of time worrying about the image of chemistry. I want people to know that you don’t have to be a ‘geek’ to be great at science.  I also think this image can dissuade great young minds from following their instincts and passion for science (particularly chemistry of course) because they do not ‘fit’ in to what they perceive is the image of a scientist.

I am hoping that this new ‘reality show’ out of MIT will give people a bit of an idea about what chemistry at university is about, and will show a broad spectrum of people and personalities. I know MIT is probably not that representative of science education as a whole, but we can can hope a little that the result of this is positive for the perception of chemistry and chemists.

Though a deeply buried and cynical part of my being, despite my audible protestations, thinks probably not!


Here is the MIT blogpost

The Secrets of an Academic Career

Unless you happen to be part of the academic system, how an academic career actually develops is not widely know or understood.  To be honest, even to those within the system, the whole thing is pretty damn confusing.  It is possible to skip certain steps, ‘fellowships’ pop up at all different levels of the career path, and despite having the same label have completely different meanings, and the differentiation of ‘levels’ is often ambiguous.

To clear this up I have made a pretty picture and given a small description of each stage.  To be clear though, my picture is a fairly linear simplification of the system, and alternative pathways with roundabouts, traffic lights, and holes in the ground all exist. In addition, I am talking solely about the UK system.  In the rest of the world requirements differ and titles of positions vary: though the general pathway of undergraduate degree, to postgraduate degree, to post-doctoral research, to an academic career, hold true. Furthermore, this is written from the perspective of a scientist (specifically a chemist), and in the arts this is probably quite different.

(y = years)

A BSc (Batchelor of Science) and MChem (Master of Chemistry) are primarily taught courses requiring the learning of material and the succesful completion of examinations. These qualifications are graded as 3rd class (3rd), lower 2nd class (2:2), upper 2nd class (2:1) and first class (1st), with a 1st being the highest level.

 A BSc and MChem are typically identicle for the first two years. The second two years of an MChem are more research focussed than the final year of a BSc, and taught modules in the final year of an MChem are of a level beyond that of the BSc. An MChem is a higher  level qualification than a BSc.

MSc (Master of Science), MRes (Master of Research), MPhil (Master of Philosphy) are postgraduate degrees of the same level. The proportion of research and taught modules differentiates each qualification. Completion of examinations and submission of a research thesis is required for completion of the qualification. The qualification is graded using a pass/merit/distinction scale. 

 A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is typically 100% research based and is completed over a 3-4 year period. A PhD student will research a specific topic(s) over a number of years under the supervision of an academic (university lecturer), and is then required to submit an extended thesis (200-300 pages) reporting this work. For a PhD to be awarded the student must defend their research, which has been critically evaluated by two academics (university lecturers) in an oral examination (viva) lasting for 2-4 hours. PhD research must be of a publishable level i.e. of a quality that could be submitted to peer-reviewed journals for publication in scientific literature, but publishing research is not a requisite for completion of the qualification (though is highly desirable). A PhD is not graded on a sliding scale, though successful completion of these studies affords the student the title of Dr. 

Post-doctoral research (or “post-docking”) is not a formal qualification, but is typically required for progression in an academic career. Post-doctoral research is completed under the supervision of an academic in a manner similar to a PhD, but a significantly increased level of independence is expected, and the ability to generate ideas and develop this into publishable (peer-reviewed) research papers is critical. Post-doctoral positions are typically between 1 and 2 years, and a number of these may be undertaken in different research groups (i.e. working for different academic supervisors) before moving up the career ladder.  Undertaking a post-doctoral research position under the supervision of your PhD supervisor is not generally viewed as favorable.

A position as a lecturer or an independent research fellow is the first position in which you are regarded as independent scientist (an academic).  You are no longer working under the supervision of another academic, and at this stage you will often begin to supervise PhD students and potentially employ post-doctoral researchers.  As well as undertaking and publishing your own research, teaching of undergraduate and post-graduate students is often a requirement of employment.  A position as a lecturer is slightly favourable as the position is typically permanent, a luxury not afforded to independent research fellows.

Career progression from a lecturer through to a professor is neither essential or guaranteed. Progression through the ranks typically reflects your contribution to your subject in terms of research (and to a lesser degree teaching). Teaching requirements typically reduce throughout the career path, though the best academics (in my opinion) typically maintain as a high a commitment to teaching as possible. A successful research career is often reflected in an academics ability to procure financial backing for their research ideas, and the successful implementation of these ideas (demonstrated by publishing research).  As a consequence, more senior academics typically have more financial support and thus employ more post-doctoral researchers and supervise a greater number of PhD students. The writing of research proposals to procure funding is one of the most significant administrative requirements of an academic.

Resources for School Teachers

To maintain the resources required to feed myself as my stipend quickly runs out I have been picking up extra work going into schools to talk about chemistry. I have done shows with primary school children which have been amazing fun, and spent are fair amount of time with A level students making paracetamol and talking about university.

As well as having a great time, I have had the opportunity to speak to teachers, and it is apparent – especially in primary schools – that there is a lack of experience and background  in ‘science’.  A consequence of this is that teachers find it more difficult to exploit the curriculum in a fun manner, and to engage children in science in the way they want to, and as a result I am often asked suggestions of fun and educational experiments that can be done in schools.

To try to address this I have collated a couple of sites that I have come across, and as the list grows, hopefully this will become a significant resource, and a useful first point of call for teachers.

Click here, or the Resources, Links and Blog Roll above.