Training Scientists: What's the Point?

My colleagues and I spend what is probably an inordinate amount of time complaining about the occasional lapses of the basic skills of our students, their inability to take notes, their obsession with marks and what’s going to be on the exams. Because, like everyone else, we like to complain.

But pretty often I get the chance to see them at their best. In the Physics department at Imperial, we interview students who are on the boundaries between final “degree classifications”, the British system of awarding degrees as First Class, 2.1, 2.2, etc. Last week, I was on the panel for this year’s cohort. And it was a pleasure to sit in front of a few of our students and watch them, in real time, thinking like physicists. Of course this means making the occasional mistake, but it also means that delicious “aha!” moment when they figure something out and (this is the best part) they know that they have, whether it’s finding a sign error in their derivation of the motion of a pendulum, or a thought experiment explaining why Einstein’s relativity makes sense.

For the interviews, I was paired with one of our external examiners, UCL particle physicist and fellow-blogger Jon Butterworth. On the same day as our interview, the Guardian published Simon Jenkins’ latest in a series of risible anti-science screeds, and Jon decided to take him to task neither with reasoned argumentation nor with a counter-polemic, but with parody. As with many great ideas on the internet, this one got picked up and built upon, so that the Guardian, to its credit, eventually gave Jon his own space to reply. Jenkins likely thinks we’re producing too many scientists (Imperial only trains scientists, doctors, and engineers, after all!) but I hope that Jon was pleased with the ones he saw.

So my congratulations to this year’s graduating students, and the best of luck to them whatever they go on to do. Pace Jenkins, the world needs more well-trained scientists like them, not fewer.