The varsity sports and the musical instruments

This time of year, everyone is applying somewhere. Graduate admission and scholarship applications, postdoctoral applications, tenure-track applications were due recently or will be soon. I’ve helped with a record number of graduate and postdoc applications this year, and that got me thinking about what’s required for such applications and how they’re sometimes evaluated on the flimsiest of criteria.

At one extreme, there’s NSF. Their grants are hard to get, their webpage can be difficult to navigate and I don’t always agree with their decisions, but if you apply for their postdoctoral fellowship in mathematics, you submit a research statement, a CV and the supporting letters, all of which are basically about your research. Even the “synergistic activities” and “broad impact” are expected to be work-related – organizing seminars, say, or perhaps volunteering on a Math Olympiad circle, as opposed to the college basketball team or the musical instruments you’ve played. You don’t have to arrange for a notarized copy of your undergraduate transcripts to be sent by snail mail, either.

The Canadian tri-agency criteria, on the other hand, consist of “academic excellence”, “research potential” and “interpersonal, communication and leadership skills”. NSERC weighs them 30/50/20 at the Ph.D. level. The first two criteria are clear enough; the third, less so. According to these guidelines:

Reviewers will assess evidence of leadership both within university and outside; communication skills as evidenced by publications, presentations; and interpersonal skills as evidenced by reference letters and other work experience.

Communication skills can be reasonably easy to evaluate: if we can’t make out heads or tails out of your research description, we mark you down. But leadership? Interpersonal skills? The funding agencies don’t really place any restrictions on what should or should not be included. Some of the candidates are confused by the whole idea. Others list everything they can think of: the high school choir, the soccer team. I can’t blame them.

A Killam postdoctoral fellow at UBC should:

Be likely to contribute to the advancement of learning or to win distinction in a profession. A Killam scholar should not be a one-sided person. . . Special distinction of intellect should be founded upon sound character.

I wonder if this Harvard student might be a perfect candidate:
Continue reading “The varsity sports and the musical instruments”

Stephen Harper: not good for science, not good for Canada

From the Globe and Mail:

At a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” with billions in new investments, leaders in the Canadian research community were left scratching their heads over Stephen Harper’s response to what many fear will become a widening funding gap.

The headline numbers offered Tuesday drew praise from university leaders. There is $2-billion for colleges and universities to fix their aging buildings, $87.5-million for new graduate scholarships and $750-million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which funds research infrastructure. […]

But more than 250 pages back in the budget are figures that point to cuts to the three federal granting councils, the bodies that hand out the money to support continuing research. Over three years, the base budgets of the three agencies will be reduced by $87.2-million; the government says this money will be directed to other spending programs in higher education.

More here. A further clarification from the Educational Policy Institute:

The new money is meant to pay for 500 doctoral scholarships valued at $35,000 annually over 3 years and 1,000 one-time scholarships for students at the Master’s level valued at $ 17,500 each. Scholarships in science and medicine are unrestricted in terms of subject area; SSHRC scholarships, on the other hand, will be restricted to students in programs related to business studies. This, again, is consistent with earlier Conservative policies, which have specifically avoided providing SSHRC with new funds for areas apart from business and economics.

However, the granting councils will not see an overall budget increase as a result of these scholarships. This is because the three councils, as a result of regular Program Review, will see a cumulative decrease in their funding over the next three years of $87.2 million. Thus, the new graduate scholarships are effectively being paid for as-yet unspecified reductions in other areas of research spending. Moreover, while the increase in scholarships is temporary (after two years, spending is supposed to revert back to present levels), the cut in budgets is meant to be permanent.

Evidently, Mr. Harper, Mr. Flaherty, and their advisors don’t know or care much about either science or graduate education.

Continue reading “Stephen Harper: not good for science, not good for Canada”

Analysis at UBC: an update

If you’re applying for admission to graduate schools, or if you’re graduating this year and applying for a postdoctoral positions, and if your research interests are in harmonic analysis, you may want to consider applying here. Our new harmonic analysis group is looking for new students and postdocs starting next year; therefore, here’s a brief description of what we have to offer.

As of this year, our group consists of Mahta Khosravi, Akos Magyar, Malabika Pramanik and myself. Mahta’s research area is quasiclassical asymptotics on manifolds: she uses harmonic analysis to address a family of questions with roots in both quantum mechanics and analytic number theory. Akos, Malabika and I have a wide range of interests, from classical harmonic analysis to geometric measure theory, analytic number theory and additive combinatorics. Speaking of the latter, we’re very lucky to have Jozsef Solymosi as a colleague.

We now have a respectable level of activity in both harmonic analysis and additive combinatorics. There’s a small group of graduate students and postdocs that we hope will grow a little bit more in the next few years. Short-term visitors come reasonably often. We’re working to arrange for research-level graduate courses in harmonic analysis and related areas to be offered on a regular basis. This year, there are two: my course in Fourier-analytic methods in additive combinatorics, and Akos’s course in harmonic analysis next semester. Three, if you also count Jozsef’s course in additive combinatorics next semester – it’s not harmonic analysis, but it’s not exactly unrelated, either. We’re hoping to have at least one topics course in analysis next year, two if possible. We’ve also started a weekly working seminar several weeks ago.

(After the lean and unhappy years I’ve had here from 2000 to 2006, this is quite a change…)

If you’re interested in applying here and would like more information, please feel free to drop us a line.

B is for Breadth – or Burden?

In an earlier post, I mentioned two proposals from the departmental graduate committee and explained what I thought about the first one. The second one was discussed briefly at a faculty meeting last semester and tabled for now, but will likely be considered again in the future. The proposal is as follows:

We propose a 2-course (6-credit) ceiling on the number of “reading courses” that a student can count in the 30 credits for her/his degree. This change would encourage students to take regular lecture courses and thus gain breadth in their training. (There would be no limit on the number of reading courses a student could enrol in and enjoy. The proposal is simply that the student must present 24 or more credits earned through some other activity in order to earn an advanced degree. This change would be most relevant at the Master’s level, because we count credits earned in MSc studies toward the doctorate. So most doctoral students have completed most of the 30 credits they need before they even enter the PhD program.)

That last statement is a bit misleading. At the same faculty meeting, we were told that the department would aim to increase the number of candidates admitted directly to the Ph.D. program (skipping Master’s). The new rule would certainly affect them.

Continue reading “B is for Breadth – or Burden?”

The trouble with candidacy exams

Last fall, the departmental graduate committee…

The [graduate affairs committee]’s job is to promote advanced mathematical formation by supporting both faculty and students. Our proposals are intended to provide structure and guidance with minimal bureaucracy.

… came up with two proposals. The first one has already been approved, over my objections. The second one has been tabled for now but will likely be brought up again. This post is about the first one; I’m saving the second one for a follow-up post a little bit later.

The first proposal concerns candidacy exams, or comprehensive exams as the Faculty of Graduate Studies calls them.

Continue reading “The trouble with candidacy exams”