Saturday, 1 September 2012

Summer in Academia

Sometimes, when I tell people that I work at a University, they assume that I must have an enormous summer holiday, with no real work to do.  It is not the case at all, and I thought I would post about some of the things that have been occupying my time over summer.
  • A holiday, or two: University staff (in the UK at least) are contracted to work throughout the summer, but we do get to take leave, of course.  Given that we have a lot of teaching commitments in semester time, taking some of our leave in summer is a pretty normal thing to do.  As I've already mentioned, I was in Ayrshire for a week, and I took another week off to have a holiday in Spain, with my partner, daughter and mum.  The picture on this post is the beach at Dénia, where we were staying.  My body now looks strange, with a "tan", to which I am pretty unaccustomed

  • Teaching: The so-called academic year runs from October to June, roughly.  That's when we teach undergraduate degree courses.  Many universities, certainly including mine, have a large number of taught postgraduate courses.  Though my involvement on them is less than many of my colleagues, I do supervise dissertation projects, and they take place over the summer, which the MSc students do not have as vacation.  This year, I had a student working on a project using neural networks for pattern recognition in automated diagnosis of cancer.  That was quite fun, and I learned quite a bit along the way.

  • Research:  There are essentially three things that academic staff do:  Teaching, Research and Administration.  They all take place throughout the year, but during the summer, we get more time to spend on research.  Part of this is through supervision of PhD students (which takes place all year), and I've been spending time doing that.  I've also been writing up some papers that have been in a part-written state for various periods of time, and finished some of those.  I've been to conferences to talk about my and my students' research work, as well as to a science festival.

  • Administration:  I am the chairman of our department's Board of Studies.  As a result, I look after the discussion and implementation of new ideas in teaching and in the overall provision and structure of our degrees, as well as responding to new dictats from above on how we should teach.  Quite a bit of my summer has been taken with preparing a new joint degree in Mathematics and Physics.  The University requires a pretty rigorous validation procedure to be followed to start new courses and that took some time to write, and be reviewed.  The good news is that the course is running as of the coming year, and we will have a few students to teach on it.  They will be able to take different topics from across both departments, and hopefully will enjoy it.  I'm also acting head of the nuclear theory group, with the real head on sabbatical.  There have been a few things to deal with in that capacity, from managing research funding, to dealing with where new people are going to sit when they arrive in October.  Administration also covers all sorts of other paperwork related to teaching or research,  such as booking travel to conferences, and claiming back expenses afterwards.   We don't have personal assistants, alas.

  • Preparation for the new semester: I have a couple of new courses to teach this coming academic year.  One called "High Energy Physics" which is a combination of particle physics and special relativity.  I've been teaching an identically-named, but smaller module on particle physics alone, so this was relatively (ho) straightforward to prepare for.  The other is a final year course on advanced computational techniques - fancy algorithms and parallel processing and that sort of thing, all with a bit of physics context.

  • Other things:  I will probably fail to mention all the things that I've done over summer, but I organise a series of evening lectures at the University, under the aegis of the Institute of Physics.  I've been sorting that out over the summer, and have a sparkling line-up planned, hopefully kicking off with Jonathan Butterworth talking about LHC, and then featuring a splendid line-up of other speakers.  I attended a graduation ceremony, I visited a student on sandwich placement, I've attended student transfer reports for their PhD studies... 
Now, it's a Saturday, and I'm in my office getting some things together.  This evening I fly to Brazil to talk at a conference there.  The hotel I'm staying in looks pretty nice.  I'll try to blog a bit while I am there.  Despedida!


  1. Misconceptions about the work academics do. When people hear I am a prof, they ask "What do you teach?" Although I reply chemistry, in fact I teach for three hours a week for 32 weeks of the year. When I mention that, most people think that I have a cushy job.

    In fact I think that most academics are obsessed with research. All the time things bug us and we look for answers. When research is taken into account, I am "working" pretty much all the time.

    1. I think that's true for many of us... although people may argue that we are just being paid to indulge our hobbies in the case of thinking about research problems all the time :-)