Month: January 2013

How to read the scientific literature

What do you make of scientific papers?

First year students may yet to have read one in depth but second and third years should be getting to grips with what is the primary mode of communication of scientific research.

They can seem daunting, especially at first. For a start there are thousands of journals out there and it can be difficult to get a measure of the differences between them. Which is better — Nature or Science? The EMBO Journal or the Journal of Biological Chemistry? How do you find out?

As an undergraduate student, you may feel that you are in no position to criticise the contents of a paper that has obviously been written by an ‘expert’.

What is a university degree for?

The education journalist Peter Wilby had a comment piece in the Guardian last week, in which he raised some interesting questions about the value of educational qualifications. The article resonated with me because it touched on an issue that I have become more and more aware of since assuming the role of Director of Undergraduate Studies: the meaning of a university degree.

Wilby starts from what is probably a widely accepted position:

“Education is regarded as an unmitigated good, of benefit to society, the economy and the individual. More means better, we think. In many respects, that is true: if we are a more tolerant, more inclusive society than we were 50 years ago, that is largely because most of us are better educated.”

But despite improvements in education he notes that many professions have been affected by a sort of qualification inflation, by which the minimum entry requirements have risen inexorably and, in some cases, without proper justification.

How to email your Professor

I came across this blogpost yesterday with useful advice on how to communicate with professors and lecturers by email. Although it comes from Wellesley College which, being a US liberal arts college for women only, is a rather different institution to Imperial College, much of the advice is relevant and helpful.

It is clear from my email inbox that many students already have a clear idea of how to write a polite and effective email message, but I’ve also seen examples from students who are not so sure how to go about the task.

To the points of technique and etiquette mentioned in the blogpost, I would like to add the suggestion that students try to keep to a minimum the number of times that they email staff at weekends or during holidays, out of consideration for the fact that staff are entitled to a break from their teaching duties from time to time.