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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
The new generations of researcher and academics
The new generations of researcher and academicsFuture concern for cybernetics and systems
Keywords Cybernetics, Systems, Research, Academic staff
There are concerns in the cybernetics and systems communities about both the quality and the numbers of researchers and academics who will continue to work in these fields in future generations. In many cases the question has arisen because a new millennium is upon us and it has to be recognised that many of the older established academic institutions are changing and new ones being founded.
Some aspects of this concern for the future are discussed in the summary of a report commissioned by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and published in the research council's information technology and computer science update Impact, No. 24, 1999. Under the heading "The state of the discipline" it provides a main summary of the findings of the Strategic Marketing Associates (SMA) in its survey of the views of over 200 academic staff and 195 PhD students in information technology and computer science, engineering and other related departments across a wide range of universities that have received funding from the EPSRC. In the UK these disciplines provide the cybernetics and systems communities with some of their most energetic and competent researchers and academics. It has to be noted that in the UK, unlike in many other countries, there are few departments in higher education that have first degrees in cybernetics. Higher degree qualifications, although they may be concerned with multidisciplinary topics, are usually based in departments and faculties that do not bear the title "cybernetics".
Main summary of the SMA survey
The summary of the main findings of the SMA survey of researchers and academics is as follows, and as published in the EPSRC information technology and computer science update (Impact, No. 24, pp. 1-2, 1999):
Concerns have been raised in Information Technology and Computer Science (IT&CS) in particular about maintaining a supply of well-trained researchers and academic staff. So, over the past months Strategic Marketing Associates (SMA - a research company specialising in the education and training sectors) has researched the views of over 200 academic staff, and 195 PhD students, in IT and computer science, engineering and other related departments across a wide range of universities which receive EPSRC funding.
The response reflects the extent of the community's interest in its longer-term prospects. A further 25 interviews were conducted with small, medium and large companies which have collaborated in some way on EPSRC-funded projects. Key personnel in companies such as Microsoft Research, British Telecom, Racal, DERA and other leading IT firms had also been asked for their views. These were supplemented by interviews with 25 informed opinion makers.
The research found that the discipline is not yet in crisis but its long-term health is at risk if positive action is not taken to attract more high-calibre students into PhD work, and employment prospects do not improve for both students and academic staff. Preliminary evaluation from the research and other work done also suggests that the problems are not confined to IT&CS and are being experienced by other disciplines, such as economics.
The pressure on PhDs to complete within three years is discouraging and creates further debt when students enter a fourth year without finding support. Apart from salary, other positive attractions of industry at first graduation include facilities and resources made available, the lifestyle, the greater commercial focus, the practical application for research, and an attractive career path and prospects.
Drop-out rates among PhDs is not an issue, but staff are aware that if they accept sub-standard candidates just to fill places, then drop-out rates could become a problem in the future. Even more importantly, the number and quality of candidates will determine the quality of academic staff teaching the next generation of students.
However, the research is not all doom and gloom. Given the demand and supply of PhDs, the overall picture in the IT&CS discipline appears to be relatively healthy. HESA (Higher Education) first destination data suggest that between 30 and 40 per cent of PhD qualifiers may remain in research either in education, or in research and development. A further 15 per cent take up positions in computer and related activities.
There is no evidence either of a UK exodus of PhDs. According to HESA data, overseas employment is the first destination of 20 per cent of all PhD qualifiers. But from the research among staff it is clear that probably about half of PhD students in the IT&CS discipline come from overseas in the first place. This suggests that the majority of qualifiers going overseas may be students returning home.
Suggestions made by current staff and students
The report also includes a section which has identified what staff and students suggest:
The research has also indicated a general level of satisfaction with the way EPSRC has fulfilled its aims in maintaining a pool of expertise in IT&CS - 58 per cent of students believe it is doing a good job. However, staff and students have expressed a wish for EPSRC to take a higher profile and have suggested a number of actions which might be taken to raise the number and quality of PhD candidates to maintain a healthy flow through the discipline.
The suggested actions to be taken by the UK's research council to improve the situation are as follows. They are specific actions which would apply to the basic disciplines that feed academics and researchers into the multidisciplinary fields of systems and cybernetics. They were:
Encourage more students to take PhDs.
Improve the PhD experience by encouraging induction courses, better supervision and by setting up student networks.
Increase the number of links between the university and industry, and tackle awareness of "each other's" needs.
Make the role of the post-doctorate research assistant (RA) an attractive one.
Improve the lot of academic staff and improve the quality of their career path so that we retain them long-term.
This survey and the suggestions that it has brought forth highlight many of the problems facing researchers at the present time and, if there is no action to remedy some of those cited in the way suggested, then we face immense difficulties in the future.