Fred Starr - goes on a blind date

Materials World magazine
28 May 2013

‘Can you take one of my students to lunch?’ a senior university lecturer asked me. He wasn’t being stalked by his student, but wanted to divert her attentions from him to me. Despite my employer at the time funding her doctorate, the student had not even had a telephone call from whoever was supposed to be supporting her project. So the student and I had lunch, and although combustion science was not my line, we had an enjoyable time. When I got back to the office, I stirred things up.

Funding an MSc or PhD is like a blind date. Will it be heaven or hell? Just as one knows what will happen after the first 30 minutes of the encounter, halfway through the second progress meeting with the academic supervisor and postgraduate, one knows whether the project is going somewhere. But in the same way that once the new couple have ordered their meal, when the three-year research contract has been signed, the parties are stuck with one another for the duration.

The blindest of blind dates is when, on starting a new line of research, a student turns to academics for help. I remember doing just that when it became obvious that off-the-shelf stainless steels would be useless in our latest gasifier. I had some half-baked ideas about using metals such as molybdenum and tungsten that tied in with those of Ken Strafford at Newcastle Poly and, over the next 15 years, this and other connections with academia allowed me to see how postgraduates were treated.

About one matter I was quite determined, having witnessed what happened to Bob, a good friend of mine doing an external PhD. After defending his thesis on the optimisation of a chemical engineering process, he came back to the office almost in tears. His work was decried as being insufficiently original, and he was awarded a Masters in consolation. It was, in some ways, worse than not having an academic title at all. Bob’s colleagues blamed the university and his supervisor for letting him get in this mess. From that time onwards, I vowed no one I supported would end up in this sort of pickle, no matter how many people’s backs I had to put up.

Not withstanding the truth that it’s a PhD not a Nobel Prize, I was determined that none of the research I set in hand would be condemned as being run-of-the-mill. Nevertheless, it was common to find that in the early stages of a project, postgrads saw their job simply as getting equipment together and running some tests. However, once or twice the supervisors also showed scant interest in the scientific implications of the results. So on occasion, as part of my job, I had to do some hard talking. Indeed, for British Gas, without skillful interpretation of the work, how could we possibly move to formulate better alloys?

In some cases, despite promises, the department would not have the facilities to do the work, as the gases used in the experiments were toxic and explosive. This results from supervisors who are good at getting the funding, but not much else. These days, if one is not a brilliant academic, it seems one way to a professorship is to know which companies have got pocketfuls of cash. People using this route could, in blind date parlance, be termed gold diggers – where once the money is in, the student is on their own. So when I set something up with a new organisation, I would only give enough money to cover an MSc. This would show what the institution was like, and whether the proposed project had any legs.

Although the MSc route was not as quick as speed dating, it gave the chance to decide whether this would lead to a marriage made in heaven, going on to a fully funded doctorate or otherwise.