Thursday, July 10, 2014

We need to talk about CDTs

A colleague from another UK university recently asked me about applying for a joint Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in algorithms and complexity, and I had to answer that as far as I know, there are no calls out for new CDTs, and there probably won’t be any new ones until the current CDTs come to an end, in 3-4 years’ time. Thus, for prospective doctoral students, for at least three years there will be a relative shortage of opportunities to work on algorithms and complexity, and if we later got the CTD in question, there would subsequently be a glut of such opportunities. This point is not specific to algorithms and complexity; you can apply it to your favourite research area. Furthermore, most CDTs are hosted by a single department, so if a student’s research area of interest is indeed catered-to by a CDT, they don’t have much choice about where to go.

That having been said, there are a couple of reasonable objections to the above points. The first one is that most students aged about 21 are not competant to set their own research agenda, or write a proposal. Choice and academic freedom are wasted on them. The second one is that the scholarly lifestyle is by nature rather peripatetic, especially in early-career, and this should be embraced by prospective graduate students, who should be eager to move to a different university.

The impact of CDTs on the academics who end up running them, or not as the case may be, is more open to criticism. I’ve heard complaints that they are onerous to administer, and that it can be hard to attract enough high-quality graduates to fill all the available places. They are also onerous to apply for in the first place, and may require the host institution to commit resources to them, which would otherwise have been free for other activities. If you’re not involved with a CDT, the fact that most PhD student funding goes to CDTs means that it’s hard to get PhD students. To summarise, you end up either overloaded or underloaded. These complaints are rarely aired in public, probably because they would reflect badly on the complainant.

Advocates of CDTs like to point to their “cohort effect” or “critical mass effect”. For a research student, it’s nice to have a couple of other students around who are working on projects related to one’s own, but you don’t actually need a dozen of them. PhD students should be encouraged to engage with their research communities, and not just each other. Recently at the ACM-EC conference I heard a bunch of impressive talks by graduate students who were clearly keen to develop their presence in the research community, and would not wish to be seen just as students.

Other aspects of the CDT system worth noting are the following. They fit in with a highly centralised, top-down system, in which national priorities are determined, and are then handed down to the academic community via funding decisions on their CDT applications. They also fit in well with the agenda to concentrate research funding on a small number of institutions. Come to think of it, those things may very will be their real raison d’ĂȘtre.