Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who shall be desummoned?


Last week I was sitting in a meeting of the Education Committee of Somerville College. Although most meeting are rather dull, I actually learned quite a few interesting things in this meeting. One of the things that gets discussed in the education committee is the students who are in trouble for one reason or another. If they are in trouble, academic or not, they are put on report. If they are in more trouble, it escalates to probation. After that they get kicked out. There are really very few students who fall into this category, and really one only needs to "get your work up from miserable to mediocre" in order to get off of report. But after hearing the status of these all of these troubled students, there was then a long discussion of "how many students are being desummoned".

Desummoned? Sounds like they are being banished to the great beyond. After being completely confused for a while, I finally asked what on earth they were talking about. It turns out that "Desummoned" is the fancy word for "Rejected". They were talking about undergraduate admissions.

The admissions situation is apparently quite a topic of conversation around here (for good reason). The system is pretty complicated, and I'm sure I will know much more about it once I go through the process in detail in the fall. But here is the rough story.

First thing to realize is that students are admitted to "read" a single subject. So you are admitted as a physicist, a chemist, or whatever. There is no concept of liberal arts. Because of this the physicists all get together and discuss the physics applicants. On the other hand, you are also admitted to a single college. So you also apply to the specific college. So in essence, next year, I will be choosing from the applicant pool some 6 or 7 students a year who will come to somerville college, and I will be their tutor. As people like to say around here, "you get to choose your own mistakes."

One issue is that students get to decide which college to apply to, but in some cases they end up at other colleges because there just isn't enough room at the really popular places. One of the things Somerville worries about is that we have a lot of "hand-me-down" students.

Within the physics community, the big issue du-jour is how much we should pay attention to the entrance exam in admissions. Just in the last few years they have started keeping track of how students have been rated in the interviews versus how they have performed once they get here and several years later. What was found is that there is essentially no correlation with the interview -- but there is very high correlation with the entrance exam. So does this mean we should only pay attention to the entrance exam? That doesn't sound like such a good idea either, since the entrance exam is likely to test more how well you are prepared (i.e., how good a school you went to) rather than how smart you are. Nonetheless (given various caveats about the quality of our data) our current belief is that the entrance exam is probably the best indicator of success in physics at Oxford. The main reason people want to keep the interview right now is that a few candidates (typically overseas) take the entrance exam in "uncontrolled" conditions, and then when they get to the interview it is quite clear that they were not the ones who actually took the exam since they know none of the material. So the interview does function to weed out cheaters, but this appears to be its main purpose. These people are "desummoned" rather quickly.


Ilya said...

The term "desummoned" sounds like a legalese euphemism that I would have expected to encounter in the US and not in the UK. That is, to preserve the feelings of the students, they are "un-admitted" rather than "rejected", cf. (though it's a rather un-good example) the difference between unattractive and ugly.

That said, is the entrance exam specific to the university and the particular department, or is it one of those country-wide generic affairs?

Steve said...

I've tried to find the history of this term with no success yet.

The entrance exam is oxford specific. It is administered at a number of controlled locations (mostly in the UK) and a number of overseas locations as well -- although some of these are not so well controlled.

Of interest of course is who designs this exam and what sort of thing they test.

Carissa Aoki said...

I'm still mystified by the concept of "reading" your subject from day 1. I can see where physics and math students might know what they want going in, but I can't believe that every high schooler admitted to Oxford knows what subject they would like to study. Do the uncertain ones just read literature or history?

I'm particularly jazzed about this at the moment, because it seems to me that American graduate students (in ecology, anyway) are often attracted to a given project due to the availability of funding, rather than their fascination with, say, stickleback genetics. So one gets funneled into particular methodologies, particular scales (ecologists are very fussy about "scale"), etc. before one has had a chance to be exposed to the broad range of available lines of research.

In other words, your younger self might choose a grad school and advisor because a particular topic was generally in the area of what you wanted to do and funding was available, but you might later find that you don't like the method, or you'd rather work on a larger scale, or maybe there's too much modeling and not enough field work in this particular discipline (or vice versa if you like math and stats), or maybe you prefer whales to sticklebacks. But by then you'll have your degree in hand, and your future grant-writing and collaboration-making will probably be related to what you did as a grad student....etc. (I'm assuming all of this kind of thing might be less of a problem in physics, where I imagine that someone who wants to do grad school in it has a pretty good idea of where s/he is going from the start.)

So I guess I'm generally interested in how students get from the broad to the specific in their studies, and whether the swiftness of that transition is good or not.

Steve said...

You make a really good point. I don't have too many real data points on the issue right now, but it seems to me you are right --- people simply don't know what they want to do at that point in life, and locking them in to a particular subject is probably a bad idea.

On the other hand, the risk of the liberal arts education is that you never really get to experience what it means to get deep into any subject. The idea of the European system is to give you the experience of really digging into something rather than just scratching the surface.

One data point of note is the fraction of the students that "read" physics who actually go on to physics grad school --- this is probably one in five or one in ten. Most of the students go on to other jobs (banking and consulting are favorites among physicists). The companies realize that "corporate" education needs to start from scratch anyway, and it isnt' too clear to me that they are all that much worse off than someone from an American university. I mean, would they have made better bankers if they had also minored in music? The companies like candidates with physics degrees because the degree guarantees that the candidate can think through hard problems and is good with numbers.

Locking into a subject in grad school is a similarly difficult problem. You have limited choice of topics in school because you need an advisor, and the advisor needs a grant.

Then once you start developing a reputation in a particular field, it becomes hard to switch because you will lose everything you have earned (in terms of being able to get jobs, get grants, etc). Some people manage to do it, but it usually requires a large time investment to re-establish yourself. The first "safe" chance someone gets to move from one topic to another is once you get tenure --- and even then it is hard because your students are counting on you to keep the funding coming in.

And no, I don't think this is any less of a problem with physics. Although perhaps there is more similarities between the different branches of physics than there is between whales and trees.