Cambridge Admissions – Dispelling the Myths

Myths abound about admission to Cambridge, despite all attempts to put out some real hard facts (and similarly by Oxford). The interview process itself, which both universities use, seems to be shrouded in particular mystique. Cambridge has recently posted a new video to try to flesh out the reality of what it really is like; Oxford has put out some typical questions for a similar purpose. Fundamentally, interviews are not designed to trip candidates up but to draw them out. But anyhow the interview is not the be-all and end-all of the process and solid numbers and facts – rather than the perhaps slightly subjective feel of the interview or even the text of the personal statement – is at the bottom of decision-making (see a description of the Cambridge process from 2012 here). Objective measures such as AS level marks (particularly important for Cambridge) and comments from the school about the standing of the individual relative to the cohort count for a lot. This is the reason why Cambridge is so concerned about recent government decisions that will mean in the future marks from AS levels will no longer be available to college decision-makers. The background of the school and the average A level scores it gains are also important and admissions tutors will have extensive experience on this front.

People, particularly the media, love to hate Cambridge it seems to me. Whilst simultaneously berating the institutions for not doing enough to broaden access and widen participation, anyone who attends the universities is instantly branded as ‘elite’ or ‘a toff’. If someone from a tough comprehensive is admitted, as soon as they leave and enter the workforce their original pedigree is instantly eradicated, over-written as ‘merely’ Cambridge and therefore in some way suspected of being privileged. Churchill College, my new home, indeed has a proud record of admitting students from the state sector, with amongst the highest proportion of such students in the Cambridge colleges. But that isn’t to say it has admissions completely sorted; consequently I have been keen to look into our admissions in some detail.

We, as a college, may do well on the state sector front (admitting ca 70% of our students from such schools) but we have a problem around gender which needs further investigation. To some extent the problem is obvious: by statute we admit 70% of students in the science and engineering disciplines and, as I have frequently written about before, girls are woefully under-represented in subjects like Physics at A level. Churchill cannot admit girls to read engineering, for instance, if they haven’t taken that subject at A level. Superficially, the low numbers of girls we admit (ca 35%) can be explained away like this.

But that is an inadequate explanation overall for the low number of girls, as it turns out our applications are not always in line with the university average. Cambridge overall actually does well in comparison with the average applying through UCAS when it comes to girls reading engineering (nearly twice as well in fact, with 23.2 compared with 12.7%), but Churchill not only doesn’t match this figure it doesn’t see a conversion from applications into girls who go on to meet their offer. So, we have a dispiritingly low number of women studying engineering. We have disappointingly low numbers in maths too, but here Cambridge overall is way below the typical numbers in other universities. This last point is something that the university collectively has to look into, but the former is a problem for my college and we are actively seeking ways to improve the situation, for instance through the information we put out on the web and making sure our open days prove as attractive to girls as to boys.

But there are some other anomalies across the university which many admissions tutors are wrestling with. I have written previously about the challenge in subjects like Veterinary Science. Nationally this is strongly female-dominated with a UCAS percentage of applications of around 75% quoted. At Cambridge this figure is slightly lower, though not significantly so, and in Churchill it is lower still. Does this mean we are doing a good job of encouraging the minority, in this case boys, or does it mean that the college is actually unintentionally disfavouring girls? Questions such as these become very tricky to answer but need to be kept constantly in mind and apply to several different subjects.

Of course gender is not the only facet of diversity and one should be looking at all the other aspects too: amongst others, ethnic origin and socioeconomic background. The latter is hard to get at (socio-economic classifications are often based on out-of-date information and involve value-judgements) and information on it is not included on UCAS forms, but it is clearly central to widening participation (WP) in general. Suffice it to say that all Cambridge colleges put a lot of effort into WP, sending people into traditionally low-attainment schools in order to try to raise aspirations and convince them that, if they’re outstanding students they would enjoy and benefit from what we have to offer. At what age you need to start doing this is a difficult question, but almost certainly aspiration-raising should begin by the start of secondary school. If teachers and parents don’t encourage children to aim high, or worse actively discourage those who do aspire, it is very hard for any university to overturn such attitudes. Organisations such as IntoUniversity do try, as do the college admissions tutors, but it is a big ask.

Overall there is no evidence that BME (black and minority ethnic) applicants are disadvantaged by the university, but that high level figure may mask large differences between those applying from different backgrounds. (In UCAS ethnicity is self-defined and disclosure is naturally voluntary. This is another area of background information that is not available to universities at point of selection.) As the recent Royal Society diversity report on the scientific workforce indicated, the situation is extremely complicated when it comes to different ethnicities and, for a single college it is all but impossible to disentangle any significant effects because the numbers are so small. This isn’t an excuse not to try, and most certainly everyone is aware of the issues, but it is a challenge to make much sense of the numbers.

As the incoming Master of Churchill, with my prior track record around gender issues, I am very conscious the fellowship is looking to me to help to improve the numbers of girls applying to the college. Currently the figure on applications stands at around 25% girls, so our actual intake shows our focus on ability means we are certainly not disadvantaging them. Nevertheless, we need to increase the applications from girls in the first place. There seems to be a tremendous will to work on all aspects of admissions to translate this goal into effective strategies. The first task was inevitably to gather the evidence; this has already been done. Now we just have to implement actions that translate the will into improvements year by year. This will take longer! But whatever we do, once a candidate applies the college will always stick with the emphasis of looking objectively at the numbers (AS grades, school averages, GCSE scores etc) and not rely significantly on subjective measures as to whether an individual looks ‘right’ for Cambridge. That latter sort of action may be part of the mythology but it is not the reality of Cambridge admissions.


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Lifeskills I Wish I Possessed

I have been, briefly, in Brussels observing some ERC panels far from my area of expertise. It’s a very interesting experience, approaching topics one knows nothing about (including not having read the proposals) but watching how proceedings unfold. As a Scientific Council member my role is to see that all is going smoothly, that there are no bureaucratic hiccoughs that need to be ironed out and that people are behaving appropriately and responsibly. It is a chance to find out whether the forms are fit-for-purpose and whether panels have enough information to do their jobs properly. And I have to say that everything I have seen has been very reassuring on all those fronts. The panels work incredibly hard but my understanding is people also find them very satisfying and that indeed some new collaborations have grown, accidentally as it were, from contacts made at such panels.

However, it isn’t about the ERC that I want to write today. Going over to Brussels regularly on ERC-business means I am frequently there for quite short stays which are full of intense work. As I lay in bed failing to go to sleep one night (because my body clock said it was an hour earlier than the local time suggested) I reflected on the improvement in my life that would transpire if I could go to sleep on demand. If I could ignore the fact that my body thought it was 10pm when I switched off the light at ’11pm’, and similarly if it would instantly readjust the next morning so that I wasn’t turning up at meetings still bleary-eyed from having got up at what felt like a ridiculously early hour. Or even, if I could more closely resemble those individuals like Maggie Thatcher who can get by with a lot less sleep than I can cope with. So, when the genie pops out of its bottle that would be my first request.

The second is also prompted by my time in Brussels (and other trips to EU centres: now I am off to Zagreb for an ERC Plenary session of the Scientific Council). I wish I could speak other languages in a competent manner. Not so that I can merely say please and thank you in two or three languages – essentially the limit of my capability – but ones whereby I could hold a conversation, contribute to a panel discussion, enjoy watching TV and complain in the local tongue when the bathroom door handle came off. I watched the grant applicants fluently present their research plans and answer all the questions thrown at them by a panel, the vast majority of whom were also not speaking in their native tongue. It is very convenient for me that English has become the lingua franca of science, but I feel ashamed by my ineptitude that I can do so little myself in any other tongue. How is it that the UK doesn’t do even better when it comes to ERC funding (and I know we do well), when every other country’s scientists have had to expend such huge amounts of time and energy mastering English, time that we – presumably – were free to use in studying our science? And I know perfectly well that many of the scientists that I saw being interviewed were probably fluent in more than just their native language and English; they probably had two or three other ones up their sleeve.

My third wish for the genie regarding my travels relates to my appearance. I have been brought up by a delightful mother who doesn’t believe in being impressed by what I’ve got up to in life. So, as I heave my rucksack (as I described here, always full of the most essential things) on my back she is prone to say cuttingly that I don’t look like a serious professor. I hope I don’t look like an itinerant backpacker either, but it is true that I tend not be exactly soignée. I wish that I could get on my bike (in this case cycling to the railway station) without ending up covered in oil. I have no idea how it is that so often I get to the end of a journey and find my fingers or my clothes are the worse for wear. Occasionally I know perfectly well that the chain came off and I had to struggle with it. Then it is fair enough that I end up looking like a garage mechanic, but more often than not I have no idea how the end of my nose or my chin is black when I next look in a mirror. It doesn’t help the air of gravitas to turn up at a meeting looking somewhat disreputable in such a manner. So my third request to the genie would be a behavioural shift to enable me to avoid oily (or other) mishaps en route to my destination.

So, one short trip and three key wishes for any passing friendly genie in a bottle. All three would have made this and many another trip more relaxing and enjoyable. None of them are completely handicapping, all of them cause me irritation. What would your three wishes be?

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Spreading the Word, Drop by Drop

There are times when I feel as if I’m talked out about gender. I know what the issues are, I’ve written and spoken about them often enough; I’ve dug up and read through some of the relevant papers (though that hardly makes me an expert in the field) and I’ve put the arguments across in many different fora both publicly and privately. Regular readers of this blog will be well aware that I write a lot about the problems (and opportunities) for women in science and sometimes I feel ‘I’ve done this and it’s time for me to stop‘.

Unfortunately, of course it isn’t. There are so many places where ignorance of the problems, if not downright malevolence persists. If you wonder about the latter you only have to read this or this, just from the last week, to know that there is plenty of malevolence out there. As far as I can see the tech/computing/gaming community – which these examples come from – is worse than most, which cannot be unconnected with the spectacularly low number of women working there. On the other hand the ignorance is often of the most well-intentioned kind, from people who have never had to face up to the tedious reality that too many women, young and old, still have to encounter and so have never stopped to think whether the social constructs in our society are ‘fair’. (And of course, for every time I write the word ‘gender’ or ‘woman’ here, you can really replace it with any other minority; however I will stick with writing what I know about.)

There are times when I would like to lay down this mantle, this feeling of responsibility, but I suspect that would be letting the side down, if it is appropriate to talk about sides when we should all be in this together. I wish there were more people who would stand up and talk about the facts, as dispassionately as they like – after all it wouldn’t ‘do’ for a woman to get emotional, although perhaps a man could get away with it – but they should ram them home on every occasion when they can see a conversation, an interview, an appointment or a promotion committee running aground on unconscious bias or the cultural baggage acquired via the lazy short-cut of stereotyping.

But anytime I start to feel like this, perhaps in the weariness of the start of the academic year or the sense that I have deployed these arguments too many times before and they have merely fallen on deaf ears, something rises up to remind me that I and thou may be well-informed about the harsh realities but too many decent folk have never had occasion or prompt to think about them. Just recently over a dinner table with a delightfully thoughtful and erudite gentleman I was brought up short when I mentioned in passing the fact that too often letters of reference contained subtly gendered adjectives and phrases that could, all too easily, damage a female applicant’s chances of a job. This gentleman, who in the course of his long life had doubtless been involved in many job searches and appointments, looked startled and asked for more information. I was perfectly willing to provide it (although over the fine food it hardly seemed the moment to start googling for the actual supporting scholarly articles one might like to adduce as evidence) and he seemed to lap it up. Will it remain in his mind when next he appoints someone? Who knows, but one can but try.

Drop by drop, one step at a time…… it hardly amounts to a revolution but it is a sine qua non if progress is to be made.

Shortly after that another communication, this time via email, also brought home to me that small actions can make a difference, at least at an individual level. This time it was an email from a woman at some other university who let me know that her head of department had read my post about the Royal Society’s University Research Fellows and had bethought him- or her-self (not specified) to look out this woman and encourage her to ‘get writing that application‘. If every head of a science and engineering department in the country did that for just one woman who otherwise, without that nudge, would not apply then quickly the percentage of female applicants for these fellowships would rise to a more tolerable level. And if they started doing it for just one such woman I would wager there would be a cascade of senior individuals in these departments encouraging others likewise to apply – sincel higher education is a competitive place and it wouldn’t do to let the head of department’s favourites get an unfair advantage over one’s own, would it? So, drop by drop, maybe such seemingly small actions could improve the world.

I don’t know. I only know that, when the feeling of déjà vu creeps up on me, as it does from time to time, when the thought of speaking at yet another event on the subject fills me with less than enthusiasm, I realise I have a voice that is listened to and I should not waste it. This week it’s a discussion at the Cambridge Union, sadly if unsurprisingly involving the usual suspects from Cambridge: Ottoline Leyser, Patricia Fara, my successor as STEMM gender equality champion Anne Davis and myself plus Sunetra Gupta from Oxford. For this youthful audience, which I hope will contain at least as many men as women although I fear it will not, I must remember that they are neither familiar with the challenges nor with the possible solutions and what seems to me obvious and well-worn by this point may be helpfully illuminating and original for them.

I must not let my frustrations at the slow pace of change from when I set out to now prevent me making what contribution I can. But I could and do call upon more mid-to-senior individuals to stand up and be counted. Mug up on the evidence and push back when faced with #everydaysexism. Call people out and keep doing so – in committees, in the lab, in the street and in the media – until the world of STEM, or perhaps I just mean the world, looks at people as people and not as ‘us’ and ‘them’.


A primer of essential reading for those who want to take up my challenge (but there is far more out there):

Excellent, comprehensive background texts: Virginia Valian Why So Slow? And Cordelia Fine Delusions of Gender.
Family life Ottoline Leyser: Mothers and Science: 64 Ways to have it all  Busting some of the myths about successful science careers and having a family.
Gendered letters of reference: J. Madera, M. Hebl and R. Martin in the Journal of Applied Psychology, explored by me here and here.
Unconscious bias: CA. Moss-Racusin, JF Dovidio, VL Brescolli, MJ Graham and J Handelsman PNAS 109 (2012) 16474. E Reuben, P Sapienza and L Zingales. PNAS 111 (2014) 4403.
Science facultys subtle gender biases favour male students. How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science.
Self promotion, asking for a rise: H Riley Bowles, L Babcock, L Lai. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103 (2007) 84. Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask.
I’ve discussed statistics on success rates regarding the ERC here.
RCUK published its own data here.


Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

From a New Viewpoint

I have moved a mere mile or two from my previous home to my new abode at Churchill College, and yet it feels as if everything has shifted: my centre of gravity is this crucial mile further west and everything I do is altered. Walking into the centre of town is now a very different experience, the route changed and consequently the perspectives subtly altered. I no longer know exactly how long it will take me to get to Sainsbury’s or to the station on my bike (although I haven’t yet missed a train as a result of the few extra minutes I need to add on) and I have to recalibrate all my timings. It is curious how disconcerting it is when everything is the same only different.

However, from my perspective, change is good as a general rule. I’ve always followed that rule in terms of my research, moving on from one field to another in what has felt like a logical and orderly process but which has meant I’ve never felt as if I was stuck in a rut – or in danger of becoming a pedantic expert in the minutiae of a tiny area. That I would find less than satisfactory. So taking on a new life as head of a Cambridge college, with all its attendant new challenges (and ones considerably more substantial than the time it takes to bike to the station) should be immensely rewarding.

The students, so recently pouring back into the city, have to consider their new lives too, new responsibilities and new challenges. You will be unsurprised to hear that what seems to have been an increase in misogyny within the student community in higher education in general is much on my mind, but this is simply part of the bigger picture of needing to treat everyone with respect. College life provides a close-knit community where it ought to be possible to ensure no one slips through the net of distress, depression or other concerns. However it also brings attendant dangers of always being close to a certain someone who may rub you up the wrong way – or worse. That sort of febrile atmosphere was neatly described for a bygone age in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, although I hope I have not moved into the pages of a detective novel.

Looking at things from a new angle is perhaps just another way of expressing the idea of lateral thinking, thinking outside the box and all those other mantra that tell you how to be creative and original. But there is no doubt that shifting one’s viewpoint does enable you to consider issues afresh. For anything from an organisation changing its firm of auditors regularly to researchers tackling a scientific problem with a new battery of techniques, this idea applies. I didn’t expect my physical relocation meant I would look differently at the city I have lived in for more than 30 years, but so it seems.

While I get on top of the challenges and issues that the college faces (not the least of which is how to increase the number of women applying, something that is of course dear to my heart), I have more minor challenges to face. A new office, a new PA, between us we have to work out how to file papers so that we both know where to find them! I have a new IT system which so far is proving disappointingly perplexing: reading my college email when on the train seems not entirely straightforward, and yet that is where I inevitably want to be able to deal with my inbox. And, perhaps for me one of the most difficult problems, living in a house (‘The Master’s Lodge’) which is semi-public requires me to discard a lifetime of being untidy and make sure I stick by the adage ‘a place for everything and everything in its place‘. This does not come naturally to me but I have no choice. Earlier this week approximately 130 Freshers came to the Lodge for a meet-and-greet session and if, as my natural messy self might feel inclined to do, I left my shoes strewn round the hall a domino-collapse of the procession of students might have ensued. I am pleased to say, by exercising appropriate restraint on my disorderly self, this sad outcome was averted.

Churchill upstairs view Oct 14
View of Churchill College grounds from the Master’s Lodge. This fine autumn has given me some splendid views.

What of the students themselves, so recently uprooted from their childhood homes and plonked down in a modern (by Cambridge standards) college? Time will tell which ones thrive in their new atmosphere and which find it altogether too different or daunting. But I would hope that their relocation, away from the familiar safety of teachers they may have known for years and their parents’ tender ministrations (assuming such applied) may jolt their intellectual creativity and capacity and enable them to rise to the academic challenges that will undoubtedly be thrown at them, as well as all the other (not-quite-so-academic) opportunities that university life provides.

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Getting the Most out of Panel Discussions

When I set out as a young researcher, conferences had a pretty monolithic structure. There were longer talks and there were shorter talks, but that was it. I don’t even think the first conferences I attended had poster sessions. Talks were usually delivered either with an overhead projector(usually with prepared overheads, but occasionally written on the fly; and, as a speaker, the acetates were tediously heavy for travelling by train let alone plane) or with slides – or even with a mixture of both.

Slides were great for people like me who wanted to use electron or optical micrographs, but had their own downsides. The glass (yes, glass) cracked frequently and it was only too easy to put the slides in the wrong way up (which actually meant they had to put into the slide projector upside down so they projected correctly). On a bad day the whole set could come out wrong. There were other things that could go sadly astray. I once attended a talk where the projector decided to spit out each slide as it advanced round the carousel. There were flying slides in the room, but none made it to projection. Or there was the time a Japanese speaker, who had carefully put his slides in Western order in the pockets used for travel (i.e. left to right in rows, not in vertical columns as would have been the Japanese way) but was ‘helped’ by his Japanese colleague who had assumed the speaker would have loaded the slides as would have been done in Japan; he therefore re-sorted them as he inserted them into the projector. Clearly the slides weren’t random, because one could have worked out an algorithm for where slide X would have appeared, but equally they made a nonsense of the talk.

All this is a digression. I want to discuss a relatively new entrant (at least in my experience) into the field of formats at conference: the panel discussion. I have been on both sides of the podium for such sessions and I have yet to feel that I have attended/participated in any such session that really worked. The list of pitfalls is fairly numerous, but I am not sure that it would ever be possible to avoid them completely. Have other readers had better experiences and come away satisfied? It seems to me that, on the surface, they look like a brilliant idea: a mixture of brief introductions from experts in the field, a chance for some cut and thrust discussion between the panellists and finally questioning from the floor. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, quite a lot it turns out.

The first issue is how many panellists are ideal? I have seen any number from 3-6. Less than 3 and you just have a conversation (which actually I think works rather well, but the format doesn’t tend to be favoured: perhaps it’s viewed as too ‘intimate’). Each speaker is meant to introduce their view of a specific topic, let’s say ‘Are we producing too many postdocs, given the number of faculty positions available?’, or ‘How should the government make decisions about research infrastructure?’ to give an idea of the sort of questions that might be asked (although I haven’t actually seen these specific questions discussed). Conference organisers optimistically suggest each speaker might talk for 5 minutes; in practice, given a brief like that, few will manage to restrict their remarks to less than 10. You can immediately see the problem with a panel of 6: the time is likely to be used up (an hour would be a typical timeslot) before anything other than the opening remarks have been made. It isn’t likely to have been a very constructive session, particularly if everyone’s position is well-known in advance as is all too often the case.

A panel of three, however, should mean that only half the allotted time is used up, so let’s work on that optimistic assumption. Maybe the person chairing the session now decides to kick-start the discussion by asking a question or two that they’ve laboriously prepared in advance. If they allow each panellist to respond to each question, another slug of time vanishes. This is a disaster as too often the same ground is repeatedly covered.

I once attended a meeting where the chair had assiduously prepared a whole list of questions and was working through them one by one, with each panellist likely to respond to each question, and yet again it was obvious that the audience – on this occasion very obviously champing at the bit to be allowed to ask questions – wasn’t going to get much of a look-in. Some brave member of the panel spoke up, suggesting to the chair that perhaps others might like to pose some questions and the situation was semi-rescued.

My own view of what would be ideal would involve:

  • Strict time-keeping in the opening remarks (see my previous post for a fuller discussion of the importance of always keeping an eye on the clock).
  • Having a maximum of 4 panellists, enough to give a breadth of views and experience, but not so many as to absorb all the time without thought.
  • Ensuring that the audience are allowed at least half the time to ask questions and to make sure that each questioner makes clear which panellist they want a response from.
  • The chair should have a list of questions only to be used in extremis if the audience are silent and no one seems to have any burning issues to raise; otherwise their role should merely be to keep things moving on and not allow anyone to hog the floor.
  • Part of the act of ‘moving things on’ must, however, be to allow exchanges/disagreements between the panellists to be aired if it becomes clear this is appropriate.
  • At the end, sufficient time should be allowed for each panellist to make one or two (not more) closing remarks.

Unfortunately I don’t think I have ever attended a discussion that got anywhere near this list. I usually come away frustrated that no real debate has occurred and often that I could have predicted what was likely to be said. As a panellist I am usually equally frustrated because too often I sense there has been no opportunity for in-depth probing of the issues, and too often one ill-behaved panellist has monopolised the entire discussion. (You will note from that that I, possibly incorrectly, do not associate myself with such indiscretions.)

I can see why conference organisers believe panel sessions may, not only break up the formal presentations but also provide a chance for audience participation. However they will only work if plans about timing are clearly laid out in advance and all the (limited number of) panellists are adequately briefed to know how to perform. Plus there needs to be a strong chair who is content to exercise a whip hand if things go awry.

Has anyone had better experiences of such sessions than I have observed through my own rather jaundiced eyes?


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