The academic rites of passage by kif12001

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									editorial
The academic rites of passage
           Are undergraduate studies preparing
              us for what’s really to come?


Politics invariably pervade everything, and this fact is especially         The conferences and CUPJ are certainly based upon existing models,
apparent when competition is intense and professional reputations           but they also present opportunities for us to be audacious and to
are at stake, as is the case within the physics community.                  experiment with new techniques; some of which may fail, but some
                                                                            of which may very well result in a more cohesive scientific atmo-
Although a little competition is healthy in driving what we like to call    sphere.
progress, one does not have to dig far in the annals of physics history
to find examples of Machiavellian tactics contaminating the practice         For instance, although CUPJ is a refereed scientific publication as any
of objective science, leading at times to a rejection of novel ideas with   other, it has also offered us latitude to test subtle changes in an
tremendous potential. In fact, academia seems structured to perpet-         effort to depoliticize the academic publication process. Our double-
uate these competitive attitudes, which are engrained in all facets         blind refereeing model, in which the identities of the author and
from the publication system to the hiring and tenure of faculty.            that of the referee are mutually unknown, is an example of how we
                                                                            have deviated from conventional practices in the interest of fairness
Though most undergraduates hoping to continue pursuing physics              and open mindedness. Our model is in contrast to conventional aca-
as a career are aware – almost cynically – that politics lie ahead,         demic publications, in which the name and institution of the author
a simple survey of undergraduate students conducted at the 2001             are known to the referee. The potential for bias, positive or negative,
Canadian Undergraduate Physics Conference reveals that most feel            is obvious.
ill-educated about the specifics of the status quo and ill-prepared to
confront them. Half of all undergraduate respondents admitted to            The opportunities for education and change, through undergraduate
knowing little to nothing about the refereed publication system, and        conferences and publications, are there for the seizing, but evidently,
over three quarters of those surveyed were not aware of the struc-          they can prove fruitful only with widespread undergraduate par-
ture of the academic hiring and tenure system. Yet, we are expected         ticipation. Hence, we hope that if you’ve participated in research,
to grapple with these and similar issues right out of our BSc.              you’ll take the time to write about it and share your insights with
                                                                            us. If you have an opinion on any issue concerning physics students
The feeling of uncertainty that this generates may account for the          (which incidentally needn’t necessarily involve physics), divulge your
overwhelming 80 per cent of respondents who feel that it would be           thoughts. If you don’t like what you’re reading right now, write a
valuable to have a small fraction of educational resources devoted to       letter to the editor and tell us about it. Only with your involvement
teaching undergraduate students about these topics and, most sig-           can we start building a community that won’t lose sight of why we
nificantly, how best to face them in an ethical manner.                      chose to pursue this path in the first place.

Beyond simply learning the intricacies of the current system, how-          Ultimately, no matter the steps we take to keep a collectively open
ever, it is possible and tenable for undergraduates to take steps to        mind, a certain amount of politics is unavoidable. However, the
change it. By fostering a sense of solidarity among undergraduates          amount and manner in which it affects how we practice science and
early on, it is foreseeable that we could forge a strong supportive         how we respect and relate to one another are variables firmly within
community making progressive scientific contributions more firmly             our control.
based upon communication and cooperation rather than competi-
tion. This has been accomplished to some extent by the handful of
undergraduate conferences (some are profiled in this issue’s feature;
page 24) that have helped students develop long-lasting connec-
tions with fellow undergraduate physicists sharing common inter-                                                                       Iva Cheung
ests, which happens to be a major aim of this publication.                                                                         Editor-in-Chief

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