Organizing student projects with scrum

Project supervision is one of the many things you do during a tenure track. Since I was already interested in project organization, I did some research, which inspired my own lab scrum setup. I discuss why and how I used scrum to organize student projects, and my take-aways from the experience. To find out more, read on!  

Inspiration

At the start of my tenure track I did a bit of research about what others had recommended, and came across several interesting papers about project organization. This is a whole post in itself, but for today’s topic, here are a few papers that I found helpful: 

Patterns for Supervising Thesis Projects

Adapting Scrum to Managing a Research Group 

LabScrum: A Case Study For Agility in Academic Research Labs

The last two papers are about a technique called scrum, which is a type of process frequently used in software development (more background here). Traditionally in this process, a team is working on the same project. This is different with several students working on different projects. Another difference is the timing, which might be slower in a research setting. Nevertheless I was inspired by the ideas in these papers and decided to try it out.  

Setup with Kanban board

Although I was excited by the idea of trying a different type of organization, I had no previous experience with scrum, and didn’t want to introduce too many things that would be overwhelming for everyone.  What follows is the setup we (myself, 4 MSc students and 2 PhD researchers) used for 6+ months, where some things are loosely based on scrum, papers I read, etc. This setup has advantages and disadvantages, which I discuss later in this post.  

The main idea was to keep track of all projects jointly, via a shared Kanban board and two weekly meetings with everyone there. Typically we did the following meetings:

  • Tuesday – group update round, planning tasks (30 – 60 min)
  • Thursday – group update round  (< 30 min)
  • Tuesday/Thursday – individual meetings in time slots as needed (30 min each)

When planning tasks, we added “post-its” (I bought these reusable magnetic ones which are pretty awesome) to the shared scrum board. We initially used different colors for different types of tasks, but using different colors for different people might be more logical.  

 For me it was important that everybody created actionable, finite tasks. So, “literature research” is not OK, but “summarize 10 papers on topic X” is. When students had exams, they included studying as a task. We didn’t have guidelines for how small or big a task could be, although in practice they were probably things that could be done in days, rather than hours or weeks.  

New tasks always started in the backlog section of the board. On Tuesdays, tasks can be moved to the “in progress” section. The idea is not too have too many “in progress” tasks at the same time. 

Every group meeting was essentially a longer “stand-up”. Each person (including me!) would briefly say something about their “in progress” tasks. This involved saying something about what was done since last time (and if the task was completed, still in progress, or deprioritized), and any problems that came up. Suggestions from others about things to try usually followed. When it was clear that I needed to spend more time with the student, or some students could help each other, additional meetings were planned. This way this meeting was an hour at most, but usually closer to half an hour.

Everyone could plan an individual meeting with me via a shared calendar with 30 minute time slots. In practice, about 4 slots would be filled each week, so I would see each person at least once in two weeks (next to the group meetings). 

Alternative with Google Slides

While the initial setup had many positive points, there were two main things missing. The first was more of an overview of what has happened / is happening in the period of a few weeks. The second was the ability to show something, such as results (bugs, etc). 

For these reasons, we switched from the Kanban board to a Google Slides presentation, where each person had two slides, one for results, and one for a 6-8 week task planning and progress. The slides had to be prepared before the Tuesday meeting. Otherwise the meeting setup was mostly the same.  

This setup provided more overview, but I also missed the structure the Kanban board provided. In the end, I was thinking about a system that would have both features, but I didn’t get the chance.  

Here is an example of how one of my Google Slides looked like, with on the left the plan as I imagined it, and on the right an illustration of progress.

Pros

I’ve already mentioned a few advantages that this system had, but here is a recap. 

First, I think this is a great way to have a “lab feeling” if you are in a similar situation to me, and do not have funded projects with multiple students or physical lab space. Although the students all did distinct projects, it did feel like a team. Getting coffee, bringing cake etc also helped of course 🙂 

Second, I saved time by not having unnecessary meetings, but without compromising my availability. Further time is saved by less repetition when explaining something, and by identifying similarities across projects, where students might be in a better position to help each other. 

Third, I think this setup improved everybody’s planning skills, but also their awareness of how planning is hard. I also participated with my own projects, and I typically got the least done because of other responsibilities. I think this is important for students to see. Students seeing each other’s project plans likely gave them more examples to learn from, and perhaps a bit of accountability.  

Cons

The disadvantages of this system, from my point of view, mostly have to do with implementation. First, it takes a while to figure out how to do everything, if you try to adapt a system to fit a different situation. There is also time involved in figuring out how/where to meet (if you don’t have a dedicated space) and/or selecting which apps you want to use. 

Second, your adaptation may miss parts that you want to have. We did not have a clear separation of meetings (such as planning only, retrospective only) or project roles (such as scrum master). Perhaps these things might have felt silly at first, but I do think they would have been beneficial.  

It’s possible that this setup might not be the preferred setup for some students, who want to keep everything about their project private. I do not have specific advice for this situation. But ultimately different labs are organized in different ways, and it’s OK that this might not be for everybody.

Verdict

Overall I would say that doing this is a worthwhile experience! Do spend more time thinking about the exact implementation beforehand, particularly what meetings there will be, who will do what, and where all the plans/tasks/results will “live”. Once you have this in place, help people stay with the process for a least a month or two to evaluate if it’s a good idea. 

Acknowledgments

This post is inspired by a discussion on Twitter, started by Antony Caravaggi and continued by Christian Baumgartner, who also sent me several follow-up questions – thanks! I’d also like to thank everyone had first-hand experience of my lab organization ideas 🙂 – Ralf Raumanns, Ishaan Bhat, Tom van Sonsbeek, Rumjana Romanova, Colin Nieuwlaat and Britt Michels. Thanks a lot! 

How I Fail S0201: Pedro Leão (PhD’18, Microbiology)

Pedro Leão has a Ph.D. in Microbiology (2018) from UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). His thesis was named “Diversity of Magnetotactic organisms: New frontiers for magnetotaxis evolution.” At the moment, Pedro is an FSE fellow at the University of Groningen, working in the Groningen Biomolecular Sciences and Biotechnology Institute (GBB). His main research interest is in linking genomics data with ultrastructure characterization. You can find Pedro on Twitter (@Leao_pel), where he mostly advocates about empathy and emotional education in academia.

Hi Pedro, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself?

Thank you for having me, Veronika! I’m a Brazilian microbiologist passionate about two things: Science and Sports. I join a research group in my second year as a Microbiology and Immunology bachelor (2010). I end up staying in the same group for the coming 9 years, where I receive my bachelor’s (2013), master (2015) and PhD (2018) titles under the supervision of professor Ulysses Lins. In my second year as a PhD candidate, I had the chance to stay for one summer at professor Arash Komeili’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

All my research formation was done on the same topic: magnetotactic bacteria (MTB). More precisely, I analyze the diversity (phylogenetic, ultrastructural, morphological) of this group of microorganisms. I consider myself really lucky to have been “raised” in this scientific community, which is amazingly inclusive and, in general, super friendly and open to collaborations, but especially lucky to have these two mentors along with me through this journey in academia so far.

In the middle of my stay at UC Berkeley, I received a call about my advisor’s death in Brazil. I stayed there for one more month and went back to Brazil and decided to finish my PhD 1 year earlier. Here I am two years after, as a FSE fellow doing some lecture and research work as a postdoc at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands! I’m currently under the supervision of professor Dirk-Jan Scheffers doing research in Bacillus subtilis’ cell wall and membrane structure.

What’s a memorable failure for you?

My most memorable failure is a recent one! Right after I finish my PhD, a position at the institute I had been working during my whole career was open. Not any position, a position to fill the chair left by the premature death of my supervisor – a guy I had worked with for the past 9 years! At first, it did not even cross to my mind to apply for it. Our group was in great hands, led by a young professor who had been mentored by Ulysses also.

Two weeks after the announcement of the position, some friends and professors approached me, telling me that I should apply for it. “You have all the requirements?”, “What can go wrong? It is worth the shot”.

Long story short, I applied for the position with 16 other people, and I did not even pass the first round of selection (which in Brazil is a writing exam). I failed to get the position, but that is OK. For me, the big failure was to not fulfill the expectations of my peers and from myself that I would be at least competitive in this scenario. I was crushed for a while. That impostor syndrome that we all know about in academia hit me hard. In the end, I had a PhD, was unemployed, and my self-esteem was on the ground.

Lucky, a 2-years visiting professor position in the same institute was open, and I was able to be selected for this one. After 18 months in this position, I had to start to search for a new job, but because of significant cuts in science funding in Brazil (as always), no one was hiring. At this point, I gained my confidence back and started to apply for some postdocs abroad.

Do you keep track of failures? Why/why not?

Sort of. I keep track of all applications I made, so I can check some old ones when preparing new ones. Doing this helps me in two ways: (i) I can keep track of improvements that need to be done; (ii) It allows me to travel back to the time I submitted that application. By remembering the will to get these things, the high hopes and plans that I had while applying keeps me ground it. I know that I fail to achieve those goals, but I still here! Things did not go as I wish, and that is OK, I was able to set the route and find alternatives to keep seeking my pathways towards my goals.

I still have a folder with all the 29 applications I made for postdocs while in Brazil. From those, I received 9 (31%) replies and was invited for 4 (13%) interviews. Now I see this as a huge success, but back then, it feels like a complete disaster.

Often people use the words rejection and failure interchangeably, what do you think about that?

I don’t think they are interchangeable. I believe rejection is when we don’t fulfill the standards of someone else. It could be a company, a person, an agency. Failure is something more deep and personal, as we don’t cope with our own expectations. We were unable to reach even what we set as a standard for ourselves. And as always, we are our worst critics, so a failure, in my opinion, always hit harder than rejection.

From my perspective, some rejections can be failures for you – like in my case, not getting the position, and performing way below my expectations.

Is there anything you regret not trying, even if you had to add it to your failure CV?

No. If I really want something I have to try it. I can’t live with the uncertainty of the “what if?”. To have this posture, you have to deal well with failure, because the truth is the chance to fail is enormously higher than the one for you to succeed.

It took me some time to learn this, but maybe it was one of the most valuable lessons I had: failing is fine, as long as you don’t fail to the point of no return. In other words: Crash! Just make sure you don’t crash and burn! How you build this to deal well with failure? Failing and mostly importantly, normalizing failure by not being too harsh on yourself and surrounding yourself with people that support you!

Can you share a success, that traditionally would not be on a (regular) CV?

I think a CV of failure itself. I’m really proud of all the rejected applications I had. It represents how many failures I could handle and still get to the place I’m today. Be proud of your failure is a tough call, but I think all of us should at least not be ashamed of them. They tell more about you than your successes.

Is there anything that you feel you are failing at yourself?

To be honest, yes. I’m in limbo at the moment. The thing is, I had a safe place in my advisor. He was a friend and a mentor who knew me thought all my academic career. I always thought I could do anything if I set a good plan because I would approach him to look for guidance at any point in this plain. Now that he is not here, I sometimes feel a little lost, thinking I’m aiming too high, sometimes too low. I miss the feeling that someone that knows me will keep me accountable in my ambition.

I built a level of tolerance to failure, knowing how much I could handle. This tolerance was taking into account my support system, and he was a big part of it. I need to relearn what are my limits, or build self-esteem and realize that I can do it with the people I have by my side now.

I feel I’m failing at this. I have some plans that are on hold because I don’t feel confident enough to make a move. I will learn my new limits, one fail at a time, but now I’m afraid to fail, as I hadn’t been for a while ad this is scary and frustrating. Fortunately, I still have great friends and colleagues that don’t know me as well as him but are valuable advisors to help me through this.

Are there any people who have been important to the way you deal with failure?

Yes! I have amazing friends on the field, some better established and renewed scientists, and others growing in the field side by side with me. The exchange of experiences with these people and the openness to talk about failure were really important in understanding that failure is a significant player in our career. Failure is inevitable in science, what you are going to do with it is what decides how healthy your work/life balance will be.

Everyone should have a support group! Dealing with failure on a daily basis is not something trivial. Surrounding myself with people having the same experiences that I was having helped me see that I was not alone, sometimes things go entirely unexpected, not only with me.

Are there any books, podcasts etc you would recommend on this topic?

I cannot recommend enough the book “Failure: Why Science Is So Successful” by Stuart Firestein. I think all scientists should read and reflect on it! It shows failure as an inevitable part of scientific progress, and do it in a fresh why without glorifying it. I love this book.

For me, mental toughness and emotional intelligence are key factors to deal properly with failure. A book that opens my mind to the importance of being educated on this subject was “The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance” by George Mumford. You can virtually interchange the sport’s scenarios for academic ones in this book.

Do you think there are any factors (field, country) etc, that influence how failure is seen?

Yes! In Brazil, it is common to see people saying they are sorry after committing a mistake. Even if what went wrong was completely out of his/her control. I think we perceive failure as always our fault. You can imagine how energy-draining a mindset like this can be for a scientist.

From one side it is good because if the problem is with you, it is easy to fix it, you can work on it. On the other hand, the problem is not always on you, and if you don’t handle this carefully, you can be trap in a self-depreciation loop. That is why it is so important to have a good PI as an advisor and a nice support group.

In the Netherlands, I think it doesn’t happen that often. People are more secure of their skills, and if they fail at something, it is how it is, they try to fine-tune some details, but if it keeps going to a dead end, they just move on to the next one. I’m about to finish my first year here, so this can be just a superficial first impression.

In the US, I believe the extremely competitive and fast-paced atmosphere in academia doesn’t give people time to properly handle failure. Once you fail, your first reaction must keep moving! Put that plan B, C, D in practice to achieve your results. In a scenario where productivity is the goal, this works perfectly, but if you want to form a good scientist, this is a disaster! Ignoring failures deprives you of learning how to deal with them, and once a big failure is inevitable, you have no experience to deal even with small ones. That is a recipe for that “crash and burn” scenario.

What about sharing failures online? Does the perception of people who do this differ? Should more people try to do it?

I understand why some people don’t do it. But my philosophy is simple on this subject. You can choose if you are going to be proud of your failures or not, but you never should be ashamed of them. They made the professional that you are as much as your successes.

Is there anything else we could all do to improve the conversations about failure?

We “baby doctors” (as some of my senior scientist friends used to call me) have a huge responsibility to normalize the conversation about failure!

The battle I picked to fight in academia is the spread of more empathy in our community. All of us are failing in something daily. More than that, all PIs were stressful postdocs with deadlines, all postdocs were insecure grad students, that once were fresh out of college curious bachelor students.

As new PhDs, we are still in contact with memories of the struggles grad students have and are starting to experience some of the responsibilities a PI has to deal with as well. Fight the speech of “Us against them (doctors/staff vs. students)” is essential for us to talk about one of the most important things that put us together: Failing!

If you’ve been a reader of How I Fail last season, what are your favorite lessons from the series?

I really enjoyed Mike Yassa’s episode (S01E18). At one point, he said, “I worry more about the ones who don’t get a sufficient number of rejections while they’re in grad school”. This is the same feeling I have.

He talks about mentoring his students to handle criticism and failure (his bulletproof and crocodile skin concepts). This resonates with my idea of knowing yourself through small failures, so you feel more comfortable each time with the feeling of failing. This comfort would allow you to aim for more challenging things because you can handle the probable failure.

What would a five year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

My younger self, 5 years ago, would be entering the PhD program. He would never believe me if I told him everything that happens in these 5 years, and where he would be now! My plans had changed drastically, but not my goals!

I would tell him that it is ok to be afraid. It is ok not to feel prepared for some situations. The worst thing that can happen is to fail, which is not bad, and he can trust it will be people to help him pick up the lessons from these challenges, and eventually, he will feel less scared and more prepared to move forward.

Also to enjoy as much as possible the beach and the sun! They won’t have such things in Groningen! 🙂

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I talked a little about empathy here. If you can take away just one thing from this conversation, that it be to be kind to yourself and others. Failure is part of life and an even more significant part of science. We can only normalize the conversation about failure if we understand we all have them on our past and will keep having them in our future, no matter how successful we became.

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Thanks Pedro for joining the series and kick-starting our second season! Enjoy the Dutch sun for now 🙂

9 ways to fail a project in grad school and beyond

This post is a collaboration between myself, and a guest author who wishes to stay anonymous. They are a researcher and PhD candidate in neuroscience, based in Europe, and in the post they are referred to as Alice

When people talk about failures, often rejections are the first things that come to mind. But what about other things in science, that did not work out? Today’s post is all about those – projects that don’t work out, and that do not end up either on your CV and probably even your “CV of Failures” (here is mine).

Read on to find out about the ways our projects have failed, during the PhD or after, AND the lessons from these experiences.  In short, here are the 9 ways to fail a project: 

  1. Inheriting a poor project setup
  2. Failing to plan
  3. Not enough redundancy
  4. Changing the scope 
  5. Underestimating the complexity
  6. No data available
  7. Collaborating for the wrong reasons 
  8. Starting too many projects 
  9. Forgetting to advertise your successful project

1) Inheriting a poor project setup   

Alice: My first project failed in a bad way. In retrospect the idea was not thought through and vague and the methodology was not sound. In fact this is what got me into trouble – as I tried to discuss these issues with my supervisor, he got angry and said that I am at no place to challenge his authority… After two years when he left the project was evaluated by a panel of group leaders at the department and found to be crap from the very bottom. The project was killed. 

Veronika: Of course a lot here depends on the supervisor. But from the researcher’s perspective there are still a few lessons here: 

  • If you inherit an existing project, verify that the objectives and methodology are clear
  • Ask questions early on, consult with others 
  • Remember that quitting a poor project early is not your failure, but might save time and stress

2) Failing to plan

“Failing to plan is planning to fail” – no post about failed projects is complete without this quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin. If you are responsible for the project setup from the beginning, definitely do not skip this step. 

This is particularly important for side projects that you might initiate next to your main research, that “shouldn’t take a lot of time”. While that may be true, in my experience things can go wrong is it is not clear who is going to be responsible for what. Or, all content-related tasks might be divided, but nobody is taking the lead on the project. Lesson:

  • Spend time defining the project timeline and contributions of all team members, including a leadership role

3) Not enough redundancy in the project

Alice: My second project failed for two main reasons. One was founded around a collaboration which was tied to one person who left. The lesson being that being dependent on certain people for connections or data is a weak spot. 

Veronika: I recognize this! I’ve experienced problems when parts of the project depended on specific data, code or tools that were not available / accessible to others. Again a lot about this depends on the PI, but for me the lesson from the researcher’s perspective:

  • Be your own best collaborator by using open science principles, sharing data/code where possible. Consider using public data or artificial data in addition to the main data, if the main data cannot be shared. 

4) Changing the scope during the project 

Alice: […] But there was more. In the course of the project, as I processed the data, the PI got ambitious and teamed up with his colleague who did similar things and was interested. He then wanted to do a much bigger comparative study and requested me to process large amounts of public data which slowed me down significantly. By then my PI left. The lesson is getting too ambitious can drown the project.  

Veronika: I’ve had similar experiences too and see it all around me – a PI invents things to try until there are “state of the art” results (similar to HARKing). I’m getting repetitive here but again you are quite dependent on the PI. What you might be able to do: 

  • Clarify project objectives and timeline in the beginning in writing (for example, type up meeting notes, and send them around after to confirm) 
  • Open science principles like preregistration might be worth a try, although this depends on your field and will also require the PI’s approval

5) Underestimating the complexity of the project

Alice: My third project did not fail as such but rather faded away., which is a failure of a kind. It was a collaboration with a postdoc who was an expert in the field and had a nice idea. The problem was that the implementation and most importantly interpretation of the data turned out to be much more difficult than she had anticipated and it required more input from both of us than we pledged for. A mistake here I’d say – wrong estimate of the complexity and resources available.

Veronika: Agreed – I’ve had several nice ideas that sounded great when brainstorming, but in the end did not receive enough attention to progress. I have a lot of thoughts about these which would warrant an entire blog post. Still, I wish I would have been better at planning my time. My lessons would be:

  • When agreeing on a new (side) project, agree on how much time you can put into it. I think this is hard to do, but if you did have this agreement in the past, the future you will have an easier time letting go of the project. 

6) No data available

Alice: The fourth project failed when I learned that I can not get the phenotype data on the cohort I worked on and at this point there was nothing I could do. The data was blocked due to disagreement and issues between my PI and the competitors with whom initially it was supposed to be a collaboration. I don’t really have a recipe how to help that, it is one of the things that I have little control over. 

The fifth project failed for a similar reason. But this time it was because we were not allowed to collaborate with the boss of our PI (who has a cohort with the exact phenotype we need) who did not want to publish with the previous boss in view of the career. We were thus pushed to prey on the public data repositories which a) did not have such precise phenotype we needed b) required downloading and low-level processing of large amounts of data which was very straining and hard for a single person and given resources. We managed with the published subset of the data and we found nothing. I spent almost a year working on it. 

Veronika: This overlaps a bit with my previous ideas about open science, but in this case there’s not a lot somebody in your position could do other than use public data. Lesson: don’t blame yourself for decisions of your PI!  

7) Collaborating for the wrong reasons

Alice: A friend of mine went to a prestigious university to collaborate with a research group there for a few months. He worked very hard, but faced open racism and bullying. The conflict escalated and the project was tabled. Instead of support, my friend’s supervisor was unhappy with him. This is also a situation which is hard to foresee. But perhaps trying out collaborating remotely first and building relationships slowly would be a safer bet.

Veronika: Sounds like a terrible experience for your friend! Agreed it is a good idea to try out collaborations first but perhaps that was not possible. There needs to be not only a research fit, but also a safe environment.

 But on the other hand, the environment alone is also not enough – even with people who really want to collaborate, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Getting along well with somebody doesn’t mean your research project will be complementary as well. My lesson would be:

  • Know who you will collaborate with, and aim for a combination of research fit & good environment

8) Starting too many projects

Veronika: A “favorite” reason why some of my projects failed, is starting too many projects and then not getting back to them. Often this would happen if I was waiting for reviews on a paper, and already planning the next project. But when a major revision would come in, I would drop new ideas to revise the paper, and once done, fail to get back to the new_idea.txt. Side projects could also end up in this category. 

In a way, this is a combination of “failing to plan” and “underestimating the complexity”, but on a larger scale. My lesson from this:

  • Keep track of how many projects you’ve agreed to do, and what stage the are in (for example with a Kanban board)

9) Failing to advertise your successful project

Veronika: Congratulations, you finished the project! What now? While this is not technically a failure, there’s still ways to increase the success of your project.

Once you do finish a project, you might not give the project output enough attention. It’s easy to become focused on getting a paper for the thesis, especially if your PI is pushing you to. So a natural response might be to just move on to the next project, leaving the published paper as is.

But maybe it’s good to pause, and give that effort more justice by sharing the paper with your colleagues, submitting a poster about it to a local conference, or writing a thread about it on Twitter. I know I am guilty of this – despite my rather active Twitter presence, I haven’t tweeted about my research this year. The lesson is: 

  • Give your finished projects (and your hard work!) the attention they deserve! 

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These were the 9 ways to fail a project during your PhD and beyond! These are based on Alice’s and my experiences, but there are probably more reasons there.

Let us know which ones are recognizable, or if you are missing any failures that can happen along the way. The best way is to leave a comment below so they reach both of us, otherwise as usual you can reach me (@DrVeronikaCH) on Twitter!  

What’s next for the blog

Although I have been blogging for a while, it doesn’t happen often that a post gets shared as “Goodbye, tenure track” was. The downside is that any follow-up post will be anticlimactic. While trying to choose a topic to blog about (from several drafted posts) I realized I was procrastinating. So, what’s better than to share these thoughts, and what I’m planning to blog about in the next year.

Failure

The most popular topic by far! Recently I’ve been doing events about what I’ve learned about failure so far, and while doing so, several ideas emerged, that I want to write about. I have also started searching for people to interview for season of How I Fail, if you want to join you can leave me a message here.

(Tenure Track) Tips

Perhaps a bit strange from somebody who is leaving the tenure track, but I think I still have a few things to say that might be helpful for any early career researchers.

Twitter

Following our “Ten Simple Rules for Getting Started on Twitter as a Scientist” paper and the corresponding attention, I have been getting some more follow up questions about how I use Twitter so I’d like to share a few tips for this as well.

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If there’s anything else you’d like to hear about, please leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter!

Goodbye, tenure track

I wasn’t sure about sharing this, but in the original spirit of my blog, that I ought to. 

I am leaving my tenure track position. 

There it is. It feels good to write it down. There are a lot of failure related thoughts here, which I will be sharing in future posts. But first, a bit of background about what happened. 

Tenure criteria 

In the previous post I wrote about starting my tenure track position and what I was planning to achieve in 4 years. To recap, here is summary of the goals, which were approved by the department

  • Get teaching certificate
  • Setup and teach a course, co-teach in other courses
  • Supervise at least 2 MSc and 4 BSc students
  • Co-supervise a PhD researcher
  • Co-author of at least 5 peer-reviewed publications in high impact, relevant journals
  • Setup collaborations with other departments 
  • Apply for 2 medium-sized (1 PhD or postdoc) grants per year
  • Apply to small grants, for example for workshops, when possible
  • Give talks at (local) conferences, or invited talks if possible
  • Outreach about academia through blog and Twitter 

Progress so far

As far as teaching goes, all goals are achieved. I setup a course, taught in another course (both 3 years in a row now), and recently gave a number of lectures in a MSc course. So far I supervised 5 MSc students and 12 BSc students. I’m the daily supervisor of two PhD researchers, one based on my own funding efforts.  I also received my university teaching qualification in 2019. 

Research-wise, things are alright. I published six journal papers and one preprint, but it could be argued that some of these do not count. For example three were started during my postdoc, although I put in more hours during my tenure track. There’s also the Twitter paper, which is not on the topic of my research, but probably has had more impact than the others combined. I am also quite happy with my Google scholar numbers.

I am not sure about the funding. I applied for two larger grants per year as agreed, and 1 of these was funded. The others are in my failure CV. This is in line with the overall success rate, and several smaller grants were funded as well. But I have the feeling this is not sufficient, even though the tenure criteria do not specify it.

In terms of visibility, things are good. Especially in the first two years when I was blogging regularly, my website and Twitter were growing steadily. I think this has contributed to invitations for talks, and I have given more talks, including international ones, than I ever expected. I’ve also been invited as an associate editor, social media chair and other similar roles. 

So overall, not bad, considering that in my third year I was seriously ill and I spent several months recovering, which was extremely difficult. Even so I did get a few things done in that time, such as the teaching certificate. Overall, things could have been better, but given that I had no start-up nor PhD researchers I could co-supervise from the start, overall I’m actually quite happy with what I achieved.

Perhaps here I should mention two other developments. The first is the artificial intelligence “brain drain” in the Netherlands, limiting the number of people willing to teach. The second is a position paper by several organizations (including funding agencies), that aims to redesign how researchers are evaluated, and to recognize factors other than the h-index. Music to my ears.

Midway evaluation 

As I explained in the previous post, traditionally there is a midway evaluation halfway through the tenure track, to see what else is needed to fulfill the tenure criteria. My midway evaluation was scheduled for May 2019, but a month before that I became ill, so this was cancelled.

Towards the end of 2019 I was working full-time again. The idea was to schedule an unofficial midway evaluation, a year ahead of the final evaluation. I gave a talk about my research and updated my CV and progress document (summarized above).   

Given this information, the committee advised that, I will probably not get tenure if I have the final evaluation as planned in 2021. The proposed solution was to give me a temporary contract and have the final evaluation later, so that I have more time for, between the lines, getting funding and writing more papers. 

Tenure clock extension, that’s good right?

Although to many readers this extension might sound good, I declined the offer. I will therefore be leaving my tenure track position.

The first reason for this decision is the uncertainty. I believe that the trigger for my manic episode was staying up at night to write grants, and I don’t want my life to depend on a lottery. There is also no definition of what “enough” would be, and that once I achieve those things, I would get tenure.

Secondly, I feel like my illness is a bad excuse that there wasn’t enough time to evaluate me. But people are at times evaluated after two or three years – researchers who are employed by the same university before starting a tenure track position, due to the labor laws.

But most importantly, I don’t want to be in a place with such priorities. I have achieved most goals on my list – goals that were agreed upon at the beginning – despite having a major illness. I will not be an award-winning researcher, but I feel – and people have told me – that the things I do are valuable. If the university does not see this, I need to find a place that does.

What next?

My current contract runs out at the start of 2022, but since I made this decision already, I will probably leave earlier.

For now I will be finishing up various projects, and slowly searching for a job.

So dear readers, I am now officially open for job opportunities! I don’t want to limit myself to specific job titles or sectors just yet. So if you think you could use my research, teaching, outreach, organizing, blogging skills (academic CV here), please get in touch.

That’s it for now, but expect more failure-inspired content soon!

Tenure track in the Netherlands

By popular demand, today’s post is about my tenure track position which I started 3 years ago. Although I intended to give an update of how my tenure track is going, there’s a bit of background that’s relevant to share, so this post is only about my experiences when I started. Also, recently I’ve had a few questions from future tenure trackers, so I’m sharing my answers in case it is useful to others.

Starting conditions

As I’ve also explained in my “student or employee during your PhD” post, all academic positions in the Netherlands work with fixed pay scales. You can find these here, below I also added a screenshot of some of the scales.

These numbers are all before tax and per month. Various secondary benefits also apply.

Assistant professor positions are in scale 11 or 12. Typically a starting assistant professor would be in scale 11, and in scale 12 after tenure. The Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) reports that 50.8% of women assistant professors are in scale 11, versus 40.8% of men.  

When I started at TUe, I was initially offered scale 11.0. However, I had already been in scale 11 as a postdoc, and my institution was a medical center, with slightly higher pay scales. Due to this I was offered 11.3, which just matched my previous salary, and which I accepted.   

There was no start-up package – I think this in general isn’t a thing in the Netherlands, although I do see this being offered more frequently now.

Contract & tenure conditions

The tenure track contract is a temporary contract for 5 years. After 4 years there is an evaluation which decides whether you get tenure or not. If yes, you get permanent contract, if not, you are still employed for a year. There is also a (less formal) midway evaluation after about 2 years, to prepare for the real thing.

The criteria for evaluation are described in various documents. I received some general criteria on what is important for the university (for example “supervising students”), and a department-specific interpretation of these criteria. In the context of creating a personal development plan for the tenure track period, I did receive some quantifiable criteria too, of what you should aim for within 4 years:

  • Significant progress in obtaining the teaching qualification certificate
  • Responsible instructor for 1-2 courses
  • Good teaching evaluations
  • Supervision of at least 2 MSc and 4 BSc students
  • Co-author of at least 5 peer-reviewed publications in high impact, relevant journals
  • Written statement from chair about contribution to getting funding
  • Significant progress in increasing external visibility
  • Collaborations with other departments, hospitals or industry
  • Successful (co-) supervision of multiple PhD researchers
  • Examples of strong leadership
  • Examples of strong communication skills
  • Examples of independence and responsibility

A bit more quantifiable, but still open to interpretation. In my own personal development plan I translated these as follows:

  • Get teaching certificate
  • Setup and teach a first year course, co-teach in a third year course, later start developing course closer to my research
  • Supervise at least 2 MSc and 4 BSc students
  • Co-author of at least 5 peer-reviewed publications in high impact, relevant journals
  • Apply for 2 medium-sized (1 PhD or postdoc) grants per year
  • Apply to small grants, for example for workshops, when possible
  • Give talks at (local) conferences, or invited talks if possible
  • Setup collaborations with other departments 
  • Co-supervise a PhD researcher (if funding)
  • Outreach about academia through blog and Twitter 

Also not entirely quantifiable, but I also left out a few specific details here (examples of papers, collaborations, numbers of blog/Twitter followers etc).

The (midway) tenure evaluation moments consist of submitting an update of this plan and a recent CV, and then giving a presentation about your achievements to a committee of 3-4 professors.  

This is all I wanted to share for the first part of this topic – next time I’ll talk about how things are going so far. If you have any questions about this post, or anything I can address next time, please comment below!

“Avengers for Better Science” has made me a Better Human

Last year together with Aidan Budd, Natalia Bielczyk, Stephan Heunis and Malvika Sharan we organized the Avengers for Better Science workshop. This guest post has been written by one of the participants, Cassandra van Gould-Praag, reflecting on this workshop.

Cass (@cassgvp) is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry. She provides support for (f)MRI experimental design and analysis in the investigation of treatments for mood disorders. In this role, she has to stay up to speed with the leading edge of analytic tools, and is constantly on the lookout for tips, tricks, and techniques to make this research quicker, slicker, and more effective. This goes hand-in-hand with making the research more transparent and reproducible, and freely sharing the outputs of our labour. She is a contributor to The Turing Way and works with the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging Open Community Team. She is a passionate believer in accessibility and the equitable dissemination of knowledge, and spends a lot of time showing people that programming isn’t scary.

“Avengers for Better Science” has made me a Better Human

Avengers for Better Science” was unlike any academic event I have been to in my 10 year academic career. It will henceforth be my benchmark for collaborative, interdisciplinary, in-person, professional interactions, and a working demonstration of the level of compassion, empathy, understanding and genuine desire to “be better” which is necessary to create the type of research environment I want to be a part of.

I firmly believe that the best tool available to researchers for improving our understanding of the world is to increase the reproducibility of our research. Reproducibility goes hand-in-hand with increasing the diversity of the people who can attempt to reproduce our research; if the only people who can reproduce my work are people who are similar to me, then my work is not reproducible. The added bonus of improving the diversity of contributors is a larger potential reviewing pool. The more eyes which look, the more diverse the viewpoints which can be drawn on to solve problems, and the more likely they are to pick up errors or suggest improvements. This way of thinking underlies the “selfish reasons” to be mindful of inclusivity in research.

I try in my daily life to be aware of issues of inclusivity, but this is not for selfish reasons. This is because life is hard, and for some people life is extra hard, and I’m not about adding to the discomfort. You might call me a “Social Justice Warrior”, and I’d be fine with that. Our society deserves justice and I’m prepared to go into battle. 

The skillfully crafted program of talks and events at Avengers allowed me to demonstrate the value of understanding my own privilege as a white cisgender heterosexual non-disabled person. It also compounded the understanding that my own experience of the world may be very different to someone else’s. This position is supported by my empirical research on perception and conscious experience (for example exploring the experience of synaesthsia) which supports the idea that there is no reality except that which we perceive, and everyone’s perception is personal. 

Despite my pre-existing understanding, I had ample opportunity to learn at Avengers. I was challenged on my assumptions, reminded of the ethical imperative to be kind to myself if I want to do my best work, taught how to support others (and myself) at times of crisis, given some excellent productivity tips, and convinced for the first that there is a research environment which exists outside of academia that I could thrive in. I was also made aware of some ethical concerns in how we practice research, for example in the use of biased artificial intelligence to inform criminal sentencing, and ideas of situatedness when we consider who is leading the agenda on transparent and reproducible research. 

All of these lessons wildly exceed anything I learnt in institutional “Professional Development” courses. This was in no small part due to the excellent leadership demonstrated by the organisers as they all enacted the core values of community and inclusivity which they were aiming to foster within attendees. They worked tirelessly to build a safe space to explore our strengths and weaknesses, and made it abundantly clear that it was “OK” to be vulnerable and less than perfect. This is a lesson which is sorely missing in academia. They helped us to remember that we are all human, and that is an excellent thing. 

The funded travel and accommodation for the workshop meant I didn’t have to work too hard to justify attendance to my department. If I had, I may have struggled to define how “learning to be a better human” would help me do better research. I now understand that acknowledging my humanity makes it easier to accept my mistakes and those of others. This makes me far more open to constructive criticism, which in turn makes it a lot easier to ask questions and comfortably share my code and data. It also helps me to hold my beliefs lightly, which may reduce the bias I bring to analysis. 

An improved understanding around issues of inclusivity allows me to interact more effectively with our volunteer participants, design more ethical research and have a greater awareness of the ethical impact of our work and that of others. It also makes me a better colleague and teacher. I work harder to listen to my colleagues and students, and place more value in their truth. This makes the process of collaborative research (which all research is) much more efficient, effective and enjoyable. I’m also trying to to lead the culture change which is necessary for a healthy academia by taking care of myself, managing my own expectations and that of others, while openly and directly challenging behaviours which violate the rights of others. I am more productive now I understand my own limiting beliefs and am able to communicate my requirements with confidence.

Success in academic research is in part governed by “who you know”. I am therefore sincerely thankful to the organisers and attendees of Avengers for the community that we built at the event and networks which we continue to strengthen. Through open and inclusive research projects I know that it is possible to work as part of a team with shared values, and this usually makes for a pretty fun and productive project. I know that the connections I made through attending Avengers will stay with me throughout my career, and I am excited about the opportunities for collaboration this brings. This passion and curiosity is an excellent motivator for me. I look forward to the next opportunity to learn from my kind and diverse colleagues.

Using Evernote vs Todoist as your todo list

I’ve been a happy user of both Todoist and Evernote for a few years now – see my post on using Todoist and Evernote together with Google Calendar to get things done. 

However, last year following a period of illness I’ve reconsidered the tools I use. In this post I explain why I switched from Todoist+Evernote to only using Evernote, and why I later decided to go back to my trusted system. 

Downsides of Todoist

My main problem with Todoist is that it is too easy add tasks.

That might sound a bit weird. Of course the adding tasks functionality of Todoist widgets is great, and it is easy to capture all the little things you need to do. But since all tasks have the same “weight” (even if you give them different priority), your overall task list becomes too focused on not-always-important, little tasks. Although I was regularly organizing my list, just having all the other tasks there was kind of weighing on me.

A related problem is that when you add a task, you don’t see what tasks you already have scheduled. So you can be too optimistic when adding a task for “tomorrow”  when you already have various meetings and other tasks scheduled. 

Finally, Todoist has a desktop app, but it doesn’t work if you start it when you are offline. 

Evernote as your todo-list

Evernote is not a specific todo-list app, but it is possible to use it as such. You can see notes as individual todos, and then organize them via notebooks or tags, or you can create a checklist in a single note. I decided to go with the checklist approach, and created two notes  – “Current” and “Maybe”.  “Current” was for anything that was coming up, and “Maybe” for projects that I might or might not do. 

Most of the time I worked with the “Current” list, where I made a table with one row for each week, and columns for different types of tasks. I started with “work” and “home”, but later split these up into more categories, based on priority.

This system had several advantages that I missed with Todoist. When adding a task, I had to add it to a specific row, so I would already see what other tasks I had planned for then. Also, I became more aware of the weight of the different tasks, and I feel that overall my todo list became more balanced. 

This way my todo list was also accessible offline, and it was in the same app as my other project-related notes. 

Downsides of Evernote

Unfortunately, there were a few disadvantages as well, that made me miss Todoist. 

The main thing I missed was the integration with Google Calendar – in Todoist I would enter a date and time, and an event would show up on my calendar. Now I had to create a separate “Planning” calendar, and add tasks manually – which I didn’t do consistently.

Another problem was recurrent tasks, which I did once a week or once a month. In Todoist this is basic functionality, but Evernote does not have this feature – you can set a reminder for a note, but when it’s time, you have to reset the reminder yourself. 

Back together

After 2-3 months of using Evernote only, it felt good to create a list in Todoist again. I’m more mindful of the downsides and am trying to manage them better, for example by using filters for my tasks and scheduling tasks for next week on the calendar. It’s not yet the ideal system I wish I would have, but I think using it consistently does help in the long run. 

Do you have any tips of how to create a better todo-list / calendar system? Let me know in the comments!

Firsts: publishing a preprint before submitting the paper

Although I’ve been using preprints since 2013, recently I had a new kind of experience with preprints. Whereas before I would post the preprint upon submitting it to a journal, for the first time I decoupled the two events, and submitted the preprint several months ahead. In this post I reflect on this experience. 

Why

My choice was initially practically motivated. The idea for the paper was born in 2016, but since moving to a new position, I’ve been too overwhelmed to do any writing, so at the start of 2018 the paper – a survey of a magnitude I haven’t attempted before – was far from finished. I wanted a deadline, but I still wanted to be able to update the paper if needed. So a preprint seemed exactly what I needed! 

Timeline

I set the deadline to April 2018 and for the next weeks, worked towards getting the draft to a readable shape.  In April I submitted the preprint to arXiV. Differently from submitting journal-ready preprints, this time I put a piece of text inside the preprint, saying it is not the final version and I was happy to receive suggestions. At the same time, I emailed a few people with the URL asking for comments, and I asked for feedback on Twitter. This felt scary to do – I don’t think I felt as nervous with any of my other papers.

Response

Despite my fears, the experience was positive – I got a lot of constructive feedback which helped me to improve the paper. So in September 2018, I submitted the updated preprint to a journal. In the cover letter, I mentioned the Altmetric statistics of the preprint (I later discovered this is sometimes frowned upon).

Next to the traditional list of suggested reviewers, I also provided several names of people who I had no conflict of interest with, but who had commented on the preprint on their own. I figured that, since they had already read the preprint, they might be willing reviewers. Of course I disclosed this in the letter. 

Publication

The reviews came in about 8 weeks later – an absolute record for me, as during my PhD, regularly waited 6 to 9 months for reviews. The reviewers were constructive, and suggested a coufple of revisions. After revising, the paper was accepted in January 2019 – by that time already gathering a few citations and benefitting from the preprint bump

Verdict

Given this experience, I would definitely post a preprint online without submitting it to a journal first, and not necessarily because of more citations. I realized that me feeling worried about it is a good thing. I could be sure the paper would be seen by a larger group of people, who had an incentive to comment, since they could still influence the paper. This is different from convincing a few reviewers, and then maybe not having the paper noticed afterwards.

Since this paper, I have also been part of another paper that used the same strategy (and is currently under review), and I noticed other preprints putting similar “please email us” messages on the front page. It seems there is a need for interacting with preprints differently – I’m looking forward to what different initiatives like overlay journals will bring.

Not-so-supervised learning of academics

Picking up where I left off with blogging last year – this is part two of a write-up of a talk I’ve given a few times last year, part one is here. After talking about algorithms which deal with data that is not fully labeled, in this part I discuss how career choices can be similar, with my own as an example.

PhD 

Doing a PhD was not on my radar until my MSc supervisor suggested that I apply for a position in the group. I liked the group and doing research for 4 years seemed like a good job to me (see my post on being an employee during your PhD). I didn’t have any specific long-term goal and, as I now realize, was clueless about most aspects of academia. 

What I did understand is that it was good to publish papers. I had a few interesting (though not spectacular) results fairly early on, so I wrote papers and sent them to various workshops. I enjoyed these workshops a lot – since there were not that many people, I could meet researchers I’d just been citing, and have good discussions. On the other hand, I spent quite a lot of time writing smaller papers and pushing away the fact that I needed journal publications to graduate. Also, as I discovered later, my grant reviewers have never heard of these workshops, and thus were not impressed with my publication record. 

I also did a lot of service and outreach activities. I had already been doing this type of thing as a student, so I was good at it, I enjoyed helping others, and it was good for my CV, whether I’d stay in academia or not. So I spent time organizing workshops, reviewing papers, giving talks to encourage more girls into science. I did learn something from all of these activities but in retrospect I think I spent a disproportional amount of time on them. 

Postdoc

I doubted a lot before deciding to go for a postdoc. The awareness of the struggle of finding a position after, and all the people telling me I really have to go abroad to have any shot at it, didn’t help. In the end by talking to more mentors, I decided to go give it a try – without leaving the country. 

My plan was to only do one postdoc and then get an independent position – or leave academia.  As I understood to achieve an independent position I needed to do three things: publish on the project I was hired on, develop my own line of research, and get my own funding. I was not prepared to deal with so many different objectives, so in the end, I did all the things poorly. On top of that, I failed to take care of myself, and had to take a few months off to recover.

It was during a particular low point during the postdoc that I started blogging and tweeting more. It started with me publishing my CV of Failures – I thought I would be documenting a story that would end with me leaving academia. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and I continued with the How I Fail series. During all of this I found an incredibly supportive Twitter community, with many others who were going through similar struggles, and it’s been helpful ever since. 

Tenure Track

Much to my surprise (and other feelings), I did find myself in a tenure track position after all.  This is an important accomplishment, but at the same time, the next goal – getting tenure – is coming up in a few years. Again, there is this (self-imposed?) pressure to do all the things, so it is not without challenges.  But, it is a much better experience in several aspects, because I occasionally realize that I don’t have to do all the things all the time. :

  • I occasionally realize that I don’t have to do all the things all the time. I’ve now actually been able to have periods on time focusing on writing, then focusing on teaching etc. 
  • I occasionally (not often enough) realize that I don’t have to repeat the career paths on others to “succeed”. The combination of things that I do, might just be “good enough”, even though it doesn’t fit the typical “successful” CV. 
  • I have a lot of people, online and offline, who share or have shared many of the same experiences, and who have advice, or are just up for having a coffee or a beer when things are tough.

Academia as supervised learning 

Where does the not-so-supervised learning come in? It seems to me that a lot of advice of what we need to do to “succeed” is based on rules derived from previous “successful” CVs – publishing at particular venues, doing a postdoc abroad, etc. Some of these rules we are explicitly told as advice, others we assume ourselves.

But there is a lot of missing from this picture. The “success” label is a function of much more than particular activities, but also the state of the world (number of tenure track positions, number of students, etc), and the state you are in yourself (including anything else you have to deal with next to the job search). These features have not been taken into account when creating the rules. So even if you do follow all the rules you might get a disappointing outcome, and vice versa.

There might also be opportunities that didn’t exist before. For example, few full professors would have been using Twitter during their PhDs and postdocs. As a yet “unlabeled” activity, it probably wouldn’t come up in any rules, but it can be a powerful tool for early career researchers.

Last but not least, it’s important to remember there’s more than one success metric, and why I’ve been writing “success” in a CV sense. Ultimately success should probably involve being happy, which can be achieved through other types of jobs. And perhaps some of these jobs are not even in our dataset yet.

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