Reader Q&A: choosing your advisor and topic

In today’s post I’m answering some questions from readers of this blog, on choosing an advisor and research topics. As a caveat, for me both things just “happened” so I am not the best person to give advice, but I did think of some tips that could be useful.

1. How to choose your advisor?

I think the lab where you will do your PhD is the most important factor for choosing a particular position. A large part of this is the advisor, but also the general atmosphere in the lab. That being said, it can be difficult to figure these things out in advance, if you are not already familiar with the lab. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things you can do:

  • Do people in the lab have social media accounts? The absense of social media probably doesn’t tell you much, but if one or more people have accounts perhaps you can learn a bit about the lab culture.
  • Look at publications lists – do the students get a chance to publish? Are there publications with multiple students, indicating more collaborations in the lab? Do students publish on their own topics, or only extend the work of the advisor?
  • Look at videos or slides from the advisor’s talks, if you can find any – do they credit their trainees for the work?
  • Get in touch with current or former trainees of the advisor – how is/was their experience in the lab?
  • Ask questions during the interview – what are the expectations of students in the lab? Are there any group meetings (such as a journal club) or other lab activities?

2. How to choose a research topic?

In the Netherlands (and several other countries in Europe) the topic will already be somewhat defined when you start a project. However, within that topic you should still have freedom to explore different questions. Here are some things that worked for me:

  • Just start somewhere. Read papers and implement them, and be critical about what you see. Are there some limitations, for example datasets that would not be suitable for the method?
  • Start writing as soon as possible, for example your thoughts about the papers you read. Are there any trends you start noticing?
  • Talk to others, both within and outside your field. Explaining research to others can often bring you to new thoughts
  • Ask yourself, “Am I building another hammer instead of investigating whether the problem is a nail?”
  • Ask yourself, “If my work was going to change a sentence in a textbook, what would that textbook/sentence be?” (Paraphrased from talk by Robert Williamson)

As with everything on this blog, my final piece of advice is – don’t stop here, but search for more different people giving different types of advice. If you know of a great blog post, or have your own advice to share, please comment below!

Quick and easy posters in LateX

Going to a conference and have to print a poster? Here is my tip for doing this as efficiently as possible.

Since my first conference, I have made quite a lot of posters (and printed them all on fabric) The first time this was very time-consuming, but the time I spend per poster has decreased over time. My new record is from the last conference. I had scheduled the task of creating the poster on my calendar – by default all events are one hour long. But by the end of the hour, I had not only made the poster, I had also already ordered it from my favorite vendor. All I had to do was wait for the poster to arrive.

As a disclaimer, I do not have the best posters, so if you want to win the best poster award, this is probably not the advice for you. But my posters do the job. So far my experience is that it’s more important how I talk about my research while I’m at the poster. That’s 20% of the work that achieves 80% of the result. The poster can fill up the 80% of work that achieves the other 20% – with all the other things we need to be doing (writing?) the decision on not spending too much time on it is not so difficult.

My “secret” is to use the same LaTeX template and the same structure for every poster. The template takes care of the layout and doesn’t let the poster get too crowded, and the structure guides me in what content I need to add.

I’m sharing two zip files with source files for my posters – one with a TU Delft, one with a TU Eindhoven template. When I was at Erasmus Medical Center, I could not find a LateX template, so I modified the TU Delft one to use different logos and colors. These templates were not originally made by me but allow modifying/sharing as long as the copyright notice is included. Please do the same if using the templates.

Cheplygina et al – Characterizing Multiple Instance Datasets (Poster, TU Delft template)
Cheplygina et al – Exploring Similarity of Medical Image Datasets (Poster, TU Eindhoven template)

The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Dr. Eva Lantsoght’s book, The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory. The title is definitely fitting – I cannot think of any topic that was not covered.

I remember that at the start of my PhD, I got a book about “how to do a PhD”. Sure, it covered the main things like long-term planning, but I remember thinking I couldn’t really do anything with the advice.  Dr. Lantsoght’s book does not only that, but provides actionable hints on everyday habits that will help you successfully finish the PhD.

The chapters are quite modular – although there is a progression from starting to finishing a PhD, some chapters can be valuable as stand-alone reference, for example writing a literature review. In fact, many of the chapters are relevant not only to those pursuing a PhD! Although Dr. Lantsoght identifies supervisors as part of the audience, I think postdocs and new PIs who do not yet supervise PhDs (such as myself) could also greatly benefit from the book.

Perhaps the most important message I’d like to highlight is that of self-care, such as getting enough exercise and sleep. It is easy to fall into the trap of ditching these in favor of a few extra hours of experiments or writing. But in the long run, you will be more productive if you are happy and healthy. Thumbs up for voicing this message!

Multiple Overleaf projects with a single .bib file

I recently discovered that one of my biggest dreams – being able to link all my online LateX projects to a single .bib file (but without using Mendeley) – is possible!

Previously I had “solved” this problem with ShareLateX projects, by writing a script that copies my main .bib file to several project folders every hour. However, this requires Dropbox sync for ShareLateX, which is a premium feature for new users. Not to mention, it’s not ideal to do it every hour, and to have to update the script when you want the .bib file to be copied with an additional project.

Now a much simpler solution is possible with Overleaf. It’s probably been there for a long time, but I only realized this now. When you add a new file to an Overleaf project, there is an option “Upload from URL”. I thought this option would do just that – get the file from the URL and upload it. But what it actually does, is remotely link to the file. That’s the solution right there! (Thanks to Overleaf’s Dr. LianTze Lim for pointing this out!)

Here are the steps to get this to work:

1. Put your .bib file in Dropbox, set the sharing settings so that it’s accessible by anyone with the link. Copy the link

2. In your Overleaf project, Go to “Files”, then “Upload from URL” and paste the link here. With Dropbox, this link will end in “dl=0”. Change this to “dl=1”

If this works correctly, you should now see your .bib file in your project, but with a “linked” icon next to it

3. Proceed as you usually would with a bibliography file

If you are collaborating with others, the best way is probably to have two .bib files – the linked one (not writeable from Overleaf) and another one that is local to the project, for any new references. This way at the end of the project, you could move all the new references to your main .bib file.

I also tried to do this in ShareLatex, but couldn’t find this type of option. Although ShareLateX has free Dropbox sync because I’m an early user, this feature of Overleaf could have convinced me to switch (even if losing the sync). But Overleaf and ShareLateX are merging, so I’m hoping I might get to enjoy the benefits of both.

How to find medical imaging companies (in the Netherlands)

A slightly different type of post today! Inspired by Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega, who writes many of his amazing blog posts for his students, I decided to write about a question that has already come up a few times, and will probably come up again. The question is – where can I find companies who do (medical) image analysis (in the Netherlands)? This is important for students looking for internships, graduation projects, and jobs.

In this post I outline my search strategies to find such companies – especially small ones, which are difficult to find otherwise. These strategies might be useful to you even if you are searching for companies in other fields or countries.  The strategies are based on searching online, so they don’t assume you already have a network of people to rely on.

1. Who is advertising for jobs

The most straightforward way is to search for keywords on LinkedIn. If I search for “medical imaging” in the Netherlands, I get a lot of vacancies at Philips and a few at research institutions. There are also several vacancies which do not have a connection to medical imaging.

My intuition is that this type of search would overlook companies that do not have a specific vacancy, but would welcome open applications from people with the right qualifications. The same holds for internships – often these are not advertised on any website, but there might be opportunities if you contact a company directly.

2. Where are alumni working

The next place I’m going to look, is where alumni of biomedical engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) are working. Here is a LinkedIn page with alumni of TU/e.  I cannot filter by faculty here, but I can enter search terms related to the names of the programs offered, for example, “biomedical”. I can also filter for alumni living in the Netherlands, and filter by date to filter out any current students.

Now I just click on a lot of profiles, if the description suggests the person is working in a company, and screening the companies for doing (medical) imaging. This is quite a time-intensive process. There are many companies that hire biomedical engineering graduates, but that do not focus on imaging. But I did find many more examples than with the first strategy:

3. Who is sponsoring the conferences

Moving away from LinkedIn, a way that helped me discover several companies, is through sponsoring at academic conferences. The first step is to find out what the main conferences are, either from reading papers or searching online. For medical imaging I’m going to look at MICCAI, which has been running for 21 years, but also a a new conference MIDL, which is held this year in Amsterdam.

Now simply search for a “Sponsors” page and you are good to go! Some conferences (or rather, professional societies that organize the conference) also have a dedicated job page, for example the MICCAI job board. Here are the results from the sponsor pages (not limited to the Netherlands):

 

4. Who tweets about it

Of course this post would not be complete without Twitter! First I’m going to try searching for keywords, starting with “medical imaging”. If I then click on the tab “People”, I see accounts who have “medical imaging” in their bio. This list already includes several companies, for example:

Another strategy would be to look at the who follows medical imaging researchers and companies. The trick is to find an account with not too few, but also not too many followers. In this example I will look at who follows Quantib, a company based in the Netherlands. From the list of followers, I find the following:

These accounts should also give you some ideas of what other keywords or hashtags to search for.

I hope this was useful! Happy internship / job searching, and please comment below if you have other tips!

Balancing responsibilities in academia

In this post I discuss how I divide my time as an assistant professor and whether it is any different from being a postdoc or a PhD student. This is inspired by this tweet by @jayvanbavel (the plot is from this presentation), that got quite a lot of attention. Since I also had a few questions from readers about how I balance my responsibilities, I thought this would be a good topic to talk about. Spoiler: I do not identify with the message of this plot.

The categories in the plot are very fine-grained, but I will just talk about the larger categories: research (which for me includes manuscripts), service, grants, teaching and advising.

https://twitter.com/jayvanbavel/status/980071519505338369

As a PhD student

It’s true, as a PhD student I spent most of my time doing research. I would have whole days just for my exploring papers, drawing things on paper, trying out things in Matlab, meeting with my supervisors and writing down my findings. I suppose that going to talks also counts as “research” in this categorization. But more often than not, I did spend time on other categories than research and manuscripts.

First there is teaching. In my department, PhD students did not have to do a lot of teaching, but would be expected to help out with practical exercises in various courses. I did that, and volunteered for other teaching opportunities. I gave a few lectures about my research topic – the first took me approximately 30 hours of prepare. I’m quite shocked at this number now, and think I must have miscounted, but I did blog about right when it was happening, so I should probably trust my past self. I also had an opportunity to help redesign a module of a course, which was very insightful, but was also time-consuming.

Then there were activities in the “service” category. I had started reviewing papers, organizing workshops and giving outreach talks. I also organized the lab meetings for a while and kept various websites up to date. I enjoyed these activities and never consciously thought of them as “taking time away from my research”, which is probably why my grant reviewers are complaining now about my publication record.

The only category I didn’t spend a lot of time on was “grants”. But even so, I did manage to get a few rejections in that time.

As a postdoc

Most of the activities I was doing as a PhD student, continued into my postdoc, so it definitely wasn’t mostly “research”. While teaching decreased a little bit, service definitely increased – not because of the obligations of my contract, but my perceived obligation to the community, for which I was reviewing etc.

The big difference was “grants”. I had a two-year position, but given the low probability of getting funding, I started applying for things 6 months into the position. Since most things were rejected, this did take a lot of time away from research, and further worsened my position with grant reviewers.

Sometimes I hear the advice “only spend time on research during your postdoc and don’t worry about grants”. It’s nice to think how things would be now if I did have more publications from my postdoc. But at the same time, if I didn’t do what I did, I probably would not have the job I have now.

As tenure track faculty

In my current position, I am for the first time expected/paid to do all the things I was doing before  – research, teaching, advising, service and grants. I think if I had spent the previous years doing only research, this would have been a very difficult shift. But having a bit of experience in each area has helped the transition a lot, even though my research did suffer compared to my PhD.

I am not sure what % of my time I spend on each category because this varies per week. But I do – for the first time – consciously think about it.  I say no more often now (especially in the service category – while still doing my fair share). I try to group meetings, so that I have a few days without meetings, which I can then dedicate to research (although I do get distracted by other things I’m involved in).  My weekly review, where I write down what I did in different categories, also helps to see whether I’m spending too little time on research.

All in all, balancing responsibilities is difficult, but I feel that it’s possible to learn to do it better, which is one of the things (I realized) I’m exploring on this blog. I feel very fortunate to have the support – from colleagues, mentors and the community on Twitter – to do so.

I would love to hear from you – how do your spend your time, and has this changed throughout your career?

Writing a PhD thesis in the Netherlands

This post summarizes the process I went through to write and publish my thesis in 2015 at the Delft University of Technology. From what I understand, my experience is representative for computer science and other technical PhDs in the Netherlands. I am not sure how things generalize beyond that.

PhD by publication

In my department it was standard to do a “PhD by publication”. Although you do have a formal thesis in the end, the goal is to publish four first-author journal papers in the four years of your employment. These papers would go “as is” as four chapters into your thesis, and you would add two general introduction and discussion sections to complete it. You could of course also add other chapters if you have more papers or want to add unpublished material.

Different groups have different guidelines on what counts as “publishing a journal paper”. Peer-reviewed conference papers, or papers that you have submitted and are under review at a journal, could also count. My “thesis” was approved when I had 2 accepted journal papers (but, one of these was a second-author paper), 2 journal papers for which I had submitted major revisions, and 1 conference paper that was under review. I write “thesis”, because at the time of approval I didn’t have a single document called “thesis.pdf”, but an outline of which papers would become chapters, and their status of acceptance.

 

Writing

I think that when I started my PhD, I was aware of the PhD by publication, but I thought I would write a “real” manuscript to satisfy the perfectionist within me. But I changed my mind when I realized that’s the only result I would accomplish – my PhD would count just as little or just as much. Since I spent the last year of my PhD revising papers, I was quite happy to choose the easier (but just as effective) option.

There was not a lot of writing to do – only a general introduction and discussion chapters. I got started about 9 months before my contract ended, but I definitely didn’t work on my thesis full-time. I do think it was good to start early, because it gave me some time to digest what I’ve done in the years before and gain new insights. Perhaps that is a disadvantage of a PhD by publication, because it does not “as naturally” lead to taking a step back, as I would imagine you need to do if you have to write an entire manuscript.

I also appreciated having the 9 months to write my propositions, which I defended together with the thesis – see my earlier post about this.

Next to writing two chapters and propositions, I just put together the papers I had into a single LateX project/template. I spent a few hours battling with incompatible packages, but after it compiled, it was amazing to suddenly see all my papers form 100 or so pages of thesis.pdf.

 

Approval

After getting thesis.pdf approved by my supervisors and the plagiarism check of the university, it could be sent to my thesis committee and I could plan a defense date. I believe this happened around January 2015, and my defense was scheduled for June 2015. I’m a bit foggy on the details on this, but I think at this point it is assumed that you will in fact successfully defend your thesis.

In the time in between, you could get comments from your committee on possible revisions, and when enough committee members approve, you can go ahead and print your thesis. In my case, two committee members had suggestions for revisions. One committee member suggested a few points for the discussion, but also said that the thesis was approved regardless of whether I had time to implement them. The other commitee member essentially wanted a “major revision”. But, this committee member responded way after the deadline, so since all the other committee members had approved, I had already printed my thesis. Talk about a scare though…

 

Publishing

Before the defense, you have to publish/print your thesis. There are several companies that specialize in this, and you get a bit of budget from the unversity to do the printing. The main things you need is a thesis.pdf that is formatted correctly (not a problem since my latex template already took care of that) and a cover.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about my cover – since I wasn’t working on a specific application, it was difficult to come up with something that would illustrate my topic. Once I had the concept in mind, my friend Hella Hekkelman made the illustration for me – I’m still very happy about it:

Here is it in action:

 

To see more examples of cover design, check out another friend Carolyn’s post how she designed her own cover.

With the thesis and cover, I ordered about 120 copies of my thesis from the publisher. This is a a relatively normal number, since you give copies to people from your department or in your field. I have even heard of people printing 300 or more! But, everybody advised me not print too many, so I got exactly the amount that the university budget would cover. In retrospect, I wish I would have invested a bit more into it, because a year after my defense, I had already ran out of copies.

***

Update April 2019: If you have cats on your PhD cover, definitely order more! Proefschriftmaken.nl was kind enough to give me a discount, and I just ordered 30 more books! 

 

Reader Q&A – Applying for a PhD position

In this post I’m answering a question from a blog reader – What qualities do you look for in a PhD candidate?

I have never hired any PhD candidates but I share a few thoughts of what I think I would pay attention to. This is also an interesting “time capsule” experiment for me – I hope that I will be able to reflect on the list below in the future.

This post is based on my experiences in the Netherlands, where PhD positions are jobs, and there is no single “grad school application” process that might exist in other countries. To apply for a position, you would be asked to send in your CV, list of subjects, motivation letter, reference letter and perhaps a summary of your MSc thesis project. At least, this is what I had to submit to apply to my PhD position back in 2010.

Evidence of problem solving

Probably the most important factor that I would look for is that you have experience with solving problems and completing projects. A MSc thesis, or a summary of your ongoing thesis, is a good example.

Other projects also count, but this needs to be clear from your CV. Simply having “machine learning” on your list of subjects, and “Python” on list of skills does not tell me if you can get started if I give you a dataset. A short description of a concrete project you did gives me more information. If you can link to a github repository – even better. Reference letters are probably also good places to look for evidence.

Interest in position

I want to know what interests you about the research topic, why you want to do research and/or why want to work with me. Mentioning that you find topic X interesting, is not enough. Ideally, your motivation should indicate that you have given the topic some thought, for example, by thinking of possible research questions.

A simple way to score points on this, is to follow the instructions of the application process and proofread the materials you send in. This shows that you invested a bit of time into the application and are not applying for any (not relevant) position that’s out there.

Other interests

Personally I think it’s a good thing to have more interests than what you study at university. This can include elective courses, organizing events, a blog about your favorite hobby… Again, short descriptions of what you achieved are better than listing a number of activities as hobbies.

Although not directly related to research, I think these things indicate something about independence, curiosity, and being open to new ideas.

“Team player”

Last but not least, it’s important that you are respectful of others, reliable when you promise others to do something, listen to feedback and help others out. This is probably the most difficult assess from an application, but I imagine that reference letters should say something about this, and if they don’t, it’s an option to contact the referee and ask.

Qualities I find overrated

Probably an unpopular opinion, but I find some qualities that are traditionally considered important, overrated.

The first one is having high grades. Sure, it doesn’t look good if all your grades are just above a pass. But there are many reasons why some grades can be lower – having a job to be able to afford to study, illness, poor course setup. So I wouldn’t dismiss an application just for that reason.

The second one is descriptors like “highly motivated” in the motivation letter. I realize that such statements are dependent on your background/culture, and on how much training you got in writing the letter. I think these are not good predictors of whether you can complete a research project.

***

I would love to hear your thoughts – am I missing essential qualities or putting too much emphasis on others?

And if there is a different question you have for me, please get in touch so I can answer it in another Q&A post!

7 things I’m glad I did during my PhD

7 things I'm glad I did during my PhD

After the 7 things I wish I would have done during my PhD, here is an opposite list of PhD advice – of things I’m happy I did, and I would recommend to others. It is also a bit of a “trip down memory lane” of this blog, as I realized I have written about most of these experiences before, but never connected them together. Enjoy!

7 things I'm glad I did during my PhD

 

1. Choose based on people, not on project

I applied to only one lab for my PhD (an earlier post about this). I applied there because I knew I was going to have a great time for four years, and that is largely because of the people in the lab.

Of course I was interested in machine learning, but within machine learning, most topics would have been interesting. The topic of the position I was applying for – “Dissimilarity-based multiple instance learning” – did not tell me much at the time. It was already during my PhD that I got really excited about it, and that is why I have a thesis with the same title now.

I also have to note here that in my experience, if you are in a good place, you will have freedom to pursue your own ideas as well.

 

2. Treat it as a job

Although this seems to be a controversial idea (e.g. professors tweeting that PhD students who don’t put in 80 hours a week “should not be there”), it is entirely possible to treat a PhD as a “normal job”. You know, with things like weekends, sick leave and holidays.

A factor that definitely played a role in my attitude is the system in the Netherlands (and several other countries) where PhD researchers are not students, but employees. It is of course easier to go on vacation or take sick leave, when you don’t have to worry about paying your bills or getting fired.

But perhaps more importantly, I was fortunate not to encounter anybody with the 80 hour mindset. I set myself the same hours as that I saw my supervisors in the lab (roughly 8:30 to 17), and went home after that. I realize now they probably worked at home too, but I never felt the pressure to do so.  See also the point above on choosing for the people, not the project.

More generally, I think it’s good for your mental health to have an identity that is separate from being a researcher, to help deal with failures that will inevitably occur.

 

3. Go to a conference early on

For the first month of my PhD I actually worked on the topic of my MSc thesis, to write a paper for a small conference. It’s not a “big deal” conference, but I cannot stress enough how important this experience was.

First, this meant that I started practicing writing papers (and getting feedback, from supervisors and from reviewers) very early on. Although the topic of my PhD was different and so I couldn’t use the publication for my thesis, the skills I learned still applied.

Second, just a few months into my PhD, I went to a conference where I recognized all the senior people from their badges. And, it being a small conference, several of them talked to me and complimented me on my presentation! This is huge deal if you are, like many PhD students, dealing with some form of imposter syndrome.

Last, I really enjoyed the atmosphere at the conference in general. This motivated me to do a lot of conference paper writing in the following years (such that I was a bit late with realizing I had to also write journal papers, which I do not recommend).

 

4. Do not only do research

Teach, organize a workshop or review papers – something else than your main project. Yes, these things technically “take away time” from your research time, but in my experience they:

  • Give you experience that will be valuable later on (possibly also outside of academia)
  • Give you a productive thing to do when your writing just isn’t progressing
  • Help you stay motivated

In the end, although I spent time on these types of activities, I think I gained time because I could return to my writing with more energy, rather than beating myself up and starting at the screen for hours.

With that being said, also do not do too much – maybe one extra project at a time. If you start doing these things and people realize you are able/happy to do them, you will get more requests, so prepare to say no (something to add to my “should have” list).

 

5. Have an online presence

Although I regret not using Twiter or blogging more, I did do my best to be findable online. I kept my university page and Google scholar profiles up to date, and uploaded my papers to the university website and ResearchGate.

When submitting papers to journals, I posted them on arXiV. For example, I submitted 3 journal papers in 2013. They were only published in 2015 and 2016 (!), when I was already a postdoc. However, these papers have been gathering citations since 2013 (not many, but I’m very proud/excited about it nonetheless). In 2015 and 2016, as recent papers with already a couple of citations, they might have been seen as “important to cite”, leading to further increases in citations and allowing me to benefit from the preprint citation bump.

If you are thinking “none of this is necessary if you just do great research”, evidence suggests otherwise. For example, you are less likely to be cited if you are a woman in international relations or astronomy.

 

6. Visit another lab

Visit another lab for a few months – most would recommend going to a different country too, but if your situation doesn’t allow that, I think going to a lab in a city close by would also be valuable. Apart from the obvious benefits of learning new things, collaborating on a project, and sharing your research, for me visiting another lab has been essential for finding mentors and becoming a more confident researcher. I wrote about this in the post “A few thoughts on mentors”.

7. Bring your own lunch

Yes, it costs time in the morning or the evening before. But it is healthier and cheaper, and much more rewarding!. Lunch in the Netherlands isn’t that great anyway – the standard is to eat bread with something on it (typically not avocado).

The better alternatives are probably at least EUR 5 – I would estimate 2-3 times more expensive than my (sometimes even containing avocado) lunches. If you do this for 4 years you probably still won’t save enough money for a deposit, but you will gain a habit that will in turn help you adopt other useful habits – writing, perhaps?

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Do you have any PhD advice you would like to share? Please let me know below or via Twitter!

Reverse engineering your CV

I recently discovered a great podcast called The Startup Scientist, of which I have now swallowed up all episodes – thanks to Daniel Lakens for the recommendation! The podcast is about treating your academic career as a start-up. I have made this comparison before when giving talks at career orientations but wasn’t able to distill this idea, so I was excited to discover that Dan Quintana did exactly that, so now I can add on to it in this post.

The episode I want to write about is Reverse Engineering your Career Goals. Although I do often say that my career so far is a series of coincidences, I do think this type of reverse engineering has played a part in it.

Towards the second half of my PhD I had a lot of doubts about continuing in academia – I really wanted to, but I was aware that it would be very difficult to get a position. I wanted to do a postdoc, but only if I had a reasonable chance of getting a position afterwards. I was not sure how to estimate this chance, so I used the approach below.

 

1. Find representative data

I first studied the CVs of Dutch professors I knew, and concluded that most of them received independent funding a few years after their PhD. But these professors were already professors for a few years, so I decided their situations did not apply to me.

Through the funder’s website, I found a list of people in related disciplines who received this type of funding that year. Since I was a year away from finishing my PhD, and these people got their PhDs maximum 3 years ago, the gap between me and them narrowed.

 

2. Generalize

After searching for CVs of my “prototypes”, as a good machine learner I tried to find patterns. Although the people were all quite different, and I only had a few examples (I wasn’t doing this automatically, although that would have been an awesome side project), it was easy to spot several things they had in common.

I did this during my pre-Evernote era so sadly I do not have notes on what exactly I discovered, but I do remember two things in particular:

  • All recipients had an impressive (at least for me) h-index. The minimum I found was 6, but the values between 9 and 12 or so were more common. This will vary per field, but for context, the professors I thought were not representative, would be in the 20+ category.
  • Many recipients had an extra “thing” that was different from most others, like their own company, an organization they volunteered for, etc.

3. Multiple time points

Next to looking at people’s websites, it’s also helpful to search for “Name CV filetype:pdf”. Using this method, I was also able to find CVs of the same people, but from a few years ago. This had several benefits.

While the current CVs looked quite intimidating to me, the “time travel” CVs were much more relatable. Instead of learning only about the “value” of a CV, I was now learning about the “gradient”, which would be easier to apply to my own situation.

Of course, it is possible to do this for any CV, by removing all the things from the recent years. But the nice thing about the real “time travel” CVs was that I also saw how people changed the way they presented the same thing, that both CVs already had. For example, a side project that might have been insignificant in the “time travel” CV, was described in more detail in the current CV.

4. Predict?

Now that you’ve estimated your function where the inputs are the CVs at different time points and the output is receiving funding, you could try to fill in what’s missing from your future CV, to get the same output.

Don’t forget that there are multiple solutions (so different inputs will lead to the same output) and noise (so the same input might lead to a different output). Since I’m on a roll with this analogy – there are also lots of other inputs that you might not even be considering yet (life and stuff).

I did not actually create any concrete plans of what I was going to do, based on this informal study. But I suppose that the information got deposited somewhere, and helped me make choices that would later point me in the direction of a solution.

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