Firsts: preparing for a lecture, part 2

“>Here I started preparing for my first lecture and describing my experiences. Now that the lecture is over, I have a few more things to share about the whole process.

In the end, I think I spent 20 hours preparing (not 30 as I estimated previously). At some point I felt I was satisfied with my story and I didn’t feel I could change anything until actually trying it out. In terms of the “how to”, I found a teaching course on Blackboard, and looked through the first teaching lesson. There are some useful tips there on keeping the attention level of the students high, and on structuring the lecture, such as providing summaries. With this in mind, I revised my slides one final time, for a total of around 30 slides for each 45 minute lecture.

During the lecture, a few things went differently than I originally planned. For instance, I included short summary/overview slides for transitions between different topics. However, every time I felt that I already explained this twice, so I did not put too much emphasis on it. In the end, it turns out that I should have done it anyway, against my intuition :). For other slides, I realized that I could have explained something in a different way, or linked the topic more to something students are already familiar with. I received some helpful tips about this from my supervisor, so I hope I can apply these in the future.

Another thing that didn’t go exactly as planned was the timing. I am very happy that I was using the presenter mode in Powerpoint where you can see the time and your notes on the laptop screen. I was too involved with the lecture to actually look at my notes, but the time was very helpful. I realized that I started too quickly, so later on in the lecture I tried to go a little bit slower. In the end, both lectures were finished in under 45 minutes.

Overall, I think the lecture was quite a nice experience! I was not too nervous about it, and although there were some silences (such as after a “Are there any questions about this”?), there was also student participation after some of my other questions and examples. That was very nice, especially because students started thinking of how to apply the method to their own PhD research. And that’s what the course is all about!

Firsts: moving for an internship

Exactly three weeks ago I got on a train to Tuebingen, Germany, and right now I feel I can say that I’m settled in, which means it’s time for a post.

One of my goals when coming here was to concentrate on the project that I am here for. Therefore I wanted to spend as little time as possible on “settling in”, and although I can’t say I was 100% successful, I learned a few things that might be useful when moving to a different country (even if it’s just from the Netherlands to Germany).

Luckily, I was able to arrange a room beforehand, and the room was furnished. I assumed I only needed to get bed sheets, so I ordered those at IKEA and had them delivered to the house before I arrived.  However, “furnished” does not mean “you have everything you need”. Here are a few things I did not really think about, and really missed in my new room:

– A sofa. A bed (though very comfortable) is just not exactly right if you want to read, watch a movie or relax without falling asleep.

– A coffee table. For the laptop that is getting too warm, or food and drinks to go with the movie.

– A coat rack and hangers. I’m not too organized when it comes to my closet, but hanging things up is easier than folding, and a few items (coat, bath robe) just don’t belong on a shelf.

– An electric kettle and a coffee machine. Tea and coffee are basic necessities and specialized tools definitely beat heating up water in a pot on the stove or in the microwave.

– Laundry “accessories”. There is a washing machine in the building, but laundry needs to be stored and dried somewhere as well.

About half of these things I bought second-hand (through Facebook groups or at flea markets), the other half from convenience stores. Now life is more comfortable 🙂 A few other things that I arranged as soon as possible, and that have been very helpful, are:

– A prepaid SIM card with internet. I’m using with my dual SIM phone. I would recommend Alditalk (great value for money), but not so much the phone (dual SIM is great, but it’s quite slow compared to my deceased HTC Desire S).

– A bank account. I did not really want to get one for the few months that I’m here, but the German bank card-operated washing machines thought otherwise.

– A bus pass. I only need to worry about which bus I get and where to get off, not about having the right amount of fare.

– A bike! For all the times that a bus is not that convenient, AND it feels just a bit more like the Netherlands now 🙂

 

Firsts: writing a grant proposal

Despite my previous post about having a whole month to myself to write a journal paper, things went a little bit differently. A fellow PhD student pointed out these short-term fellowships and I decided it would not hurt to try to apply, so I could finance the second half of my visit to the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen. Because I already had a few scholarship applications lying around (such as for the Anita Borg scholarship, which I applied for twice, unsuccessfully), I thought a new application would not cost me more than 2 days. In the end, I spent around 2 weeks working on the new application and neglecting my journal paper, but I still believe it was time well-spent!

One thing that was different about this application is that it was not focused on me, but on the project. Of course, I already had an idea about what I would be working on at the MPI and how that fits together with my PhD topic. What I underestimated, is that I suddenly had to explain all of these machine learning problems to people with a different background – I assume molecular biology, as that is the core subject of the organization providing the fellowships.

What really helped me with writing, was a successful proposal, which was on a different topic, for a different fellowship, from a different organization, kindly provided to me by a colleague. It was a good example of HOW to write for a different audience, rather than WHAT exactly to write about. Here are some of my findings:

  • Don’t assume a term that you use every day is obvious to everybody else. Provide a short explanation and an example. If possible, use pictures in your explanation.
  • Provide references, even if something is common knowledge in your field.
  • Use short, clear sentences in the active voice (“We will conduct experiments…” rather than “Experiments will be conducted…”), here is a good post on how to do this.
  • Avoid words that make you sound unsure, such as “probably”.
  • Include questions which your project will address, such as “What is the cause of X?” or “Is it possible to do Y?”
  • Don’t be afraid to use bullet points for lists, this is probably easier to read than a paragraph of text that does not really fit together.
  • Be explicit about how your previous work is going to be helpful in this project, it might not be obvious to the reviewer that your list of publications is related to the research topic.
  • Ask others (especially people outside your lab) to read your proposal.
  • If possible, use examples (both successful and unsuccessful) of other proposals.
  • Don’t underestimate the time that you will need for writing 😉

I will only get the results of my application in a few months, but I hope these tips can be helpful to other PhD students that are in a similar situation.

Update: the proposal was not funded, but I received funding for my internship from another source, so it was a good experience overall

Firsts: preparing for a lecture, part 1

I’m very proud of it and very scared at the same time – next week I’m going to give a lecture for the first time. The lecture is a part of the Advanced Pattern Recognition course for PhD students and my own lecture will be about the dissimilarity representation and multiple instance learning – topics I should be familiar with 🙂

Right now I’m spending a lot of time in preparing for the lecture. I’m guessing that 30 hours will be a good estimate for how much time I will spend in total. Right now I will try to explain my progress and how many of these hours I am spending where.

I spent an hour or two searching for information on how to prepare your first lecture. I found helpful tips here and here. The main messages for me is: pick a few core topics and explain them well, rather than skipping over all the possibilities.

With that in mind, I started thinking about the actual content. Although the topic is very related to what I’m doing in my PhD, I want to talk more about the general techniques rather than the specific parts that I am doing. Therefore, I could not use the typical structure of my conference presentations. I started out with a mind map (or at least, a bunch of words with arrows between them) of both topics to see what exactly I would need to cover. In my head, I was already preparing the connections between different topics and thinking of nice examples, so in the end, this process costed me about 2 hours.

Then I looked at which topics I feel comfortable explaining (most related to my own research), and which topics I don’t have experience with / haven’t tried explaining to others. For instance, with a dissimilarity representation, there are two main possibilities to improve upon nearest neighbor classification: embedding the dissimilarities, or training a classifier in the dissimilarity space. In my research, I only do the latter, and although I understand the concept behind embedding, I don’t feel as comfortable with it. Yesterday I spent most of the day reading about it and at the same time trying to revise last year’s slides so I could actually use them in my own explanation. This turned out very time-intensive (+/- 7 hours), but also very helpful.

I still need to prepare the slides for my more “comfortable” topics, revise the whole story and practice. I’m not really into practicing the whole thing before presentations, but here I’m especially worried about the timing, because I have never talked for 1.5 hours before. Also, as my lecture is only on the fourth day of the course, I plan to attend the other lectures and see how the experienced people are doing it. So, probably I will revise a few things after that as well.

The last, somewhat more optional part, is to go over the exercises that “go” with my lecture. Because the content and slides that I’m using changed from the previous years, I have to check whether the exercises are still useful, and update them if necessary. I’m actually very looking forward to this, but I’m afraid I won’t have the time to come up with my own exercises, test the code, etc, so I might have to leave that for next time 🙂

To be continued!

Firsts: visiting a lab for an internship

Last week I visited the Machine Learning & Computational Biology group in Tuebingen. It’s difficult to summarize everything, but Tuebingen is a nice city, the institute is a great place to do research, and there are a lot of friendly people there! Therefore I am looking forward to my longer (few months) visit in the fall of 2013 🙂

At the group, I gave a presentation about my work, attended other talks, and discussed the project that I would be working on. The project is still being defined, but it is probably involve classifying brain data, and in particular, the connections in these brains. For instance, it could be the case that healthy people have different connections in their brains, than people suffering from neurological diseases. I hope to find out more about this very soon.

I also have to find out more about living in Tuebingen, and getting financial support to do so. So far, most grants seem to be for MSc students, PhD students who do not get any salary (but they are also supposed to be in the Netherlands, where PhD students DO get a salary… confusing), or more senior researchers. There are a few things I have to investigate further, so I hope something will come up :). It’s amazing (and unfortunate) how much time this search is costing me, though.

Another thing to think about is learning German. I don’t think it’s really necessary for a short visit, but I enjoy learning languages and I’m curious how quickly I could pick it up. There are no courses in Delft (they do have Chinese though, how awesome is that!), but there is a language exchange program. You pair up with somebody who can teach you a language, and who can learn a different language from you. I’m going to try that, and maybe also just start by myself. There must be an app for it!

Let me know if you have any experiences with exchange scholarships for PhD students, or with learning German 🙂

Writing papers online with ShareLateX

I’m working on a paper together with a PhD student who is technically in my lab, but geographically in Cuba. For some reason, neither SVN nor Dropbox were working, and I was afraid we would have to resort to emailing the paper to each other (the horror!). Then during lunch I thought that we could just use GoogleDocs for the LateX file, or maybe that GoogleDocs even supported LateX. It’s such a simple idea somebody had to already have thought about this!

And indeed, ShareLateX has! You can sign up and create LateX projects and invite others to collaborate with you. Then you have your main file, any other files you want to add, and a button that compiles the .tex file into .pdf (and you can even choose whether you want the latex or pdftex version).

Again, the idea might seem very simple, but I’m still somewhat in awe… You can work on the same LateX file real-time, without waiting for somebody to save, commit or upload a new version. This is very motivating because you see the paper changing so quickly. It is also much easier to decide things together, such as adding that new section, because you already see how it would change the paper. Last but not least, you are all using the same compiler, so you can’t mess up the tex file for each other 🙂

There is  a down side, of course. The free version only supports 2 collaborators and there is no version control. As soon as you want an upgrade, you get the “Collaborator” account which allows 10 collaborators per project but also costs you $15 a month. Not a lot if the only thing you do is write papers with people overseas, but too much if that only happens once or twice a year. I only hope that universities realize how service is great for the researchers’ productivity, and offer it to employees free of charge 🙂

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