Hello, tenure!

I’m excited to announce that as of 1st of February 2021, I will start as a tenured associate professor at the IT University of Copenhagen!

How?

This is an unexpected turn of events, even for myself. When I announced I was leaving my tenure track position in May, I was not planning to look for a faculty position. I was still interested in doing research, but also thought I’d look at positions in data science or research support.

My announcement led to a lot of people on Twitter suggesting different (both academic and non-academic) positions to me. Among these were three faculty positions that were strongly recommended to me AND which seemed to have better conditions than my tenure track. As I already had an updated CV, I decided to apply, and was successful in getting an interview at all three. In two cases, the conditions were not as I imagined after all, and I stepped out of the interview process.

At ITU the process was a lot slower than what I’m used to, so I sort of forgot about it. Instead I was focusing on positions related to open science, and got to know a great community in the Netherlands, which I would still wholeheartedly recommend. Just as I decided this would be my next job, I got notified that I qualified for a tenured associate position.

Why?

This is a big deal! But given my experiences in academia, I was still quite skeptical whether this was something I wanted to do at all. But, still hurting from failing my tenure track, I was also intrigued to find out why they wanted to hire me ūüôā What’s another virtual interview, after all?

The interviews changed my mind. I haven’t felt this much “at home” in a while – I could just be myself, with all my opinions about machine learning and academia, and they still wanted to have me. About half of the interview time was spent on values, which tells me this is a good place.

So although I never searched for this, feeling valued like this gives me motivation to try again. It’s ironic that all of this happened while all Dutch universities are discussing “recognition and rewards” and how to increase the numbers of women. It turns out you can just do it. Of course I can’t predict how things will be going forward, but I’m grateful for the support and trust I received from ITU so far.

What’s next?

Going forward, I will still do research on learning with limited labeled data, but I will be focusing on understanding similarities and differences between datasets (meta-learning), but also on a more abstract level, between communities (science of science or meta-science). I believe it’s important to understand what is (not) being studied and why, so that we can make science more open and inclusive.

I will also still be continuing with workshops on failure, although things might be a little slower as I get settled in. And of course, you can always following my updates on this blog and 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!

Year in review: 2019 – tenure track year 3

Although I wrote yearly reviews on this blog for several years, I wasn’t expecting to do one this year for two reasons. The first, simple, reason is that I haven’t been blogging recently, and just doing nothing is easier than doing something. The second, more complex reason, is that I might have been afraid to think about this year as a whole. But that is exactly the type of thing that I find important to write about, so here we go.

Mental health

The first thing I have to think about is the manic episode I had in spring which I wrote about earlier, and my diagnosis as bipolar. Mental health issues were not new to me, but this experience was extreme. Although I was stable once I got medication, it felt like parts of my brain had shut off.

Things that were simple before – organizing my todo list, for example – felt completely impossible. I also had let go of many good habits, like running, eating healthy or blogging – pretty much anything I used to write about. I’ve also isolated myself from a lot of people, and felt insecure about most things that I’m normally comfortable with. While my ability to do such things has improved somewhat, more general qualities, like creativity and motivation, did not.

I was only part of the person that I used to be, and this was extremely hard to deal with.

The fact that I am writing this now, probably means that these things are improving too, just at a slower pace. But not feeling this improvement had a huge effect on how I felt this year. Even though a lot of positive things happened, I was often feeling too miserable to properly appreciate them.

Successes

To try to beat that overall feeling, here are a few professional things that went well this year:

  • Received my University Teaching Qualification (a prerequisite for tenure at Dutch universities)
  • Two MSc students graduated!
  • Started supervising two PhD researchers four MSc students (one of whom graduated)
  • My papers on not-so-supervised learning and “Cats or CAT scans” were published and gained a few citations so far (checking Google Scholar way too often)
  • Together with Felienne Hermans, Casper Albers, Natalia Bielczyk and Ionica Smeets, our paper “10 simple rules for starting on Twitter as a scientist” was accepted (online soon!).
  • Together with Natalia Bielczyk, Aidan Budd and Stephan Heunis we got a Mozilla mini-grant and organized a workshop about open & inclusive academia.
  • Visited several places where I gave talks, both on machine learning and topics related to this blog.

Also, an important personal milestone – I got married!

Failures?

When I first started summarizing the positive things I felt guilty. There are many things to be grateful for, but my brain just couldn’t see it that way. In the transition from manic to depressed, I felt bad about many ideas I initiated, but couldn’t follow through on. Afterwards, I felt bad about not doing my part, or not keeping up with my responsibilities. I felt anxious about things I’ve done lots of times.

In retrospect perhaps these things themselves are not failures, the overall failure is that I expected too much of myself. It would have been much better for me to accept how much I’m (not) able to do, let go of everything else, and have patience. Which is why crucial part to this year were the people who experienced me from up close – they were understanding and patient and kind. It’s thanks to them that I’m actually doing alright after what happened, and I’m grateful they are in my life.

Happy new year!

How I was diagnosed as bipolar

If you read this blog more often, you might have noticed that it went silent in March 2019. I’ve taken breaks from blogging before, but no break was quite like this, and in this post I explain why.

Although I never wrote about it in detail, I also never made a secret out of the fact that I have been struggling with depression since my postdoc. I had therapy for some of the time and was in general managing things quite well – doing my job, blogging, doing sports, having a social life. The current me almost can’t believe I was able to do all those things. 

In the second half of 2018 things started getting worse. After my cat Buffy passed away in October 2018, I was at an extremely low point and finally decided therapy alone wouldn’t do. My GP prescribed me antidepressants and I started a period of sick leave (full-time at first, part-time later) to adjust.

The antidepressants seemed to be doing an amazing job – the start was slow, but then I started feeling better and better. I soon went back to working full-time, was getting a lot done and had a lot of fresh ideas. I realized I was probably depressed for longer than I thought, and that I was now returning to the “normal” me. This was exciting for me, but somewhat confusing for many people around me, many of whom had not known me that long. 

Eventually – around March – I started feeling a bit too good. The ideas were coming at me so fast I couldn’t keep up, and neither could people interacting with me. My partner recognized this as hypomania, and following a GP visit I was told to stop the antidepressants. The GP also gave me a referral to the psychiatrist, but I ended up on a waiting list. Meanwhile, I was getting more and more out of balance.

The grand finale was a psychotic episode, during which I was convinced that people I’ve never met were giving me clues I had to follow. To top it off, this happened while I was travelling alone. After a few days in a psychiatric facility in France, I was able to return home again, going back on sick leave full-time. The bright side of this episode is that I could see a psychiatrist immediately, who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.

Now I am getting used to the new medication to stabilize my mood. Although the effects were noticeable straight away and I feel “normal” again, it has been difficult to go back to my regular life with work, blogging, sports, etc, feeling like an impostor in everything. I’m trying to accept that this is normal, and slowly building things up again. I am therefore not sure when the next post might be – but I’ll celebrate that this post is a win.

Talk summary: How I fail in open science

Last week I had the pleasure of giving a talk at OpenMR Benelux event, wonderfully organized by @fmrwhy.  Although the slides and a video of the talk will be available online, for those of you who prefer reading, I thought I would write a few of the things I mentioned during my talk. 

As I mentioned in my talk, I was feeling a bit like an imposter speaking at this event, since I neither do a lot of MR, nor a lot of open science”. Nevertheless I’ve decided to be open about how open my science is and share my experiences with it so far – hence the title “How I Fail in Open Science”. 

Open science during my PhD 

My story begins in 2011 when I started my PhD. After focusing on workshop papers for two years, I realized I needed journal papers to graduate. I submitted three papers that year and followed the suggestion to post them on arXiV because the review process could be lengthy. I used public datasets and a publicly available MATLAB toolbox, and since both the data and tools were online, I didn’t think it was needed to share the rest of my code. 

In 2015 the papers were finally accepted and I finished my PhD. Because the papers were already online for two years, I was able to benefit from the preprint bump. I would also occasionally get emails about the experiments in my paper. I then decided to share my (non-version controlled) experiments code to reproduce the results table in the paper. Miraculously even after two years I was still able to run my code AND get the same results. So I shared the code with a CRAPL license, which I felt absolved me from doing any other “cleaning up of the code”.

Open science during my postdoc

After starting my postdoc in 2015 I felt like I should publish as fast as possible. Instead of investigating the best tools for my project, I decided to go with my tried and trusted method. This was not a good strategy and in retrospect, I would have been much better off investing some time into switching to Python, creating clean code and so forth. In the end I didn’t publish much at all that year.

The publishing situation became even worse in 2016 when I started searching for my next job. However, since I was updating my CV often, I did also decide to share a few more things online. I also started using social media more often, and learning more about open science in general. 

Open science now

In 2017 I found myself in a tenure track position. Inspired by everything I saw on Twitter, I wanted to do everything right – switch to Python, publish in new open access journals, share everything online. I quickly discovered that this is not feasible next to all the other responsibilities you have when starting on the tenure track.

The only thing I have been doing consistently is posting preprints on arXiV. Here and there I have a paper for which I’ve shared data or code (still not version controlled), but it’s not something that happens by default. 

Why is my science not as open as I want it to be? It’s easy to say there’s too little time, but in the end it is a question of priorities. I am still influenced by my grant reviewers who tell me “that’s nice, but you should have published more”, and the funding agency who agrees with them. And although overall my experience on Twitter has been positive, people with strong opinions about what counts as open science, can be quite intimidating. 

How can I do better? I cannot change the system, but I can at least try to create a habit out of being more open. To do so I decided to draw parallels between open science and another area of my life in which I’ve had both successes and failures – running! 

Strategy 1: Start slow and focus on process

The first strategy is to start slow and focus on process. Find a thing that’s easy to do, and do it often. For running, my thing was “go for a run three times a week”. Note that there’s no distance or time – I just had to go out of the house, and even running 10 minutes was a success. If I had set a more difficult goal than that, I would get discouraged and quit – something that has happened to me several times before.

Translating this to open science, it’s a bad idea to try to do everything at once. I started with preprints and am now slowly adding sharing things online. I do this by using templates in Todoist. For example, every time I agree to give a talk, I import a fixed set of tasks, including “Create slides”, but also “Upload slides to website”.

Todoist project for the OpenMR talk, which includes preparing the talk but also sharing the slides

Strategy 2: Find accountability and support

To motivate yourself to continue with the habit you need to find accountability and support. With running, I find accountability by signing up for 10K races and then deciding that it’s probably going to be better for me to train on a regular basis. I also have a few friends who have either been running for a long time, or are just getting into it, so we can support each other. 

With sharing data and code, I feel accountable towards my students. I want them to do things better than I did myself, so I’m helping them set up their projects on Github from the start (inspired by Kirstie Whitaker). The code might still not be clean and run out of the box, but I feel like it’s an important first step.

As for support, I’m in a Slack group with other academics where we discuss this and other issues. And of course Twitter is a great place to learn new things and find people who are trying to improve their open science too. 

Strategy 3: Reward yourself

Finally, to create a habit don’t forget to reward yourself! After a race I might get a beer and a badge in my Strava app. But of course there are also long term rewards such as overall health, and being able to socialize with others. 

For open science there are also various metrics such as the Altmetric – here’s an example for a recent preprint. There are also gamified ewards, for example badges on ImpactStory. But more important is feeling the impact of your work on others, such as a thank you email, or an invitation to talk at an OpenMR event ūüôā 

***

Do you struggle with sharing your work online? Or do you have any other helpful strategies? Leave a comment or let me know on Twitter!

Year in review: 2016 – postdoc year 2

A review of 2016 already, you might wonder? Yes, although I usually write these reviews way too late (see 2015, 2014, 2013…). But Twitter made me want to write about my plans for 2017, so I felt that I first had to get the 2016 review over and done with!

2016 was not a very good year for me. This is mainly for personal reasons, which I prefer not to get into. But thanks to the support of several people, both offline and online, things have been getting better. And despite impaired productivity during the year, some awesome things happened, so I share these below.

Job search

Around the start of the year I received a rejection for the first ever faculty job I applied for. So, 2016 was going to a year of job applications. On paper, I did not apply to many jobs until getting a position, but this issue was on my mind often and I spent a lot of time on it. I was aware that I might not find an academic position, and didn’t have a problem with that. As I was searching online, I also looked at alternatives. But, I gave myself a deadline – 3 months before finishing the postdoc – to start applying for those positions, and concentrated on the academic positions first.

I applied for three faculty positions after that – one in Netherlands and two in the UK. Although I wasn’t offered either of the UK jobs, I was invited for interviews, which already felt like a success. Because of this I think I quite enjoyed the interview process, it was just a new experience that I was learning something from. I also applied for two postdoc fellowships and one travel grant to go to Germany, but was rejected for all three. And as my personal deadline of widening my job search came close, I was offered the position in the Netherlands.

Papers

I had no papers accepted in 2016 related to my postdoc project, which is a bit painful. I submitted two papers to MICCAI, but both were rejected. The idea was to turn them into journal papers, but due to various delays those still have not been submitted yet.

But there were also good news in terms of papers. I had my first paper on crowdsourcing accepted at a MICCAI workshop. I have already collected data for extending this paper, and I can’t wait to get started on the analysis.

Collaborations

I have been collaborating with two PhD students during the year. They both submitted their journal papers about our work, which I think will be accepted in 2017. I very much enjoyed these collaborations and hopefully one of these will continue in 2017 as well.

I was also very lucky to supervise Dylan, a student of game design. He turned the crowdsourcing application I was working on into a game – he tells me a blog post on about this is coming soon ūüôā This project was also very exciting and I really hope it will be possible to continue developing the game in the future.

These collaborations were definitely one of the best parts of the year, and I’m very excited that I got a job where I will get to do this more.

Events

This year I organized two meetings of the Dutch society of Pattern Recognition, with a great turnout each time. I didn’t really attend any conferences. In April I was planning to go to ISBI to present a paper (accepted in 2015), but unfortunately I had to cancel the trip. In October I wanted to go to MICCAI, but I only had funding to go to one of the workshop days. Although I wasn’t there for the conference and spent a lot of time travelling, it was definitely worth it.

I also had the pleasure of visiting amazing people and giving talks in Heidelberg, Copenhagen and Paris.

Little things

Finally, I’d like to mention a few other things that made my year more positive:

  • advice I’ve received regarding my future job
  • the community I found on Twitter
  • thank you messages from people who appreciate this blog

Thank you all – I’m looking forward to more research, conversations and blogging in 2017!

Year in review: 2015 – postdoc year 1

It seems to be a tradition already for me to write my “year in review” posts a year or more after the reviewed year (see the reviews of my first, second, third and fourth years as a PhD student). Today, although 2016 is drawing to a close, I will be reviewing the year 2015, or my first year as a postdoc.

PhD student to postdoc

In January 2015 I started my postdoc at the Biomedical Imaging Group Rotterdam at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. I already knew the group a little bit, and the location was close to where I lived, so it did not feel like a major transition. I also was continuing a project related to my PhD, and my PhD defense was still six months away. So at first, being a postdoc was not all that different from being a PhD student.

What was different, is the fact that I was on a two year contract. I was aware I would need to find my own funding. Besides travel grants, I haven’t obtained any funding (in the Netherlands, PhD positions are fully-funded 4-year contracts), so I wanted to learn more about this. Luckily, my supervisor asked me to help out a colleague from a different department, who was applying for an internal 1-year grant. Unfortunately the grant wasn’t funded, but it gave me useful insights into the grant writing process.

Independence?

Although at the start of 2015 things didn’t feel very different, there were two events in 2015 that made me feel more independent (or perhaps, more like a real grown up).

In March, I moved to Rotterdam, into an apartment which I bought all by myself. By that I mean that I was the only owner, I of course needed to get a mortgage. But the fact that I was “allowed to” buy an apartment, and that a financial institution trusted me with a mortgage, felt pretty awesome.

In June, I defended my PhD thesis! The defense day was amazing and I’m thankful to everybody who joined that day. I first gave a short presentation, featuring my cat Buffy:

After this, I was joined by the committee and answered questions for an hour, which is a tradition in the Netherlands. The first question was actually about cats! Answering it helped me find my confidence and the rest of the hour went well too. After a short deliberation of the committee, I got my diploma and became a Dr!

Grants

While 2013 was a year of writing papers and 2014 a year of revising them, 2015 definitely became a year of writing grants.

In August, I applied for the first “big” grant I applied for as the main applicant. The grant was called “Open Mind” and called for original ideas. I spent a lot of time brainstorming, and made it to the finals. I did not get the grant, but the idea really felt mine, and formed the basis for several other proposals I would write later.

After this, I felt that I might really have a shot at getting my own funding eventually. So I applied for the internal 1-year grant, and for a tenure track fellowship at Delft University of Technology. These were both rejected, and Delft even managed to reject me twice.

Now that I think about it, perhaps applying for all these grants, even without getting them, also contributed to me feeling like a “real researcher”.

What about papers?

In the middle of all the grant writing, I did work a bit on the project I was hired for, although not as much as I should have. From the start I wanted to work on two applications. I submitted a paper on the first application only 2 months into my postdoc, but it was rejected at MICCAI, then rejected at a MICCAI workshop, and then finally accepted at ISBI.

The paper on the second application faced a lot of delays, the first being my attempt to implement a part of the method by myself, rather than use an existing implementation. So, in 2015 I didn’t have anything to submit yet.

There were also good news regarding papers. When my thesis was approved, three papers in it were under review, and these were all accepted before my defense. One of these was a MICCAI paper, which I presented (as a poster) in October in Munich, Germany. I also had a workshop paper on a PhD-related topic accepted, and presented it in Copenhagen, Denmark just a week later.

What else?

There are a few other things on my 2015 list that don’t fit into the categories above. I gave talks about my research and about my career, organized a workshop at ICML, joined the board of the Dutch society of pattern recognition and reviewed a lot papers.

I also went on vacation, which I’ve been doing throughout my PhD as well. According to my 2015 overview, I was away from the office for 4 weeks. Of these, I spent 2 weeks working from time to time (but never full days), and 2 weeks 100% in vacation mode.

Take-aways

I did a lot of things, but too little research. I didn’t follow the 20/80 rule. In other words, I didn’t concentrate on the 20% of tasks, that will bring me 80% of the results in the future: writing papers. But the other 80% were useful in other ways, like contributing to my feeling of independence, so I don’t really have regrets. The three pieces of advice I can extract from this year are:

  • Don’t do too many projects at the same time
  • Fail as fast as possible
  • All (even “unproductive”) experiences are useful

On getting a tenure track position

As I announced a few weeks ago, I am starting as an assistant professor in the Medical Image Analysis group at the Eindhoven University of Technology.

The tweet is a bit of a technical announcement, but it encodes much more than “I have a new job”. Since I’m not good with threads on Twitter, I decided to share a few more feelings about this over here.

1. Excitement

I get to do research and teach and learn from others for the next 5 years! How amazing is that? I have so many ideas, I can’t wait!

2. Relief

I get to have a job for 5 years and don’t have to apply for positions for like, a very long time! I started looking for my next position halfway through my postdoc, which was a job in itself, and did not reflect well on my postdoc project. A few things were not really going well for me in 2016, so the news about the position couldn’t have come at a better time.

3. Fear

I worry they will discover I’m an impostor and they should have hired somebody else. I try to reassure myself by thinking that if I’m an impostor and they are the the real deal, they should have figured out that I was one already. But I also worry about just being able to handle it all.

4. Guilt

As many other researchers are forced out of academia, I feel guilty for “surviving” while having a “good, but not excellent CV” (citing reviews on some of my rejected grant applications). I didn’t have to deal with hundreds of rejections – I applied to four jobs, interviewed for three, and was offered one. Sure, I worked hard, but I think luck and privilege played a big role.

5. Hope

I get to be one step closer to maybe one day being able to change things, just a little bit.

Join me?

Over the past few months I came across profiles of people who recently started, or are starting their new jobs as assistant professors in 2017. I wonder if they are feeling the same things. So I thought, maybe we can start this thing where we meet online once a month or so, and share our experiences as we go? Please get in touch (email me, reply on Twitter or send a direct message) if you want to join.

 

Update 19th December: 

All fields are welcome and you can also join if you like this idea but started before 2017. I imagine we will a structured meeting once a month via Google Hangouts or Skype, and a private group (Google+, Slack?) for discussion in between meetings. I will gather names/emails for 1-2 weeks until we are with 5-10 people, and then I will send out an email with more details.

CV of Failure: Things I didn’t dare to try

Image by https://unsplash.com/@tersh4u

What counts as failure?

A recent #withAPhD conversation on Twitter prompted me to write a bit more about my CV of failures.

So far, I have been tracking the “quantifiable” failures, such as paper or grant rejections in my CV of failures, or shadow CV. However, there are a lot of other things that contribute to my experience of failure (and learning to deal with it) which are more difficult to quantify – because I have not tried them at all.

Most of these things can be summarized with the words “impostor syndrome.” I was convinced I would fail, or perhaps even worse, I was convinced “they” would laugh at me for even trying. But time and time again, evidence showed that I probably did have a chance. And even if I had failed, “they” would have thought it was good that I tried. It probably would have been better than always regretting not trying in the first place. So, what do I regret that I didn’t try?

Things I didn’t try

Although originally I thought only about purely academic things, I realized this pattern of not trying goes back much further. A few examples:

  • Talent show in high school. I’ve played piano for 7 years, but don’t consider it “talent show” quality, so I don’t sign up. At the talent show, somebody else is playing piano, but with many hiccups along the way.
  • First year of computer science at university. The student organization has sign up lists for different committees. The committee to organize parties seems fun, but I’m afraid it will have too many people, and I won’t be chosen, so I don’t sign up. Later I become friends with several guys who did join the committee, and realize they would have loved to have me.
  • Internships during my BSc and MSc. Several people are going abroad for internships. I’m afraid to get delayed with getting my diplomas. The projects I do in the Netherlands are all great and I get my diplomas on time, but the gap between the international experience I have, and the international experience that I could have, starts widening.
  • I’m writing papers during my PhD. The most competitive conferences such as NIPS seem to be way out of my league. I submit to good, but less competitive conferences and workshops. My first three papers all get accepted and I have a great time at the conferences. Later, I get evaluated on the quality of my publications – the places I’ve published do not really “count”. I read more papers from NIPS, and realize that maybe, I could have published there, too.
  • I’m finishing my PhD, and read all the regulations for graduating. A part of the regulations describe the requirements for cum laude. This involves a recommendation from the PhD advisors and several external reviewers. I ponder about asking my advisors, but decide against it. After all, even a graduate from our department who wrote several highly cited papers, didn’t graduate cum laude. “They” would find it ridiculous that I even brought the subject up. My defense is a success and the committee members are very positive. Later I confess to one of my advisors about my doubts, and he reassures me it would have made sense to at least try.

I learn from these events by recognizing the patterns and doing things differently the next time around. I did go on to participate in many committees, and even lead the student organization. The internship abroad was possible during my PhD. Although I still haven’t tried submitting to NIPS, I am now getting rejected often (and occasionally accepted) at MICCAI. I approach senior academics and ask for recommendations for fellowships and jobs. I am still scared every time, but past experiences tell me that it’s really much better if I try, than if I don’t.

Or, to quote Susan Jeffers*,

You’re not a failure if you don’t make it. You’re a success because you tried.

* Author of Feel the Fear… and Do it Anyway. The title alone is great advice.

CV of Failure: introduction

Image by https://unsplash.com/@tersh4u

My CV of Failure

Here it is – my CV of failure, or “shadow CV”.

I first found out about the concept of a CV of failure from this article. After a professor from Princeton posted his CV of failures online, shadow CVs have been getting more attention on Twitter, under the hashtags #ShadowCV and #CVofFailures. And it’s getting very popular too – the same professor now added a “meta-failure” of his shadow CV getting more attention than his research.

I already wrote about various successes and disappointments during my PhD (during my 3rd and 4th years). To write those posts, I used an Excel sheet that I normally use for yearly evaluations. Here is a screenshot from my 3rd year as a PhD student:

excel_progress

The one thing you can probably guess is that green is something that was successful, and red is something that was not. Creating a shadow CV would be essentially compiling all the red parts, over the five years that I’ve been doing research. In the era of tracking everything from what you ate to what music you listened to, why not track failures as well?

The experience

Given that I already had all the data, compiling the CV was quite easy. It was exciting – I was curious whether my shadow CV would be longer than a professor’s. It was comforting – the list wasn’t too long after all, and the inevitability of the list expanding in the near future didn’t seem as daunting. I also realized that it was good to start failing early with travel scholarships, because I feel more prepared now for the larger failures that I encounter.

But most importantly, compiling the CV was motivating. I thought about whether anything would have been different for me if I had seen such CVs a couple of years ago. As many other PhD students, I was not very confident. There were many things I didn’t even dare to apply for. Sometimes senior researchers would tell me these thoughts are unfounded, that I should just apply, and that everybody gets rejected. Sometimes I listened, and sometimes got rejected, but sometimes got accepted, which ultimately gave me more confidence. I hope that seeing shadow CVs can help other students do the same: go for more opportunities, fail, and learn from it.

%d bloggers like this: