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.

My relationship with blogging, part 2

As I wrote a few months ago, I have a difficult relationship with blogging. In short: I start, after a few months I think what I wrote is silly, and then I get rid of it. This time I promised myself and the internet that I wouldn’t do this. I made no promises about posting great content or posting often, just that I would accept my posts they way they are.

I dare to say that it’s actually going quite OK! I think the thing that is different this time is being on Twitter:

  • I read more blog posts in general, which helps me improve my writing and gives me ideas on what to write about.
  • I realized there are a lot of people struggling with writing, and that ways to improve your writing (such as doing it, as I am doing now!) are a good thing.
  • I connect with more researchers, and am slowly starting to realize my posts might be useful to others

As part of “blog relationship therapy”, I decided to also be more accepting of posts from my earlier blog – the posts I decided were silly in one way or another, and eventually led to that blog’s doom. I’ve resurrected a couple of them. They are mostly about “first” experiences as a PhD student, such as preparing for a lecture or writing a proposal. Enjoy!

My relationship with “save for later”

Just like blogging, using “save for later” is another thing I have trouble with. I come across a lot of awesome things online, from articles to interesting blogs to cat furniture ideas. Despite having access to several tools to organize such gems (from “Like” on Twitter, to Evernote to Pinterest), I am not really happy with my current setup. I do save things “to read later” in various ways, but the “later” part almost never happens.

Perhaps the only exception to this rule is how I deal with research papers relevant to my projects. When I come across a relevant paper, usually through a Google scholar alert, I immediately include it in the ShareLateX project on that topic. Perhaps that part by itself requires some explanation: I start a ShareLateX project very early on for each topic I am working on, and eventually that document grows into a paper. Here is a screenshot of my most recent projects:
sharelatex_projects

For me this is a foolproof way to remember these relevant papers. I do not forget my projects, and when I pick one of them, either to brainstorm what to do next or to write parts up, I WILL scan, then possibly print and read those papers.

I’ve thought about the differences between this system, and what I do with all the other articles, blogs, etc that I save for later (and that I’m too embarrassed to make a screenshot of). There are really only two that I could think of:

  • The place. For other types of content (anything that is not an article not related to my research) I use the bookmarks folder, Evernote (if related to research in general, academia, personal development), Pinterest (if related to food, exercise, travel). As you can guess, none of these places are places I review every so often.
  • The purpose. The research articles have a clear purpose: “read, summarize and reference in this paper”. Most of the other content I save could probably be labeled as “might be interesting once I get around to it”, which is not really a purpose. The current way I try to organize all those items is by topic, such as “machine learning” or “productivity”. Each topic will include items I’ve already reviewed and saved for some reason, or those I still want to read. Perhaps categories such as “read if bored on the train”, “use as reference in grant proposal”, “write about in blog post” would be more effective.

And those categories are actually something I will try to implement this year! The last one in particular should be interesting: I really dread organizing my favorites, and I find it difficult to decide on blog post topics — so, why not try an approach that has already worked for me elsewhere and kill two birds with one stone? I just need to decide on the place – ShareLateX does not seem really appropriate this time. Don’t forget to check in later to see the results!

Year in review: final year as a PhD student

This post is a summary of 2014, the last year of my PhD. I am writing it a whole year later due to my difficult relationship with blogging. There are two reasons for this: a recent conversation about blogging on Twitter, with this result, and the fact that the summary of my third PhD year played an important role in me deciding to resurrect this blog.

As 2013 was a year of submitting papers, I expected that 2014 would be a year of paper resubmissions. That guess was quite accurate. But 2014 had more challenges in store for me. The year didn’t start out great for me for personal reasons. I am not sure I will ever discuss the details online, so let’s just leave it at “life changing event”. Up until that point, I was sure I would finish my PhD on time. But, with so many things changing so rapidly, I started having serious doubts about my progress.

Writing and staying motivated

Despite the personal chaos, I continued to work on the revisions of my rejected papers. In February, I resubmitted Paper 1. That was tough, so I didn’t want to touch the other rejected papers for a while. Besides, I had other activities lined up, such as a research visit to Copenhagen, where I wrote a conference paper about the work I had done the year before. The visit was a great experience, both professionally and personally! Unfortunately, I received a rejection, adding yet another thing to the revise-resubmit list. On top of that, I was rejected for the Anita Borg scholarship for the third and final time. But there was also a bright side: for example, around the same time I gave my first invited talks, which was a much-needed boost for my confidence.

In June, I finally received the coveted “We would be happy to publish your manuscript” email about Paper 1. This gave me the needed motivation to continue with the other revisions. In July, I resubmitted Paper 2, and in September, Paper 3, which by then had already been rejected at two different journals. Again, it was very helpful to be involved in other activities, such as organizing a workshop and teaching, to stay motivated.

With one accepted journal paper and two others under review, I again started hoping that I would submit my thesis by the end of the year. The thesis requires at least four chapters, each based on a “publishable” paper. My supervisors agreed, so I spent the last months working on Paper 4. Paper 4 described recent results, and was therefore very refreshing in the midst of all the revising. I finished it on time and submitted it to a conference in December. And then, with three papers “in limbo”, both 2014 and my PhD contract, ended.

Take-aways

My year of revisions had a few successes and several disappointments. However, the more important successes were the things that these experiences taught me. I…

  • …became a seasoned reviser-and-resubmitter
  • …learnt how to stay confident as a researcher despite a lot of disappointments
  • …realized even more deeply how important it is to have colleagues who believe in you, who support you, and who are up for a grabbing a beer (or a Spa rood), whether it is to celebrate or offer a shoulder to cry on.

My relationship with blogging

I have a love-hate relationship with blogging. I have always enjoyed having some sort of website. When I was 10 or so, my dad showed me how to build websites in HTML, and I made a website about the Spice Girls. There was no original content on the website, but the fact that I had a website and could update it if I wanted, that’s what counted for me. Of course, when I got a bit older and became embarrassed by my choice of music, the website stopped existing. In high-school, I got a bit more interested in webdesign. Blogs were becoming popular, and since I didn’t have any particular hobbies, I made a website with a blog about what was happening in my life. You can already probably guess what happened… I got older, decided my problems from a year or two before were very silly, and that website disappeared as well. Which is too bad, because now I would find it interesting to see how I thought about things in 2004.

In university I had a break from websites and blogging, probably because my desire to “do something with websites” was satisfied by my part-time job. But when I started working on my MSc thesis, something started nagging at me again. I was learning more about doing experiments, reading and writing papers, and wanted to share my thoughts. Perhaps that was the first time I felt that I had content worth sharing, so I started a blog again. In the end, I often felt obliged to post “something”, which resulted in rather uninteresting posts. This also happened during my PhD – I got inspired by website such as PhDTalk, but my attempts were never really quite successful, because I didn’t spend enough time on them. Again, my earlier posts just seemed silly to me, especially after some major changes in my life. My website was offline once again.

As a postdoc, I’ve started reading more and more academic blogs, and since a few months, I even have a Twitter account. So again, I want to have a blog, and I regret not doing a good job with the other ones. But a difference between regretting getting rid of your website in 2004, and getting rid of your website in 2014, is that I’ve been with the same host for the past 5 years or so, and could recover any content that I posted. So, I have decided to resurrect my blog a little bit, including posts from earlier editions. I’m not making any promises about how often I will post this time, but I will try to keep myself from going through the whole delete-regret cycle. Stay tuned!

Year in review: third year as a PhD student

As I mentioned before, it’s important to keep track of your successes and disapointments. Since I do have a list of sorts, I decided to share my summary of 2013 here.

Writing

2013 was definitely a year of journal papers. Or at least, of long overdue journal paper submissions. Here are the totals! I submitted four times in total (one paper twice, and two papers once). Two of these were rejections, one “revise and resubmit” and one still under review. So, 2014 probably will be a year of journal paper resubmissions.

Reviewing

Next to paper writing, there was also paper reviewing. In the beginning of last year, I was getting worried that I was not invited for reviews, but this worry turned out to be unfounded. I guess this goes together with submitting journal papers (and getting into the system) and meeting more people, who have more reviews than you, but are also more busy. I want to believe in review-karma: by writing good reviews, I hope to get good reviews. By good, I mean objective and constructive, not necessarily an “accept”.

Funding

2013 was also a year in which I tried to apply for scholarships to finance my conference visits and the trip to Tuebingen. For the second time (the first time being in 2012), I did not get the Anita Borg scholarship. I did get the ACM-W / Microsoft Research grant to go to a conference in China, which was awesome! The application that I spent quite a lot of time on, for the short-term fellowship from EMBO to go to Tuebingen, unfortunately got rejected (after I returned from Tuebingen already). However, I was able to get some financial support through my university, which was not a competitive application, but very helpful.

Research visit

And of course, 2013 was the year I went on a research visit, for which I have not (yet?) been able to write an overview. In short, the three months went by really fast and I had a great time. What everybody says about research visits is true. It is really helpful to experience a different place and get an idea of how people do research there. I think it’s a must for all PhD students, especially from smaller labs. It probably doesn’t even need to be a lab in a different country to get an impression of “how things are done” and to pick up useful research skills. I already have my next short visit planned, what about you? Did you / will you do a research visit during your PhD?

On recording your progress

It’s been almost a year since I started to blog alongside my PhD. I’m not sure whether I mentioned this a year ago, but my initial goal was to write something every week, which quickly deteriorated into writing something every month. With this post, I have been able to keep the latter promise up.

Although I had many moments of “oh, this is something I could write a post about!”, only few of them actually made their way from my thoughts into a digital version. The main reasons for this are, I think:

– too little practice: I really do find it difficult to write something that’s not directly about my research

– too little privacy: there are some issues I would not want to discuss online because my name is linked to my blog and I don’t want my opinions to always be “out there” somewhere. Many of the blogs I find very interesting (not just the ones that are linked on this page) are actually blogs that discuss such issues, and for 95%* these are anonymous.
* I initially wrote 95\% which amused me quite a lot.

– too little expertise: I like posts which contain advice on how to do something better, such as never worrying about poster transport again. The truth is, however, that there are not a lot of things I feel I’m more knowledgeable about than other researchers with blogs.

– too little information: I am, of course, knowledgeable about what I do on a daily basis (submitted this, got rejected for that). Of course, this is mostly relevant to me and not to readers in general. I am aware this is my blog and I can post whatever I like, but I am less motivated to spend time writing something that is not helpful to others. Also, I

What I recently realized is that I would have enjoyed to have more of these “progress” posts, just for myself. In my first attempt at blogging, I wrote about how I submitted my first paper and how a few months later, I got the email that started with, “We are pleased to inform you…”. Or about how I reviewed the paper for the first time, and it turned out to be horrible. It’s nice to remember how I felt then, what my goals were, and how I generally thought about research.

My advice (this is actually a helpful post!) if you are a PhD student: write your successes and disappointments down somewhere. Not necessarily in a blog. Maybe it’s even better if it’s not a blog, you might spend less time worrying about how to write it down, and who is going to read it. But sometime later, you will enjoy reading about these experiences, and what they tell you about your progress. Happy writing!

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