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

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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

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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:


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:

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.


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.


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.


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”.


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!

Year in review: second year as a PhD student

This post originally appeared on my previous blog.

After my one-year evaluation, the first thing I did was sign up for a course on presentation skills. To be honest, I hesitated a bit at first, but I started hearing quite a few good things about Art of Presenting Science, so I decided to see for myself what that was all about. I really, really loved it! I can’t really summarize my experiences in a few sentences, so perhaps I will dedicate a whole post to this.  I tried to put a few of the things I learned to the test when presenting my work at the meeting of the NVPHBV (Dutch Society for Pattern Recognition and Image Processing), and at the Benelearn conference in Gent, Belgium.

As for research, I was pursuing several directions that are relevant to Multiple Instance Learning, learning with dissimilarities, or both.  A few of these ideas resulted in submissions to conferences, while others were abandoned after a while. Perhaps “abandoned” is not the correct word to describe the situation, and “on the shelf” would be better.  The ideas are still very interesting, but at the time I did not have enough insight to turn them into something that could be published. I hope that I will have more luck with this in 2013 🙂

In the summer it was time to take a break from my own research, and learn a lot about what others are doing at the Machine Learning Summer School in Santa Cruz, California in the US. The summer school consisted of two weeks of lectures from people from academia and from industry. The proximity to Silicon Valley ensured a lot of interesting talks by Google, Facebook and other companies that have a lot of data and therefore do a lot of machine learning. Next to all the talks, it was a great experience to meet other researchers from all of the world and compare notes on everything from doing a PhD to making tacos. I hope we will meet again!


As if that wasn’t enough traveling, I received the decisions on two papers that were submitted a few months ago. Both were accepted as poster presentations: “Does one rotten apple spoil the whole barrel” at the International Conference on Pattern Recognition (ICPR), and “Class-Dependent Bag Dissimilarities for Multiple Instance Learning” at the Structural, Syntactic and Statistical Pattern Recognition (S+SSPR) workshop.  S+SSPR was held in Hiroshima, and ICPR was held in Tsukuba, close to Tokyo. With an extra day to recover from jetlag and a few days (because three weeks in the US aren’t cheap) for sightseeing, this meant a two-week trip to Japan. One of my posters in action:


I enjoyed both conferences although they were completely different from each other. S+SSPR was very small, which allowed informal discussions more often and attending a lot of the talks. I also noticed the same type of close community (but with a different subset of researchers) that I saw at Multiple Classifier Systems a year earlier. ICPR was very big, which was a new experience for me. The program booklet was as large as the proceedings of some conferences! Therefore it was quite difficult to choose which talks to attend. I found out that often, my first impression (such as “this is relevant to my research” or “I won’t understand this at all”) was wrong.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by a few talks about unrelated topics, but given by a great presenter. There is still a lot to learn for me there.

Although I thought I could deal with time differences pretty well, I did have a few sleepless nights in Japan. On one of these nights, I had an idea about the relationship of my own work to a quite successful MIL classifier. Who wouldn’t get inspired if you are surrounded by wonderful things like this:




Instead of scribbling the idea down with a few words, arrows etc, which is what I usually do, I actually started writing the paper. I didn’t get very far while I was in Japan, but I did discuss the idea and let it develop. After the decision to made to submit a paper to Multiple Classifier Systems 2013 (I admit, I loved MCS 2011 so much I just couldn’t resist), the whole process of writing and submitting the paper cost me about a month. Perhaps that might be long for some people, but for me it was definitely a record. I’m also very happy with the process, so perhaps I will try this more often (starting to write a paper as soon as the idea is there).


Year in review: first year as a PhD student and before

This post was originally appeared on my previous blog.

Before I write an overview of 2012, I thought it would be nice to write about some highlights of the previous year.

I graduated in November 2010 with a thesis titled “Random Subspace Method for One-Class Classifiers“. This is me with my diploma:


After going on vacation and celebrating the start of 2011, my first official working day was on the 3rd of January 2011. Now my job was to work on a different pattern recognition topic: Dissimilarity-based Multiple Instance Learning. 

However, for a while I still continued working on my MSc subject in order to write a paper for Multiple Classifier Systems 2011. The paper “Pruned Random Subspace Method for One-Class Classifiers” (as you can guess, the regular method was not good enough) was accepted for presentation!

In June we went to Naples, Italy for the MCS 2011 conference. Here is an impression of me presenting:


Here is an impression of the conference lunch:


Besides the great food, wine and weather I really really enjoyed the conference. I finally got to meet the people behind all the papers I have been citing and I got a feel for the type of community that all these people formed. After the conference, we had a few days to see more of Naples, the Vesuvius volcano and the ruins of Pompei.

As my next project, I helped with a journal paper that a colleague of mine was writing, “Bridging Feature and Structure Representations in Graph Matching”. Without getting into too many details, we wanted to classify objects that are represented as attributed graphs, while varying the importance of the attributes (features) or the actual graph structure. We investigated two ways to do this: using a graph edit distance and using graph kernels, which was my part. Besides learning a lot about graph kernels, I really enjoyed this project because of the regular meetings and discussions and my responsibility to the other people involved.

In September, it was time to go to Italy again, now for the Similarity-based Pattern Recognition Workshop (SIMBAD) 2011 in Venice. My supervisor presented the paper “Bag Dissimilarities for Multiple Instance Learning”, which is also what most of my current work is about. Unfortunately, I was very ill during the conference, so I didn’t have such a good conference and sightseeing experience as in Naples.

Next to research, some of my time was spent on education. I followed courses on topics related to image processing and bioinformatics, and also did the online Machine Learning course, which was very helpful. I also got to experience education from a different side a little bit while assisting in Pattern Recognition courses for PhD students and for people from industry.

In the end of the year, I had my go/no-go presentation and I received a go, together with a lot of helpful advice on how to improve my work. The main points were to become more comfortable with mathematics, be more precise in why I’m pursuing a certain direction in research, and to improve my presentation skills.

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