The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory

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

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

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

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

Reader Q&A – Applying for a PhD position

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

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

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

Evidence of problem solving

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

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

Interest in position

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

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

Other interests

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

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

“Team player”

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

Qualities I find overrated

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

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

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

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

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

7 things I’m glad I did during my PhD

7 things I'm glad I did during my PhD

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

7 things I'm glad I did during my PhD

 

1. Choose based on people, not on project

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

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

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

 

2. Treat it as a job

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

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

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

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

 

3. Go to a conference early on

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

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

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

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

 

4. Do not only do research

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

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

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

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

 

5. Have an online presence

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

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

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

 

6. Visit another lab

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

7. Bring your own lunch

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

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

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

Reverse engineering your CV

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

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

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

 

1. Find representative data

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

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

 

2. Generalize

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

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

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

3. Multiple time points

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

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

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

4. Predict?

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

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

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

7 things I wish I had done during my PhD

Every so often there are threads on Twitter about what people wish they would have would have known before starting their PhD, or would have done differently in retrospect. Here is a thread with lots of great advice by David Schoppik and another one by Jennifer Polk. I haven’t responded to either question, because there is so much to say that I can’t fit into 140 characters. However, I have already been keeping a “wishlist” of sorts, so I thought this was a good opportunity to finally turn them into a blog post. Here they are, the things I wish I had done during my PhD.

1. Having a lab journal

I somehow managed to miss out on this concept completely. Maybe I had heard about it, but dismissed the idea because I didn’t work in a lab. I only really found out about it when I was about to start my tenure track position, and was reading “At the Helm” in preparation.

Sure, I had a notebook. I would use it to make notes in meetings, draw toy datasets, write down tasks as they came up… anything, really! But none of these things were intended for anybody else, including the future me, to read.

In retrospect, it would have been helpful to have a central place to record ideas, different (failed) experiments, and where I ended up storing my data and code.

2. Having a todo list

This might be a surprise to many, but I didn’t have really have a todo list during my PhD. I would write down tasks as they would come up – for example “prepare presentation for lab meeting” – in my notebook. If I didn’t get a task done 2-3 pages later, I would copy it over to the current page I was on.

I don’t remember forgetting to do anything important and I didn’t miss any deadlines, which probably gave others (and myself) an impression that I was an organized person. But the 2017 me is overwhelmed by the idea of this “organization system”.

3. Spending more time with other PhD students

I don’t mean with this point that I didn’t spend any time with friends or colleagues. I did my PhD in in the same city as where I got my other degrees, so there were lots of friends around. And I was in a great lab, where we would often do social activities together, and would see each other as friends. I realize that I’m very lucky to be in this situation.

But most of friends were not doing PhDs, and with my colleagues, often it was more relaxing to talk about topics outside of work. So it was great to meet other PhD students, for example during courses, and share experiences about writing, teaching… anything that might have been challenging. I should have done that a lot more! Maybe I would have learned about “lab notebooks” and “todo lists” 🙂

4. Seeking out more mentors

As I wrote above, I was in a great (though perhaps small) lab. My supervisors were both inspiring scientists, and very kind people. But even despite these favorable circumstances, I didn’t always dare to tell them what was on my mind. How was I doing with my research? Was my CV maybe good enough to apply for this scholarsip? Did I have good chances of getting an academic position? Questions I was too scared to ask, because I thought I would be laughed at, even though I logically knew that wouldn’t happen!

But things changed a bit when I did an internship, and met two very different mentors. They were closer to me in age and career step – both postdocs at the time – and were women. They saw right through my self-esteem issues, and made me a bit more confident that I wasn’t entirely delusional about my aspirations.

 

5. Applying for all the things

In the Netherlands, as a PhD researcher you are an employee, not a student. I had a salary and my travel expenses were reimbursed. Therefore I never felt the need to apply for any financial support.

As for awards, most of the time it either didn’t cross my mind I should apply, and if it did, my imposter syndrome didn’t let me. It didn’t help of course, that the one scholarship I really thought was a good fit (Anita Borg Memorial scholarship) was rejected three times in a row.

In retrospect, I think applying for more things would have made the applications I really wanted, like the Anita Borg one, a lot better. Not to mention the benefits for applying for larger grants later on.

 

6. Joining Twitter

Although I had an account for years, I didn’t start using it until half-way through my postdoc. Maybe a funny story is that this all happened because of a grant I applied for. The best submissions would be advertised via Twitter, so I thought I should at least see what people are saying about my submission (not much). But since I was now checking Twitter every day, I also started following more accounts, engaging in conversations etc – and never left.

Being part of the (academic) community on Twitter has been pretty awesome. From excellent advice about applying for jobs, to thoughtful threads about academic culture, to cat pictures (#academicswithcats), there’s always something to motivate me or cheer me up. Through Twitter I found many friends, role models, and from time to time, even people who were somehow inspired by me. I cannot stress how essential this has been in times of existential crises almost inevitably associated with being a postdoc.

 

7. Blogging

I had a blog on and off during my PhD (see My relationship with blogging), but I didn’t really dare to write anything, let alone tell other people that I have a blog. I had a blog, but I wasn’t blogging.

And that’s too bad. Because since I really started writing and sharing posts (although I still find I’m often outside my comfort zone), lots of interesting things happened. Next to improving my writing and getting me invitations to give talks, blogging has given me a bigger sense of purpose. Related to the Twitter point above, this has been essential for dealing with setbacks.

 

I hope these are useful whether you are doing a PhD or are already done – it’s not too late to start! If you have any other advice you’d like to share with others, please leave a comment below!

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