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 scholarship? 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!

5 pages to add to your academic website

Previously I wrote about getting your setting up your own academic website in WordPress and installing some helpful plugins. But once you have all that, what content do you actually add to your new website? Of course, you are probably going to have pages for your CV (possibly split into different pages for research, teaching etc) and your publications. In this post I cover a few other pages I like to see on people’s professional websites. I admit I do not have all of these yet myself – but I’ve provided a few nice examples of those who do.

1. People

A “people” or “team” page is a list of people you collaborate with or have collaborated with in the past. See this example on the website of Peter Gehler. I like this for several reasons. First of all, it is a sign of your appreciation of the people you work with. Another advantage is (if you are more senior) that this provides useful information for potential new hires, as they can see what previous people you have worked with went on to do.

You might argue that you need to have your own group first before you start such a page, but I beg to differ. Even if you are a PhD student, chances are you are working with others – so you could just list them as collaborators! There are no rules as to who you are “allowed” to add, as long as you ask the person.

2. Contact

A contact page might seem superfluous if you have your contact details on the front page, but there is more to it than just your email address. In particular, you can let people know how you prefer to be contacted (or not?). For example, if you want to keep your inbox sane, you might give a few tips for for people contacting you, like Philip Guo and Michael Ekstrand.

3. Highlight a project

Next to listing all your projects/publications, you might want to highlight a particular project of yours – a publication, book, or a category of your blog entries – by giving it its own place in the menu. For example, Philip Guo has a link to his memoir “Ph.D. Grind” , Lauren Drogos links to entries in her “Women in STEM profiles” category and Noeska Smit has a page featuring her thesis.

4. Resources

Resources pages collect, well… resources, like books, blog posts (whether written by yourself or not), software, etc, that are helpful to you and may be helpful to others. For example, Raul Pacheco-Vega has a page with his most read blog posts on organization and academic writing, Tim van der Zee has a list of tools for skeptical scientists and Natalie Matosin has tips for PhD students and postdocs.

5. Interests

Don’t be afraid to show a little bit of your personality, and make a page for something outside of your research. You could go for a collection of photos, like Hal Daume III (who has a pretty awesome website in general!), or a page for a specific interest or hobby, like Sebastiaan Breedveld’s page about tea or Sarah Nadi’s page about baking.

I hope these examples give you some inspiration to start adding pages to your academic website! If you have any other websites you’d like to share, please leave a comment below.

5 useful WordPress plugins for your academic website

Last time I wrote about setting up your own academic website with WordPress. In this post, I would like to share a few plugins that will improve your website experience from day 1. For me, these plugins simplify my blog-related tasks, and help me focus on the content.

1. Jetpack

Jetpack is a very versatile plugin with awesome features that improves the responsiveness of your blog. One of the features I really like is its understandable statistics. I have Google Analytics, and have done a few tutorials for it, but I don’t find it very user-friendly. Jetpack shows me what I’m most interested in: how many people go to my blog, where they come from, and where they go next.

Most popular pages of the month, by Jetpack.
Most popular pages of the month, by Jetpack.


Other options I’m using are different widgets which make finding and sharing content easier, like the “related posts” below, and the social media buttons.

2. iThemes security

WordPress has a few security problems, so what I like about iThemes security is that it pretty much eliminates these worries. The options I particularly like are:

  • Sends me an email with a back-up of my WordPress database
  • Sends me a summary of security events, for example if somebody trying to gain access
  • Allows hiding the veronikach.com/wp-admin page by changing it to, say, veronikach.com/goawayhackers, so that the login page cannot be misused

iThemes has a free and a paid version. I have the free version, which includes all the options above.

3. Akismet

Akismet is excellent for filtering out spam comments. I have several WordPress websites, and on the websites where I don’t have Akismet, the amount of spam is annoying, plus it increases the risk of you accidentally deleting a real comment!

For personal websites, Akismet has a “name your price” plan – I think the minimum amount is $5 per year, which is nothing compared to the time it saves.

4. Yoast SEO

Yoast SEO is a search engine optimization plugin. SEO is not something to be worried about when you are starting out with a website, but the plugin has a feature I absolutely love for writing blog posts. It gives you an immediate assessment of the readibility of your post. It looks at characteristics like sentence length, paragraph length and so forth, and gives a grade: – Needs Improvement, OK and Good.

I typically write my posts in Evernote, and do only the editing in WordPress, trying to get at least an “OK” grade for each post. Like all plugins, Yoast SEO has a free and a paid version, the readibility feature is free.

Yoast SEO readbility feature
Yoast SEO readbility feature. I often use too long sentences.

5. Nimble Portfolio

Nimble Portfolio is what I use on my publications page (update 2020: I’ve switched to using a plain page for this one, the plugin was still great though!). Rather than using a separate page or post for each publication, it uses portfolio items, which is a different content type. Because of this, it’s easy to display all the publications together, all the publications with a particular tag, and so forth. I’m using the free version of this plugin.

Some of my publications as portfolio items
Some of my publications as portfolio items

If you liked this post, you might be also interested in:

If you are looking for some inspiration, you might like my other pages about academic websites:

How to quickly setup your own academic website

In this post I share how to quickly setup your own academic website, by buying hosting, a domain name, and installing WordPress. As there are many tutorials already on how to do these steps from the technical side (and things might differ between providers), this is more of an overview if you are considering this approach. 

This post does not cover why you should have your own academic website, or why you should pay money for it. Yes, this is not a “how to quickly setup your own website for free” post, but don’t worry, all of this can be done for less than 10 EUR per month. Also, this is not THE only way to setup a website, but this is the way I have done it for several websites in the past, including this one. So, I’m assuming you already decided already you want your own professional website, and you think the website I have is decent 😉

Step 1: Decide on a domain name

Since you are going for a professional website, the best bet is probably some-variation-of-your-name.com. For the name, try your first name (like Felienne at felienne.com), or your whole name, if it is easy to remember (like Noeska at noeskasmit.com). If neither option is possible, you have to be a bit more creative. Whenever I say my last name out loud, I add that “it starts with C-H” in an attempt to remove some confusion. So, that’s why you are now on veronikach.com.

Why .com, you ask, if you are not a company? Yes, .nl is cheaper, and .net is prettier, and you can even get lots of cool alternatives, like .science. But the people who will want to go to your website, will probably type “.com” anyway, so just help them out. You can always register additional domains later 🙂

Step 2: Buy domain name and hosting

Since I’m assuming this is your first own website, you will want to buy both a domain name (around EUR 10 per year) and some hosting. Most hosting providers offer both – I’m currently quite happy with Siteground, where the StartUp package will cost you from 6 EUR per month, Bluehost has some cheaper alternatives. 

When buying a domain name, most hosts will offer you the option to anonymize yourself as the owner of the domain. I did not do this, since it is clear that the website is about myself. However, the data you enter will be visible to people who look up your domain. So I would recommend using your work address/phone number. 

Now, go ahead and proceed with the checkout. After a few steps, you should be the owner of your very own website. Congratulations!

Step 3: Find the administration panel

Once you get an email with all your hosting details, there should be instructions on how to access different options of your hosting package, through a tool like cPanel or DirectAdmin. 

With SiteGround, I just log in with my customer details on their website, and go to the “Websites” tab. Each website has a “cPanel” button next to it. 

Step 4: Install WordPress

CPanel has lots of interesting tools to improve your website, but now we want the WordPress autoinstaller. 

 

 

 

 

 

Here a number of defaults will already be filled in. Most importantly, don’t forget to enter a valid email address, and to store your username (this should NOT be equal to “admin”) and your password in your password manager. 

You can leave the other settings at their defaults and click “ïnstall”!

Step 5: Add some content!

Now your WordPress website should be ready! Login with the username/password you just created and explore the WordPress dashboard. Edit the pages/posts that are already created by default, and you have just setup your very own academic website!

Maybe your website is a bit basic now, but that can change very soon, as WordPress is easy to customize and there are a lot of themes and plugins available that you can install with a few clicks. If you are looking for some inspiration, you might like my other pages about academic websites:

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!

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!

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