Reader Q&A: choosing your advisor and topic

In today’s post I’m answering some questions from readers of this blog, on choosing an advisor and research topics. As a caveat, for me both things just “happened” so I am not the best person to give advice, but I did think of some tips that could be useful.

1. How to choose your advisor?

I think the lab where you will do your PhD is the most important factor for choosing a particular position. A large part of this is the advisor, but also the general atmosphere in the lab. That being said, it can be difficult to figure these things out in advance, if you are not already familiar with the lab. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things you can do:

  • Do people in the lab have social media accounts? The absense of social media probably doesn’t tell you much, but if one or more people have accounts perhaps you can learn a bit about the lab culture.
  • Look at publications lists – do the students get a chance to publish? Are there publications with multiple students, indicating more collaborations in the lab? Do students publish on their own topics, or only extend the work of the advisor?
  • Look at videos or slides from the advisor’s talks, if you can find any – do they credit their trainees for the work?
  • Get in touch with current or former trainees of the advisor – how is/was their experience in the lab?
  • Ask questions during the interview – what are the expectations of students in the lab? Are there any group meetings (such as a journal club) or other lab activities?

2. How to choose a research topic?

In the Netherlands (and several other countries in Europe) the topic will already be somewhat defined when you start a project. However, within that topic you should still have freedom to explore different questions. Here are some things that worked for me:

  • Just start somewhere. Read papers and implement them, and be critical about what you see. Are there some limitations, for example datasets that would not be suitable for the method?
  • Start writing as soon as possible, for example your thoughts about the papers you read. Are there any trends you start noticing?
  • Talk to others, both within and outside your field. Explaining research to others can often bring you to new thoughts
  • Ask yourself, “Am I building another hammer instead of investigating whether the problem is a nail?”
  • Ask yourself, “If my work was going to change a sentence in a textbook, what would that textbook/sentence be?” (Paraphrased from talk by Robert Williamson)

As with everything on this blog, my final piece of advice is – don’t stop here, but search for more different people giving different types of advice. If you know of a great blog post, or have your own advice to share, please comment below!

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!

Writing a PhD thesis in the Netherlands

This post summarizes the process I went through to write and publish my thesis in 2015 at the Delft University of Technology. From what I understand, my experience is representative for computer science and other technical PhDs in the Netherlands. I am not sure how things generalize beyond that.

PhD by publication

In my department it was standard to do a “PhD by publication”. Although you do have a formal thesis in the end, the goal is to publish four first-author journal papers in the four years of your employment. These papers would go “as is” as four chapters into your thesis, and you would add two general introduction and discussion sections to complete it. You could of course also add other chapters if you have more papers or want to add unpublished material.

Different groups have different guidelines on what counts as “publishing a journal paper”. Peer-reviewed conference papers, or papers that you have submitted and are under review at a journal, could also count. My “thesis” was approved when I had 2 accepted journal papers (but, one of these was a second-author paper), 2 journal papers for which I had submitted major revisions, and 1 conference paper that was under review. I write “thesis”, because at the time of approval I didn’t have a single document called “thesis.pdf”, but an outline of which papers would become chapters, and their status of acceptance.

 

Writing

I think that when I started my PhD, I was aware of the PhD by publication, but I thought I would write a “real” manuscript to satisfy the perfectionist within me. But I changed my mind when I realized that’s the only result I would accomplish – my PhD would count just as little or just as much. Since I spent the last year of my PhD revising papers, I was quite happy to choose the easier (but just as effective) option.

There was not a lot of writing to do – only a general introduction and discussion chapters. I got started about 9 months before my contract ended, but I definitely didn’t work on my thesis full-time. I do think it was good to start early, because it gave me some time to digest what I’ve done in the years before and gain new insights. Perhaps that is a disadvantage of a PhD by publication, because it does not “as naturally” lead to taking a step back, as I would imagine you need to do if you have to write an entire manuscript.

I also appreciated having the 9 months to write my propositions, which I defended together with the thesis – see my earlier post about this.

Next to writing two chapters and propositions, I just put together the papers I had into a single LateX project/template. I spent a few hours battling with incompatible packages, but after it compiled, it was amazing to suddenly see all my papers form 100 or so pages of thesis.pdf.

 

Approval

After getting thesis.pdf approved by my supervisors and the plagiarism check of the university, it could be sent to my thesis committee and I could plan a defense date. I believe this happened around January 2015, and my defense was scheduled for June 2015. I’m a bit foggy on the details on this, but I think at this point it is assumed that you will in fact successfully defend your thesis.

In the time in between, you could get comments from your committee on possible revisions, and when enough committee members approve, you can go ahead and print your thesis. In my case, two committee members had suggestions for revisions. One committee member suggested a few points for the discussion, but also said that the thesis was approved regardless of whether I had time to implement them. The other commitee member essentially wanted a “major revision”. But, this committee member responded way after the deadline, so since all the other committee members had approved, I had already printed my thesis. Talk about a scare though…

 

Publishing

Before the defense, you have to publish/print your thesis. There are several companies that specialize in this, and you get a bit of budget from the unversity to do the printing. The main things you need is a thesis.pdf that is formatted correctly (not a problem since my latex template already took care of that) and a cover.

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about my cover – since I wasn’t working on a specific application, it was difficult to come up with something that would illustrate my topic. Once I had the concept in mind, my friend Hella Hekkelman made the illustration for me – I’m still very happy about it:

Here is it in action:

 

To see more examples of cover design, check out another friend Carolyn’s post how she designed her own cover.

With the thesis and cover, I ordered about 120 copies of my thesis from the publisher. This is a a relatively normal number, since you give copies to people from your department or in your field. I have even heard of people printing 300 or more! But, everybody advised me not print too many, so I got exactly the amount that the university budget would cover. In retrospect, I wish I would have invested a bit more into it, because a year after my defense, I had already ran out of copies.

***

Update April 2019: If you have cats on your PhD cover, definitely order more! Proefschriftmaken.nl was kind enough to give me a discount, and I just ordered 30 more books! 

 

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.

***

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?

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

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!

On being an employee vs a student during your PhD

This is probably my most retweeted tweet to date. Since this seemed surprising to many people, I thought I’d explain a bit more about what this means.  [Disclaimer: most numbers are estimates based on my sample size of 1 – if you have more detailed / up to date information, please leave a comment!]

Salary

First of all, being an employee means that you get a salary. As an example, let’s take a look at some PhD vacancies in the Netherlands. Many of these can be found on AcademicTransfer. Here are two positions in the group I’m currently working in.

At the bottom you will see “Gross monthly salaries are in accordance with the Collective Labour Agreement of the Dutch Universities (CAO NU), increasing from € 2191 per month initially, to € 2801 in the fourth year.

You might think the salary is there because it’s a STEM PhD, or because of the PI. Well, here are two positions in different fields and different universities – investigating why Dutch people are so tall and how people communicate positive emotions. Both mention exactly the same numbers! This is because of the labour agreement, which defines the salary, and a number of other benefits (more on this later).

[Note: at the time you are reading this, these exact vacancies might be closed, but you can find other similar positions on AcademicTransfer].

Expenses

Of course, the salary doesn´t say much if you are from a place where the cost of living a different. First, there are taxes. The actual salary you get depends on a number of things, like your savings, whether you rent or own a house (yes, this is possible during your PhD) etc. To give an indication, in 2011 my 1st year PhD after-tax salary was around 1400 EUR, and in 2014 my 4th year PhD salary was around 1900 EUR per month.

The biggest cost is where you live. This varies between the Dutch cities, with Amsterdam being the most expensive one. Delft, where I did my PhD, is a bit on the expensive side as well, but it’s doable. Even if you don’t search too long for a great deal, you could rent a room in a shared apartment for starting at 400-500 EUR or so, or rent your own apartment starting at 800 EUR. As an example, I was first paying 600 EUR (of a 1200 EUR house) and later I was renting a two-bedroom apartment for 750 EUR. You can get an idea of prices and how much space you get in return here.

Other big costs are food (200 EUR), utilities (100 EUR), health insurance (100 EUR), internet/phone (50 EUR), municipality taxes (50 EUR).  You can find much more precise estimates of everything online, such as food. Based on these main expenses, even my past self in 2011, had at least 1400 – (600+200+100+100+50+50) = 300 EUR to save or to spend. Not a “pot of gold”, but definitely enough not to have to budget every expense.

Not part of expenses

Yes, tuition is not on the list of expenses – it does not exist at PhD level. You do follow a couple of courses, but these are paid by the employer.

Also not on the list of expenses are conferences. The general rule of thumb (although this is likely to differ between fields) is that you can go to at least one conference a year, especially if you published a paper there. The registration, travel, hotel, dinner and even the 1-2 glasses of wine you had with dinner are reimbursed.

Paying off student debt is not on my list, either. This is mainly because tuition is low (less than 2K a year) and students (bachelor’s and master’s) used to receive a stipend.  With a part-time job, I didn’t need a loan. This is not the case for everyone, but on average, the debt is 15K, and it’s expected to go up to 21K because the stipend no longer exists. According to the tax office, the average case translates to payments of less than EUR 100 per month.

Benefits

Next to salary, the labour agreement (friendly English language version) takes care of a number of other benefits that make life easier. First, you have 29 vacation days per year if you work full-time (=38 hours per week). That’s more than 5 weeks of vacation. I’ve never gone on vacation for that long, but I do use vacation days here and there for a day trip, or just to relax after a busy period.

If you are ill or if you are having a baby, you don’t need to use your vacation days – you just get your full salary for up to 39 weeks of illness and 16 weeks maternity leave (fathers only get a few days off, though).

You also automatically build up pension. I have to admit I’ve never really looked into this, because I didn’t feel like there is a reason to worry. While writing this post, I actually looked at my pension account, and discovered that so far, I’ve built up a pension of 220 EUR per month, and I keep working a full-time job, this will grow to 1900 EUR a month when I retire. This is on top of the basic pension (1000 EUR) from the government.

How you see your PhD

Next to the financial side, I feel like the fact that you are employee affects the way you see your PhD. First of all, you are getting paid for becoming an expert at a topic. This is pretty awesome in itself, but it’s also helpful for your self-esteem, even though it doesn’t erase impostor feelings completely.

You and your PI are both employees of the university, with similar employment conditions. Sure, he or she has more responsibilities and more salary, but you have the same rights in terms of leave. You don’t need to negotiate whether you are “allowed” to stay home when you are ill, or if you need to visit a doctor. Of course you should inform the PI, but there cannot be negative consequences of you taking care of yourself.

After 4 years, your contract ends, and you don’t get paid anymore. As a result, people try to finish their PhD on time, and find their next job. Or, since finishing on time is difficult, just find their next job, and plan to finish the PhD later. But the emphasis is that the PhD is a job and it’s normal to move on afterwards.
 

Life

 All of this helps with what happens outside of your PhD. You just have less things to worry about, so you can concentrate more on the things that are important to you.  You can travel, buy a house, or start a family. Maybe not all at the same time, but the point is, you don’t have to put your life on hold for research.  Hopefully, this translates to a healthier and happier you, and better research as a result.

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.

On choosing to do a PhD

This week I gave a talk at the career event of my former student society for mathematics and computer science students, ‘Christiaan Huygens’ (CH). All the speakers were asked to talk about their work, and the choices they made to get there. As it wasn’t always my goal to do a PhD, I thought it would be good for the students to hear about the doubts that I had. And now, for the purpose of sharing N=1 experiences, I’d like to share these thoughts with a wider audience.

Choices

One of the courses I followed during my masters was Pattern Recognition (IN4085, for the readers from TU Delft). I was immediately sold. It seemed magical that reading licence plates, recognizing faces, or predicting a patient’s diagnosis, were all based on the same underlying principles. I followed all the courses I could find on related topics, and did my graduation project on a pattern recognition topic (here is proof).

I was convinced that my job had to do something with pattern recognition. But, I also wanted to somehow apply all the other skills that I had developed during my student union time. As many of my classmates were choosing consultancy jobs, I was excited to find out that there was something similar there to match both my interests: a data analysis consultancy job at a large company in Amsterdam. Note that this was 2010, and nobody was hiring “data scientists” yet, at least in the Netherlands.

Everything was going really well with that company. I had visited them to find out more about their projects and meet the team. I really loved the new environment, and I was convinced I would be hired after an interview. Shortly afterwards, an opportunity to do a PhD in Delft came up. That was also an environment that I loved, but it was entirely different from the job in Amsterdam. It was safe and familiar. After all, I thought that during my MSc project I had already figured out what research was about (cough cough). Fueled by the belief that you should always do new and challenging things, I felt that a PhD would be seen as an inferior choice.

Doubts

But, doubts also started to creep in. I could not define them fully at the time, but now I am quite sure the doubts were: (i) I wasn’t sure I would be challenged enough by the technical challenges of the job in Amsterdam and (ii) I thought I would be challenged too much socially — always looking professional, always interacting with people. All things that I enjoy, but perhaps not every day, and not coupled with a long commute.

Perhaps my biggest problem was that at the company, it would be part of my job to oversell things — make things seem more impressive than they are to clients, and come up with convincing arguments on the spot. This ability was considered very valuable among my classmates, and I imagine quite sought after by companies. I of course felt honored by the company’s belief I had this ability, because it wasn’t something that came to me naturally. So while I was excited and challenged by the prospect of developing this ability, it also felt like I would be betraying myself a little bit.

Best advice I received

One thing that helped me in my decision is a conversation I had with a former student. He had just finished his PhD and was switching to an industry job. The advice was to

  • compare concrete opportunities (rather than PhD vs not PhD)
  • consider the people I would work with and the daily tasks I would have to do
  • whether I could be myself, and how the position would fit in with the rest of my life

This cleared things up for me, and once I had accepted the PhD position, it felt like a huge weight off my shoulders.

I didn’t regret my decision for a second afterwards. I had a great time during my PhD because of the people that I worked with, not only inside the lab, but also other researchers that I met at conferences. I discovered I was very wrong about knowing what research is about! There are new, exciting and challenging things in my job every day, but challenging in a way that is meaningful to me.

I also had quite a lot of freedom, both in the ideas I pursued and in managing my time. I was in the office during regular work hours, but I appreciated being able to take a day off, go on holiday, or work at home if I wasn’t having the best day. I felt that I was being valued for my ideas, rather than for showing up. And isn’t being valued one of the most important components for job satisfaction?

Keep in mind

That is not to say that you should always choose a PhD when in a similar situation. There are huge differences in PhD positions as well! Not all researchers are nice people, and not all projects offer the same freedom that I had. I hope that this strategy — considering concrete opportunities, and staying true to yourself — should help you with the answer.

%d bloggers like this: