Year in review: final year as a PhD student

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

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

Writing and staying motivated

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

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

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

Take-aways

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

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

Year in review: third year as a PhD student

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

Writing

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

Reviewing

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

Funding

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

Research visit

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

Firsts: writing a grant proposal

Despite my previous post about having a whole month to myself to write a journal paper, things went a little bit differently. A fellow PhD student pointed out these short-term fellowships and I decided it would not hurt to try to apply, so I could finance the second half of my visit to the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen. Because I already had a few scholarship applications lying around (such as for the Anita Borg scholarship, which I applied for twice, unsuccessfully), I thought a new application would not cost me more than 2 days. In the end, I spent around 2 weeks working on the new application and neglecting my journal paper, but I still believe it was time well-spent!

One thing that was different about this application is that it was not focused on me, but on the project. Of course, I already had an idea about what I would be working on at the MPI and how that fits together with my PhD topic. What I underestimated, is that I suddenly had to explain all of these machine learning problems to people with a different background – I assume molecular biology, as that is the core subject of the organization providing the fellowships.

What really helped me with writing, was a successful proposal, which was on a different topic, for a different fellowship, from a different organization, kindly provided to me by a colleague. It was a good example of HOW to write for a different audience, rather than WHAT exactly to write about. Here are some of my findings:

  • Don’t assume a term that you use every day is obvious to everybody else. Provide a short explanation and an example. If possible, use pictures in your explanation.
  • Provide references, even if something is common knowledge in your field.
  • Use short, clear sentences in the active voice (“We will conduct experiments…” rather than “Experiments will be conducted…”), here is a good post on how to do this.
  • Avoid words that make you sound unsure, such as “probably”.
  • Include questions which your project will address, such as “What is the cause of X?” or “Is it possible to do Y?”
  • Don’t be afraid to use bullet points for lists, this is probably easier to read than a paragraph of text that does not really fit together.
  • Be explicit about how your previous work is going to be helpful in this project, it might not be obvious to the reviewer that your list of publications is related to the research topic.
  • Ask others (especially people outside your lab) to read your proposal.
  • If possible, use examples (both successful and unsuccessful) of other proposals.
  • Don’t underestimate the time that you will need for writing 😉

I will only get the results of my application in a few months, but I hope these tips can be helpful to other PhD students that are in a similar situation.

Update: the proposal was not funded, but I received funding for my internship from another source, so it was a good experience overall

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